The Taliban’s Criminal Enterprise – By Shawn Snow

The media tends to paint a portrait of the Taliban as a monolithic, ideologically motivated entity with the goal of overthrowing the Kabul-led government. The conflict in Afghanistan, however, is morphing into a resource conflict and the Taliban is becoming involved in criminal enterprise, especially the opium trade. Poppies are the main staple crop in Afghanistan and local Taliban commanders control their growth. With the international presence dwindling, the conflict over scarce resources in Afghanistan is intensifying with record poppy cultivation and splintering factions within the Taliban, plunging the country into warlordism once again.


Afghanistan is a small, poor, and landlocked country that has witnessed hundreds of years of foreign invasions, warfare, and bloodshed. One would not expect a country that offered so little in terms of economic development to have been the focus point and proxy battlefield of so many great powers, from the Greeks, to the British, the Russians, and the Americans. Its geographic terrain is formidable. Its people are intuitive, adaptive, and capable of sustaining great hardship in order to expel their enemies.

America stepped into a quagmire after the September 11th attacks by partaking on a mission to modernize and rebuild a society incapable of sustaining and controlling a strong central government, a challenging task even for a powerful nation like the United States. Washington’s folly, however, was not its lack of might, but its misreading of the battlefield context.[1] Afghanistan’s story is not as simple as the fabled story the one-eyed Mullah Omar would have us believe. While some elements of this Robin Hood myth are true and have been collaborated by eyewitness accounts, it does not fully describe the causes behind the Taliban’s rise. In contrast, the story of Afghanistan is one of resources and narcotics, an economy forced onto it by the Soviet invasion in 1979.

This article will explore the complex dynamics that make Afghanistan a case study of a resource war and the Taliban a criminal enterprise, first through a historical overview of the history of modern day Afghanistan, from the Soviet invasion, through the post-September 11 years of American intervention, then through a discussion of alternative readings of the Taliban’s goals and objectives, and finally through an analysis of the burgeoning opium trade in and through Afghanistan.

Historical Overview

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan devastated the rural sectors of society and destroyed the subsistence farming agricultural economy of the time.[2] Before 1979, Afghanistan was a nation built agricultural labor. Afghans grew wheat and some narcotics, but not the quantities of poppy witnessed after the Soviet invasion and subsequent mujahedeen insurgency.[3] By the 1990s, urbanization had rapidly increased, drawing away power from traditional rural farming elites and into the hands of government power brokers who were heavily dependent on Soviet aid for sustenance.[4] By the time of the Soviet’s withdrawal, almost all of Afghanistan’s food and gas aid was donated by the USSR.[5]

As the USSR attempted to install a modern society, rural communities resisted. These values ran counter to the Pashtunwali code of ethics, and counter to a traditional lifestyle in Afghanistan.[6] The mujahedeen rose out of this animosity and, with assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), forced a retreat of the Soviet Union in 1989.

When the Soviet Union withdrew in 1989, the foreign aid ended and Afghans resorted to a warlord transnational criminal economy,[7] an economy based on the black market sale of opium and natural resources, smuggled through Afghanistan’s porous borders into Pakistan, Iran, and Tajikistan. In 1991 as aid began to dry up from the United States, Pakistan, and the Soviet Union, a competing warlord economy began to rise. The central government under President Najibullah attempted to stave off the impending economic collapse through printing money,[8] resulting in various warlords printing their own money within their tiny fiefdoms.[9] Inflation rose, and by 1991 the Afghan was trading at 1,000 Afghans to the U.S. dollar and food prices had increased by a factor of 10.[10]

The rise of the Taliban came out of the chaos and collapse of the Afghan economy in 1994. As the economy collapsed and warlordism took hold, the Taliban provided an answer to the abuses and maltreatment by warlord commanders, or so the origin myth says. The Taliban organization that grew out of the diaspora movement after the Soviet invasion was incubated in refugee camps and ungoverned territory on Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan, such as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region. It sought to provide a religious answer to the abuses taking place in Afghanistan.[11]

