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Taliban Reap Windfall Profits From Afghan Poppies

FILE: An Afghan farmer extracts raw opium from poppy plants in Helmand.
FILE: An Afghan farmer extracts raw opium from poppy plants in Helmand.

Afghanistan’s Taliban are bankrolling their violent campaign by taking a large cut from the estimated hundreds of millions of dollars that come from the illegal poppy crop grown in the regions they control.

Helmand, Afghanistan’s largest province and now mostly controlled by the Taliban, is set to produce another bumper poppy crop. Afghan officials and the Taliban say they are set to reap windfall profits from the illegal crop, which is estimated to make up a bulk of global opium and heroin supplies.

Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, the “operational commander” of Afghan forces in Helmand, says the Taliban systematically impose taxes and generate revenues from every aspect of the drug trade.

He says the Taliban have surveyed the land cultivated in Helmand with poppies and have imposed a tax of nearly $350 on each hectare of poppy harvest.

“Many Taliban fighters work as laborers and are active in collecting the produce of poppy plants. They are also involved in moving the opium to Afghanistan’s borders and tax every kilogram of the drug [whenever it is sold],” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “All this money is enough to finance their fighting.”

Two Taliban sources confirmed his characterization. One of the individuals, who requested not to be named because of the fear of reprisals from within the secretive organization, said their major aim is to boost their revenues.

“This year, our emphasis is to get maximum profits from the current poppy crop,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan while touring Helmand’s rural district to ensure the Taliban shares are collected properly. “This is to offset the financial crunch we are facing.”

Helmand Governor Hayatullah Hayat says poppy cultivation in the region has skyrocketed in recent years.

“Poppy cultivation has increased everywhere in the parts of Helmand controlled by the Taliban,” he said. “I am confident this year’s crop has surpassed the 70,000 hectares cultivated with poppies last year.”

The Taliban currently control most of Helmand’s 14 districts. The insurgents appear to be eager to overrun its provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, to strengthen their grip on the agricultural region, which has historically provided the Taliban with recruits and leaders.

Hayat says many Taliban fighters also work as laborers collecting raw opium from the poppy pods.

“Currently, an estimated 25,000 people are busy harvesting the poppy crop in the southern Helmand, Kandahar, and Uruzgan provinces,” he said.

Officials in Kabul say constant fighting in Helmand has prevented them from eradicating the poppy crops.

Zabih Dayem, a media adviser for the Afghan Counter Narcotics Ministry, estimates the Afghan illicit drug industry has global reach and poses an international threat.

“The situation in Helmand is a challenge for our country because it not only increases funding for the Taliban but contributes to increasing addiction rates,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Our estimates show that the regional and international drug mafia earns billions of dollars [from drugs produced in Afghanistan].”

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes, opium production increased 43 percent last year, with the area under poppy cultivation increasing 10 percent to 201,000 hectares.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this based on Fareshta Nigah’s reporting.