LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- Nasim can’t hide his excitement as he buys jewelry and clothes for his fiancé in the dusty, teeming bazar of Lashkar Gah.
This agricultural town is the capital of Helmand, the southern province that is Afghanistan’s largest and the epicenter of global illicit poppy cultivation and drug production. Nasim, a 25-year-old farmer, has just returned from a few days of hard labor collecting raw opium from unripe poppy seed pods.
He earned nearly $250 from participating in this year’s second poppy harvest -- $100 more than what he earned in the spring. He is already looking forward to pocketing a similar amount from the next poppy harvest in late autumn.
“The poppy crop is a real blessing for us because there is little else to keep us employed or provide any work,” he said. “Previously, there was only one annual poppy harvest. Now we have three in one year.”
Thanks to genetically modified seeds, Helmand can now have up to three harvests every year. Locals say these seeds were introduced by middlemen who work with drug lords and regional narcotics-smuggling cartels and raise funds for the Taliban.
Helmand farmers say the new seed variety produces better plants that require less water. More significantly, they have a faster growth time and deliver a higher yield.
Previously, Helmand’s farmers would sow poppy seeds in early winter and reap their harvest by late spring. But now they can reap two more crops in midsummer and late autumn.
This appears to be have created a windfall for the Taliban. According to Nasim, the insurgents run highly organized campaigns of taxing farmers in the name of collecting Islamic taxes such as Zakat and Uhur, or by simply intimidating them into making cash donations.
“The Taliban go to see the farmers. They are very methodical about collecting what they view as their share,” he said. “They would even measure the land to estimate their share of the produce and either collect the opium or demand an equivalent amount of cash.”
In addition, the Taliban take a cut from drug lords and regional trafficking networks. Former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansur reportedly built a personal fortune this way before he was killed in late May by a U.S. drone strike in southwestern Pakistan.
The Taliban now have major stakes in Afghanistan’s multibillion-dollar drug industry. Helmand tribal leaders and analysts estimate that the insurgents raise hundreds of millions of dollars annually from Helmand’s drug trade, which partly explains their ability to bankroll a nationwide insurgency that has expanded after the departure of NATO troops in 2014. Western military leaders say Afghan forces are sustaining an unprecedented number of casualties. Most of the attacks by the Taliban have been on fixed military positions.
Crucially, perhaps, multiple poppy crops enable the Taliban to continue their offensive year-round. Previously, poppy cultivation meant many Taliban fighters had to swap their Kalashnikovs for spades, shovels, and ploughs come winter and spring. The new crops are less labor-intensive and thus require less manpower.
“If the insurgents are now able to reap profits from the drug trade three times a year, it will improve their finances exponentially,” said Abdul Tawab Qureshi, a military expert in Helmand. “They will expand recruitment of unemployed youth, which will prolong the conflict.”
Qureshi says the changing illicit drug industry presents an existential threat to the Afghan state. “Poppy cultivation will continue to be a major headache for the Afghan government because it will continue to strengthen insurgent finances.”
Abdul Samad, a tribal leader in Helmand, says Kabul and its Western backers are partly responsible for failing to eradicate poppy cultivation through incentives such as providing support for alternative crops or eradicating poppy fields all together.
“Most tribal leaders are against poppy cultivation, but the government needs to implement a robust program to replace poppies with legal crops,” he said.
Poppy cultivation has been on the rise since 2010. It reached a record high in 2014, when Helmand accounted for a lion’s share of the estimated 7,800 metric tons of poppies grown in Afghanistan. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, poppy cultivation decreased 19 percent last year and opium production fell to 3,300 metric tons. Experts however, say crop failure in parts of southern Afghanistan and market fluctuations caused the decrease.
Interviews with farmers and tribal leaders across Helmand suggest the region has already produced two bumper crops this year. This was because the government was narrowly focusing on fighting the Taliban -- mainly to prevent them from gaining more territory -- and didn’t engage in any poppy eradication. During the past year, the insurgents overran or now contest 11 out of 15 districts in Helmand. They still virtually surround Lashkar Gah.
Syed Ahmad Wroor, the regional head of the Afghan Counter Narcotics Ministry, however, remains positive. “We estimate poppy cultivation in Helmand has dropped 15 percent,” he recently said. “Unfortunately, no one has praised us for this achievement.”
With nearly 2 million addicts, opium is slowly poisoning Afghan society. Helmand is a major bastion for processing opium into heroin. The region also serves as main springboard from smuggling to the Middle East and West through neighboring Pakistan and nearby Iran.
All of this makes it difficult to imagine a swift end to the region’s drug industry. Back in Lashkar Gah, Nasim, sees it as his only means for survival.
“I will pray to Allah so we can have more than 10 harvests every year. This way I could earn a decent living,” he said.