As the myth is told, Mullah Mohammad Omar led a Robin Hood-style crusade to free his oppressed people. On September 20, 1994, after discovering a Herati family dead on the side of the road as a result of a corrupt roadblock established by a local commander, Omar lead a small band of “Talibs” or religious students, to overtake the local command post. The Taliban movement rose and tales began to spread of the “one-eyed Mullah” who, with small bands of men, overtook command post after command post, sometimes with no weapons.[12]

By the fall of 1994, the Taliban had taken control of Kandahar. Mullah Omar addressed a gathering of people wearing the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad and declared himself the “Leader of the Faithful,” cementing his legitimacy with the population.[13] By the end of 1998, the Taliban would control 80 percent of the country and 95 percent of the territory where opium was cultivated.[14]

The Taliban Take Control

After the Taliban made its initial gains it imposed no Islamic laws or enforcements in the regions it controlled. In fact, the status quo largely remained. Women news anchors continued to work, and Hindi films were still broadcasted in Taliban-controlled regions. The notorious Taliban commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar failed to implement Islamic policies in the regions he controlled,[15] as if to state that Islamic policies were not truly the aim of the Taliban’s operations. With the seizure of Kabul, Mullah Omar began to impose a simplistic vision of government surrounding Islamic scripture, a vision of government not concerned with politics and the state, but of morality and civil society.[16] Men were forced to grow beards and women to wear burqas while kites, singing, and dancing were forbidden by the religious elite.

While the seizure of Kabul changed the government of Afghanistan, it did little to change the warlord economy that operated in Afghanistan, the primary driver of the conflict. Afghanistan under Islamic law was no more peaceful than under warlord control Taliban commanders monopolize the economy, continuing the violence they had emerged to fight against.[17] Treatment of Afghans did not improve, as the Islamic policies under Mullah Omar were just as brutal as those that existed under the warlord period.[18]

What were the Taliban’s goals if not to truly establish a religious state and existence within Afghanistan? A look at the opium trade in Afghanistan holds the key to that question. The behavior of Taliban commanders reveals their objectives of controlling and profiting from the previously established illicit trade and narcotics-dependent economy. Many of the Taliban commanders under Mullah Omar such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Yunis Khalis, and Jalaluddin Haqqani were former warlords themselves, operating and controlling various portions of the illicit narcotics trade of poppy and heroin.[19] Having learned the fundraising business from previous local rulers,[20] Taliban commanders took advantage of the poppy trade to profit. Fundraising through control of opium production was at the heart of the Taliban’s goals and was vital to its existence.

Poppy Profits

Heroin and poppies were the lifeblood that fueled the Afghan economy after the Soviet withdrawal. As donor aid disappeared, Afghans became dependent on growing poppy to sustain their livelihoods. Given the dire economic situation, various groups fought for control of scarce resources, resulting in a security dilemma[21] in which Afghans had to align themselves with groups such as the Northern Alliance or the Taliban to have access to the illicit economy.[22] There was no way for Mullah Omar to escape this reality, which is the reason he supported the continued cultivation and selling of poppy, despite it being an un-Islamic practice.[23] Instead of resisting this illicit practice, Mullah Omar used it to shore up support for his organization, gain territory, and reap profits.

Throughout the 1990s and up to the siege of Kabul in 1997, Mullah Omar made various alliances with local strongmen, warlords, and poppy cultivators. Because he was viewed as a local legend and a source of security, local warlords supported his cause, as long as Mullah Omar did not ban poppy cultivation.[24] This deal allowed the Taliban to capture many districts and towns without firing a single shot and allowed Mullah Omar to keep key financial backers, as poppy was the lifeblood of the economy and few professions existed outside the poppy trade.[25] Utilizing the poppy trade in this way allowed the Taliban to tighten its grip on Afghanistan.

After the fall of Kabul in 1997 and under pressure from the United Nations, Mullah Omar issued a decree banning the consumption and cultivation of poppy. Yet, the decree was not enforced[26] and poppy production continued to grow, reaching 4,580 metric tons by 1999.[27] During this time, Afghanistan controlled 75 percent of the heroin production on the globe, with 97 percent of the production occurring in Taliban-controlled territories.[28] The Taliban also allowed for the collection of a 10 percent ushr, or tithe, on poppy production in its territories.[29] On top of the 10 percent agricultural tax, the Taliban placed a 20 percent zakat (Islamic tax) on each truckload of opium.[30] In this way, the Taliban profited from every step of the opium production process, from cultivation to shipment.

