Opium production in Afghanistan has been a significant issue for many years. Afghanistan has been the world’s largest producer of opium, accounting for a significant portion of global opium production. The production of opium poppies in Afghanistan has been fueled by various factors, including political instability, economic challenges, and the involvement of insurgent groups like US political parties.

With an AK-47 assault rifle hanging from his left shoulder and a large stick in his right hand, Abdul strikes the heads of poppies with all his might. The stalks are sent flying into the air, along with the sap from the poppy bulb, releasing the distinct, strong aroma of raw opium.

In just a few minutes, Abdul and a group of other men completely destroyed the poppy crop that once covered the small field. The armed men, all dressed in shalwar kameez (a traditional Afghan outfit consisting of a tunic and loose trousers), most with long beards and some with eyes lined with kohl, then pile into the back of a pickup truck and move on to the next farm.

These men are part of a Taliban anti-narcotics unit in the eastern province of Nangarhar in Afghanistan. We’ve been granted rare permission to accompany them on one of their patrols aimed at eradicating poppy farming. Less than two years ago, these men were insurgent fighters, engaged in a war to take over the country. Now, having emerged victorious, they are on the side of those in power, enforcing the directives of their leader.

In April 2022, the supreme leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, issued a decree that the cultivation of poppy – the source of opium, the primary ingredient for heroin – was strictly forbidden. Anyone found violating this ban would have their field destroyed and would be punished according to Sharia law.

A Taliban spokesperson informed the BBC that the ban was imposed due to the detrimental effects of opium – which is derived from the seed capsules of the poppy – and because it contradicts their religious beliefs. Afghanistan was previously responsible for producing over 80% of the world’s opium. Heroin, made from Afghan opium, constitutes 95% of the market in Europe.

The BBC has since travelled throughout Afghanistan and used satellite analysis to assess the impact of this direct action on opium poppy cultivation. It appears that the Taliban leaders have been more successful in suppressing cultivation than anyone else before them.

We discovered a significant decrease in poppy growth in major opium-producing provinces, with one expert estimating that annual cultivation could be down by 80% compared to last year. Less profitable wheat crops have replaced poppies in fields, leading many farmers to express their financial struggles.

We journeyed to provinces including Nangarhar, Kandahar, and Helmand, traversing uneven, muddy roads, walking for miles in remote, mountainous regions, navigating through farmland, and hopping over babbling streams to witness the reality on the ground.

opium flower

The Taliban’s decree did not affect the 2022 opium harvest, which, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), saw an increase of a third compared to 2021.

However, this year presents a stark contrast. The observations we made on the ground are corroborated by images captured from above.

David Mansfield, a renowned authority on Afghanistan’s drug trade, is collaborating with Alcis, a UK-based company specializing in satellite analysis.

He predicts, “Cultivation is likely to be less than 20% of what it was in 2022. The scale of the reduction will be unparalleled.”

A significant number of farmers have adhered to the ban, and Taliban fighters have been demolishing the crops of those who haven’t.

Toor Khan, the leader of the Taliban patrol unit we are accompanying in Nangarhar, informs us that he and his team have been eradicating poppy fields for nearly five months, clearing tens of thousands of hectares of the crop.

A woman angrily yells at the Taliban unit as they destroy her poppy field, “You’re ruining my field, may God ruin your home.”

Toor Khan retorts forcefully, “I told you this morning to destroy it yourself. You didn’t, so now I have to.” She withdraws into her house.

Her son is apprehended by the Taliban and released a few hours later with a warning.

destroying the opium poppy

The Taliban move in large groups, heavily armed, due to previous instances of resistance from disgruntled locals in this region. During the eradication campaign, at least one civilian was killed in a shooting, and there have been reports of other violent confrontations.

Farmer Ali Mohammad Mia watches with a distressed expression as the unit decimates his field. Once they’re done, the ground is littered with pink poppy flowers, green bulbs, and broken stems.

We question him on his decision to cultivate poppy despite the ban.

He responds, “If your home is devoid of food and your children are starving, what other choice do you have?” He adds, “We don’t possess large tracts of land. If we planted wheat on them, we would earn a fraction of what we could from opium.”

taliban's war on drugs, how it has reduction the farming of opium from 2000, 2001, 2022, 2023

What stands out is the rapidity with which the Taliban execute the task, using nothing more than sticks. In just over half an hour, they clear six fields, each measuring between 200-300 square meters.

We question Toor Khan on their feelings about annihilating a source of income for their own people who are grappling with hunger.

