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Drug prices rise in Afghanistan after Taliban outlaws trade

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The price of illegal drugs has soared in Afghanistan since the Taliban outlawed the trade in one of the world’s biggest narcotics exporters, according to new data, despite limited evidence that the Islamist militants are enforcing the ban.

Opium prices within Afghanistan have risen more than 50 per cent since the Taliban announced the ban in April, while prices for methamphetamines have also risen, according to data gathered from across the country by UK-based Alcis, which conducts satellite imagery research for governments and NGOs.

The price surge comes after the Taliban formally outlawed the trade following a 20-year insurgency in which the group profited from drug smuggling. Afghanistan is the world’s biggest opium and heroin producer, while crystal meth manufacturing has also taken off in recent years.

Analysts say that although the ban is seemingly not yet widely enforced, prices are rising over the threat of a future crackdown and subsequent shortages.

Alcis’s satellite imagery shows that authorities appear to have cracked down on at least some of the meth trade by closing a number of labs and markets, fueling higher prices.

But with only days to go until the new opium poppy planting season, it is unclear to what extent local Taliban commanders intend or are even able to enforce the ban on the more widespread opioid — an issue that analysts say may define the future of both the regime and of global narcotics supply.

Satellite imagery shows the crackdown on trading of ephedra, a raw methamphetamine ingredient, at an Afghan drugs market

Satellite imagery shows the crackdown on trading of ephedra, a raw methamphetamine ingredient, at an Afghan drugs market © Alcis

Observers say that failing to follow through will cement the status of the Islamist group, notorious for their hardline restrictions on women’s freedom, as international pariahs. But targeting the trade, in a largely agricultural country where poppies are the main cash crop, risks provoking a severe domestic backlash. A historic economic collapse since the Taliban took over has led to widespread joblessness and poverty.

“The things that people used to survive on in the face of a drugs ban — in terms of joining the [army], working in the cities in construction — those options are gone,” David Mansfield, a researcher on the report and expert on Afghanistan’s drugs trade, said. “Do local Taliban. . . press on this and risk increasing a humanitarian crisis, alienating a population, or do they let it ride because of the fear of resistance?”

Following the abrupt announcement of the ban, the Taliban subsequently added a two-month “grace period”, ostensibly to allow poppy farmers time to find alternatives. But Alcis says authorities so far appear to have left the enormous heroin trade mostly unhindered, with vast poppy fields still cultivated.

While Alcis recorded a number of incidents in which poppy crops were destroyed, “it is hard not to see this . . . as largely a face-saving exercise”, it said.

Mansfield said the rise in prices showed there were nevertheless “clear market concerns that a ban will be enforced and that there will be a future shortage”.

Romain Malejacq, an associate professor at Radboud University, said higher prices added to incentives for farmers to continue planting.

“It’s actually risky for the Taliban to enforce it,” Malejacq said. “It means less revenues, less popularity, which might be more critical to the survival of the regime than just pleasing the international community.”

Attempts to stop opium production have long proved perilous for Afghanistan’s rulers. While the Taliban successfully restricted poppy cultivation during their previous rule in 2000, the subsequent economic ruin damaged support for the group in their southern, opium-producing heartland.

Line chart of $ per kg showing Dry opium price collected from traders in Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces

Opium production took off again after the US-led invasion in 2001, with land under cultivation nearly tripling despite billions of dollars in internationally backed eradication efforts. Both the Taliban and warlords affiliated with the western-backed government profited from the trade.

While Afghanistan has long produced other drugs such as cannabis, the recent rise in meth production — thanks to a combination of lawlessness and the widespread availability of ephedra, a locally grown plant and raw ingredient — has alarmed international authorities.

Meth linked to Afghanistan has been seized as far away as Australia. “We do know that Afghanistan has become a major player,” Mansfield said. “We’ve got the plants, we’ve got the stores, we’ve got the labs, we’ve got the seizures.”