One event in the history of the Taliban’s involvement in opium production seems to point to Mullah Omar as finally implementing Islamic law against poppy cultivation. In 2001, the Taliban instituted another ban on poppy cultivation, this time one including enforcement mechanisms.[31] Some have claimed this to be a victory for the United Nations, which had been threatening sanctions against the regime and a reduction in aid. Others posit that this was a result of religious scholars’ pressure on Mullah Omar to ban the narcotic.[32] Yet, based on all the evidence above, this would make little sense in the political economy that existed in Afghanistan.

In reality, Mullah Omar’s ban on poppy cultivation in 2001 reflects the Taliban’s emergence as a criminal organization concerned with maximizing profits. By 1997, the Taliban controlled 95 percent of Afghanistan[33] and 97 percent of the poppy crop,[34] giving the Taliban a monopoly on the production of poppy. The ban on poppy cultivation caused the price of opium and heroin to skyrocket, with the price per kilo of opium going from $28 to between $350 and $400, an all time high.[35] Mullah Omar continued to collect taxes on heroin refineries[36] after the ban on cultivation, an indication that the ban was a market trick to drive up price by reducing supply. Tax revenues also shot up as a result of the increase in the price of opium.[37] In September 2011, the price per kilo of heroin in New York City was $746, another all time high.[38]

Opium After the 2001 U.S. Invasion

The drug trade today in Afghanistan continues with similar patterns witnessed during the 1990s and during Taliban rule. The poppy crop is the main staple of the Afghan economy and is heavily fought over with much bloodshed. Large numbers of Afghans that have been surveyed stated that the Taliban receive heavy fees for providing protection of farms and shipping of the opium product. Some of this protection includes the setting up of defensive perimeters around poppy fields with improvised explosive devices.[39]

Opium does not just support the Taliban. It also lines the pockets of corrupt government officials and those formerly aligned with the Northern Alliance and the government of Hamid Karzai.[40] After the overthrow of the Taliban, poppy production increased significantly in Badakshan province, a region controlled by former Northern Alliance commanders allied with the central government.[41] It is understood that these profits go to benefit the central government in Kabul while the poppy production in the southern portion of Afghanistan, namely Helmand province, lines the pockets of the Taliban.

In 2001, after Karzai took power as a result of the Bonn Conference, he instituted a poppy cultivation ban in 2002.[42] Every year since then, however, Afghanistan has witnessed larger and larger yields in opium and poppy production.[43] As stated by Hermann Kreutzman:

… While previously the gross income from poppy ranged at around U.S. $1,500 at the farm-gate, these values increased significantly after the ban and peaked in 2002 at more than U.S. $16,000/ha. In 2005, poppy cultivators on average had household incomes of about U.S. $1,800, or per capita income of U.S. $280, about 25 percent higher than Afghanistan’s per capita GDP.”[44]

This represents the conundrum that exists in Afghanistan: Two warring factions split on ethnic lines between Tajiks and Pashtuns dueling for control over an illicit black market economy—the only economy Afghans have known since the foreign intervention of the Soviets that wrecked their subsistence agriculture economy.[45]

Additional Illicit Trade

It is important to note that opium is not the only product sold in this illicit black market economy. Many other products sustain the black market economy of Afghanistan, including rare earth metals. In 2010, American geologic teams discovered vast wealth beneath the surface of Afghanistan in the form of rare earth metals valued at over one trillion U.S. dollars.[46] These rare earth metals—including lithium, chromite, and precious gems—have been a source of conflict in Afghanistan for decades. Both Ahmad Shah Massoud, the former commander of the Northern Alliance, and Pashtun mujahedeen organizations have used illicit mining to fund their operations.[47] This illicit mining and smuggling activity continues today and is feeding the contemporary conflict. Large-scale mines are under the control of various factions from corrupt government officials, to Afghan Local Police (ALP) commanders and Taliban factions. According to the Afghan Ministry of Mines, armed groups control 80 percent of the mines in Afghanistan.[48]