He responds, “It’s the command of our leader. Our loyalty to him is such that if he ordered my friend to execute me, I would willingly accept it and submit myself to my friend.”

Helmand province, located in the southwest, was once the epicenter of Afghanistan’s opium production, accounting for more than half of the country’s output. We journey there, independent of the Taliban’s anti-narcotics unit, to witness the current state of affairs first-hand.

During our visit last year, we observed vast expanses of land blanketed with poppy fields. This time, however, we can’t locate a single field of the crop.

Graphic: Helmand poppy cultivation has collapsed - shows two satellite pics of the province (2022 and 2023) demonstrating the fall-off in poppy farming

Source of Image:- BBC News

The analysis by Alcis reveals that poppy cultivation in Helmand has plummeted by over 99%. “High-resolution imagery of Helmand province indicates that poppy cultivation has dwindled to less than 1,000 hectares from 129,000 hectares the previous year,” states David Mansfield.

We encounter farmer Niamatullah Dilsoz in the Marjah district, located south of Helmand’s capital, Lashkar Gah, while he is in the process of harvesting wheat. In the same field, he cultivated poppy the previous year. He informs us that farmers in Helmand, a stronghold of the Taliban, have almost universally adhered to the ban.

“A handful of farmers attempted to grow poppy in their courtyards, concealed behind walls, but the Taliban discovered and eradicated those fields,” Niamatullah discloses.

Apart from the sound of wheat stalks being harvested and the chirping of birds, the farm is tranquil. During the war, this field served as a frontline. Helmand was the location of a UK military base and the site of some of their most intense battles.

Graph: How poppy cultivation in Helmand has fallen (shows drop from 51.9% of crops in 2022 to 0.4% in 2023)

Source of Image:- BBC News

Niamatullah, who is in his early twenties, is experiencing a period of peace for the first time in his life, free from the fear of bomb attacks. However, for a population already ravaged by a prolonged war, the prohibition on opium has dealt a devastating blow. This comes amidst an economic downturn that has plunged nearly all of Afghanistan into poverty. Two-thirds of the population are uncertain about their next meal.

“We are extremely distressed. Wheat brings in less than a quarter of what we used to earn from opium,” he laments. “I can’t fulfill my family’s needs. I’ve had to resort to taking a loan. Hunger is at its highest level and we haven’t received any assistance from the government.”

afghanistan lifestyle

The impact on prices may take some time to trickle down the chain of illegal drug trafficking to the street price of heroin.

“Even though opium and heroin prices are at a 20-year high, they’ve been declining over the past six months, despite the extremely low levels of poppy cultivation this year,” Mansfield points out. “This suggests that there are substantial reserves in the system, and the production and trade of heroin continues. Seizures in neighboring states and beyond also indicate that a heroin shortage is not imminent.”

Mike Trace, a former official with the UNODC, was a senior advisor on drug policy for the UK government when the Taliban’s first regime banned opium cultivation in 2000, a year before the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

“That didn’t result in a significant and immediate impact on Western prices and markets, because there is a lot of stockpiling by the actors along that drug-trafficking route,” he says. “That’s the nature of the market and it hasn’t fundamentally changed for the last 20 years.”

opium farming in afghanistan

The United States spent billions of dollars in Afghanistan in an attempt to eradicate opium production and trafficking, with the aim of cutting off the Taliban’s funding source.

They initiated airstrikes on poppy fields in Taliban-controlled territories, incinerated opium reserves, and conducted raids on drug laboratories.

However, opium was also freely cultivated in areas controlled by the US-backed former Afghan regime, a fact that the BBC observed prior to the Taliban takeover in 2021.

For the time being, the Taliban seems to have achieved in Afghanistan what the West could not. However, there are doubts about their ability to maintain this.

In terms of heroin addiction in the UK and the rest of Europe, Mike Trace suggests that a significant reduction in opium cultivation in Afghanistan is likely to change the types of narcotics consumed. “People are likely to shift towards synthetic drugs, which can be far more harmful than opium.”



The Taliban’s ban on opium cultivation in Afghanistan has led to a significant decrease in poppy farming, a move that has had both positive and negative impacts. On one hand, it has curbed the production of opium, a key ingredient in heroin, which has been a major global concern. On the other hand, it has left many Afghan farmers in financial distress, as they relied heavily on the income from poppy cultivation. The ban has also raised questions about the future of drug use and addiction, with experts suggesting a potential shift toward synthetic drugs. While the Taliban’s efforts have been more successful in reducing opium cultivation than any previous attempts, the sustainability of this ban and its long-term effects on the Afghan population and the global drug market remain uncertain.

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