Afghanistan will be Asia's first narco-state

The Taliban once again control Afghanistan, which means they also control the world’s premier source of opium.

The Rand Corporation recently asked “What might happen to Afghanistan if demand for its opiates dropped off sharply and permanently” because illegally manufactured fentanyl displaces heroin? Rand argues the market forces that drive a shift from heroin to fentanyl — which is potent, easy-to-produce, and inexpensive — may reduce revenue to farmers, local politicians, and the Taliban, weakening the organization, which even before it took control derived much of its revenue from drugs.

What will the Taliban do to counter the loss of $1.5 billion to $3 billion a year from exports of opium poppy, the country’s largest cash crop?

Answer: The narcos will find another cash product.

These are not “opium guys” who will disappear when opium isn’t viable (though that may not happen soon when the demand for opium is inelastic and if the Taliban’s initial market share is large); they’re businessmen who make today’s money selling opium, but tomorrow it could be methamphetamine or fentanyl — or illegally mined cobalt or lithium, or perhaps humans.

But opium isn’t on the ropes just yet: Opium poppy cultivation increased by 37 percent from 2019 to 2020, and totaled 6,300 tons. In fact, despite the U.S. spending more than $8 billion to eradicate poppy production, it only increased during the American occupation: Today Afghanistan cultivates twice the acreage of opium poppy as it did before 2001. If the new Taliban government is a “pariah” per U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, it will have no incentive to transition away from narcotics in the hope of attracting aid or investment.

But if opium’s days are numbered, what product might take its place?

Currently, China and India are major sources of the synthetic opioid fentanyl coming into the U.S., along with fentanyl precursors and production equipment. The fentanyl and precursors are made in labs and chemical plants that may be beyond the ability of the Taliban to operate, at least for now.

But there’s another option, and its growing in Afghanistan today.

Ephedra sinica, which contains naturally-occurring ephedrine used to make crystal methamphetamine, grows across central and northern Afghanistan. It has escaped the attention of many enforcers and analysts, but there is a thriving market in the stuff according to analyst David Mansfield who has documented the path of the hardy, sage-colored shrub “from firewood to precursor.”

Shifting from harvesting opium poppy to ephedra would require some changes in how the Taliban does business, but they are challenges that can be surmounted — especially when $3 billion could be in the balance.

Poppy production relies on farms (fixed locations), is manpower intensive, and requires the Taliban to manage a system that collects the poppy resin, transports it to processing centers, loans money to farmers, extorts money from farmers, and pays the farmers for their production. This system buys the support of the local population as drug revenues finance licit enterprises or the cultivation of “alternative crops;” increase demand at local markets; enable investment in the land, including weeding, crop rotation, and irrigation improvements; and generate wage labor that would not be generated by alternative crops.

Ephedra is harvested by hand on the rocky outcrops where it grows, then it’s bagged, and sold. In 2016, traders from south west Afghanistan started buying the crop with the intent to extract the ephedrine to make methamphetamine. Extracting ephedrine from the plant is easier than extracting it from over-the-counter medicines, which have to be imported from Iran or Pakistan, and it requires only a basic knowledge of chemistry.

The process of making meth in a lab is less visible than opium production, as the meth cooks produce small batches in an indoor environment, and produce low levels of waste. And produce it they do — as the high cost of doing business and the low profit margin drives high-volume production to make a profit. In 2019, a joint U.S.-Afghan operation destroyed 68 meth labs in one day, but likely to no avail, as Afghan meth is now being trafficked, alongside heroin, as far as Africa.

It must be working as, before the Taliban victory, a NATO report indicated the group “has achieved, or is close to achieving, financial and military independence.” The report also estimated the group’s income from drugs at over $400 million, one-quarter of its annual budget.

Now that the Taliban controls Afghanistan, it will be able to use the institutions of the state to expand its trade in drugs. It will control the Central Bank of Afghanistan; the national airline, Ariana; the diplomatic bag — and will be able to issue diplomatic clearances for aircraft to land in the country or transit its airspace. The Taliban will also control access to regional transport links, such as the highway to Chabahar port in Iran and the International North-South Transportation Corridor to Central Asia, Iran, Russia, and Europe.

The Taliban won’t be doing anything revolutionary: North Korean diplomats reportedly have sold drugs in Europe and engaged in wildlife smuggling, and Iran used its central bank to finance its terrorist proxy, Hezbollah. And the Counternarcotics Police of Afghanistan may find new work guarding narcotics shipments, not raiding them.

The Taliban have achieved a milestone: Instead of influencing and corrupting the state, like the Mexican narcos, the Taliban narcos now are the state.

James Durso (@james_durso) is the Managing Director of Corsair LLC, a supply chain consultancy. He was a professional staff member at the 2005 Defense Base Closure and Realignment Commission and the Commission on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan. Mr. Durso served as a U.S. Navy officer for 20 years and specialized in logistics and security assistance. His overseas military postings were in Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, and he served in Iraq as a civilian transport advisor with the Coalition Provisional Authority.  He served afloat as Supply Officer of the submarine USS SKATE (SSN 578).