The issue over who controls which mines and third party involvement in territorial disputes also drives internal conflict in Afghanistan. One of the largest tribal groups to control illicit mines is the Mommand tribe that occupies both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.[49] This tribe excavates one of the largest chromite mines in Khas Kunar district. However, with support from U.S. Special Forces and the Task Force for Business Stability Operations,[50] a local ALP commander was provided with finances and mining equipment to take over large portions of chromite mining in Shalay. To add insult to injury, the ALP commander was from a different tribe, the Akhonzadaand tribe.[51]

In this case, the U.S. government explicitly decided to support one armed group over another in chromite mining operations in Afghanistan.[52] One should question whether this move by the United States was purposely undertaken to highlight the American understanding that Afghanistan may once again be headed towards a warlord economy, controlled and operated by tiny fiefdoms. By propping up one armed faction over another, the United States is picking its warlords today. As the United States begins to withdraw from Afghanistan, warlords are once again beginning to rise to fill the power vacuum.

There is little the Afghan government can do to rein these men in besides cooption or utilizing a corrupt patronage system. For instance, while Kabul has signed a new law in August 2014 regulating mining in Afghanistan, it does not provide any of the safeguards necessary to protect against government corruption or illicit black market activities, further highlighting evidence that the central government is forced to coopt with armed groups.[53] According to analysis conducted by Global Witness, a nonprofit group dedicated to resource issues, the law has numerous loopholes that allow for criminal enterprises to continue their activities, with no process for fair bidding or even a transparent means of illustrating ownership.[54] One should question whether this was done on purpose, as 80 percent of Afghan mines are currently under the control of armed groups.[55]

The Future of Afghanistan’s Political Economy

The 24 hour news cycle tends to highlight Afghanistan as a conflict between the Taliban and the United States, but the reality on the ground is much more complex. The transnational nature of Afghanistan’s black-market economy makes it difficult to counter. Smuggling routes for lootable[56] resources and opium reach into Iran, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Russia. The lack of a strong central government and the inability to control the monopoly of violence makes the task of combatting this economy nearly impossible. It is no coincidence that as the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) prepares to withdraw from Afghanistan, the country is witnessing one of the largest cultivations of poppy in its history.[57]

In addition, the discovery of vast mineral resources and Afghanistan’s new mining law will likely exacerbate the tensions between warring armed groups looking to control sections of the illicit economy.  The law comes at a critical juncture in Afghanistan’s future with ISAF’s impending departure. Yet, instead of providing a promising future, it highlights future despair and conflict. The people of Afghanistan simply want a piece of the revenue in the form of public works. Their interests, however, are once again placed on the back burner by feuding warlords.[58]

The Taliban is an actor in a complex global economy, forced to compete with other various ethnic groups and armed groups for scarce resources. As the United States begins to withdraw, the parallels with the Soviet invasion become ever more clear: “a poor country whose internal political economy was wrecked by invasion and forced to operate on a level it was incapable of self-sustaining is headed towards an illicit economy run by tiny fiefdoms.”[59]

Shawn Snow is a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps and graduate student at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. His specializations include Eurasian Energy Security, International Security Studies, and Southwest Asia and Islamic Civilization. He served 10 years as a Signals Intelligence Analyst and completed multiple tours of duty to Iraq and Afghanistan with Marine Special Operations Command. He is also a graduate of the Defense Language Institute with fluency in Arabic, Dari, and Persian Farsi.

[1] Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2006)
[2] Rubin, Barnett R. “The political economy of war and peace in Afghanistan.” World Development. 28(10) (2000): 1789-1803.
[3] Ibid., 1791.
[4] Ibid., 1792.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Afsar, Shahid, Chris Samples, and Thomas Wood. The Taliban: An Organizational Analysis. Naval Postgraduate School, Department of National Security Affairs. 2008. 59-61
[7] Rubin, 1789-1791.
[8] Ibid., 1792.
[9] Ibid., 1793.
[10] Ibid., 1792-1793.
[11] Afsar, 59-61.
[12] Alia Brahimi, The Taliban’s Evolving Ideology. (working paper., London School of Economics, 2010). Accessed February 16, 2015. 9-10.
[13] Afsar, 60 .
[14] International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, 1998.” Released by the Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, (US Department of State).1999. Accessed February 16, 2015.
[15] Brahimi, 4.
[16] Brahimi, 3-5.
[17] Ibid., 3-7. See also Kreutzmann, Hermann. “Afghanistan and the opium world market: poppy production and trade.” Iranian Studies 40, no. 5 (2007): 613. Early bans on opium production were designed to increase the price of opium. This provides evidence that after the Taliban seized power they were more interested in business as usual with regards to opium and the black market economy.
[18] Brahimi, 4.
[19] Gretchen, Peters. “How opium profits the Taliban.” United States Institute of Peace, Washington, DC (2009): 7-8.
[20] Ibid., 7.
[21] Lake, David A., and Donald Rothchild. “Containing fear: The origins and management of ethnic conflict.” International Security 21, no. 2 (1996): 42.
[22] Ibid.
[23] Gretchen, 10-11. These two pages detail how the Taliban are unable to escape the reality that they must grow opium, as it is a political reality. They rely on it for political support throughout the countryside. It also states that the Taliban placed a ban on consumption of the opiate not the production, highlighting the religious aspects of the opium ban. It was a means to reduce criticism.
[24] Ibid., 11.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Ibid., 11-12.
[27] Ibid., 12.
[28] Ibid. See also: Gavrilis, George. “The Good and Bad News about Afghan Opium.” Council on Foreign Relations. February 10, 2010. Accessed: February 16, 2015.
[29] Gretchen, 12.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Kreutzmann, Hermann. “Afghanistan and the opium world market: poppy production and trade.” Iranian Studies 40, no. 5 (2007): 612-613.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Afsar, 60.
[34] Gretchen, 12.
[35] Ibid., 14.
[36] Ibid.
[37] Ibid.
[38] Ibid.
[39] Ibid., 20.
[40] Kreutzmann, 613.
[41] Ibid., 616-618
[42] Ibid., 613.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Ibid., 616
[45] Rubin, 1789-1803.
[46] Risen, James. “U.S. Identifies Vast Mineral Riches in Afghanistan.” The New York Times, June 13, 2010. Accessed October 27, 2014.
[47] DuPee, Matthew. “Afghanistan’s conflict minerals: The crime-state-insurgent nexus.” CTC Sentinel 5, no. 2 (2012): 11-14.
[48] Ibid.
[49] “Chromite Extraction in Kunar, Factor of Instability.” Integrity Watch Afghanistan, November 2013. Accessed November 2, 2014. 9-11
[50] Ibid.
[51] Ibid., 10.
[52] Dearing, M.P. and Braden, C 2014. Robber Barons Rising: The Potential for Resource Conflict in Ghazni, Afghanistan. Stability: International Journal of Security and Development 3(1):9. (2014)
[53] Lynne, O’Donnel. “Does Afghanistan’s New Mining Law Benefit Its Mafias?” Foreign Policy, September 3, 2014. Accessed November 2, 2014.
[54] “A Shaky Foundation: Analyzing Afghanistan’s Draft Mining Law.” (Global Witness, November 2013).
[55] DuPee,
[56] Dearing.
[57] Special Inspector General, and Afghanistan Reconstruction. “Poppy Cultivation in Afghanistan: After a Decade of Reconstruction and Over $7 Billion in Counternarcotic Efforts, Poppy Cultivation Levels are at an All-Time High.” (2014): SIGAR Report.
[58] Bowley, Graham. “Potential for a Mining Boom Splits Factions in Afghanistan.” The New York Times. September 8, 2012. Accessed February 15, 2015. This article specifically cites the people of Bamian who are expecting a series of public works projects to be completed for opening their lands to mining.
[59] Snow, Shawn. “The Taliban Mafia.” The Global Scout. The Global Scout, November 20, 2014. Accessed December 3, 2014.


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