In the border town of Zaranj, on Afghanistan’s border with Iran, youths jostle each other as they crowd into vans that leave at regular intervals to smuggle across the border. Human trafficking is one of the few sectors of the Afghan economy that is thriving. Other they are drugs.
Some 950 kilometers east of Zaranj, in a remote and cold mountain pass, men with backpacks follow the narrow path to the Tabai border crossing, before beginning their descent into the “tribal areas” of Pakistan. Hidden in their loads are bags of heroin, bound for the markets of Peshawar and Karachi, with much of it ending up on the streets of the UK.
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The drug and human trade is gaining importance as other sectors of the economy hire or close and poverty deepens.
Both illicit economies involve complex logistics, infrastructure, and brokerage networks to allow and channel the flows of people or illegal drugs out of the country. Both have responded with remarkable speed and agility to the political breakdown marked by the Takeover by the Taliban.
In Zaranj, before the regime change, people told us that 2014-15 was the climax of the human trafficking industry, when the labor market contracted and the economy slowed in response to the fall of the international armed forces. . Now the business is booming again and so are the prices.
A report from Danish Council for Refugees It found that even before the crisis Afghans were required to transport an average of $ 1,710 from Afghanistan to Turkey. The number of people crossing the border has been estimated to have doubled in recent weeks. Before the Taliban takeover, around 400 vehicles were taking migrants to Iran via Pakistan every day. This increased to about 1,200 in September-October and has now dropped to around 600 vehicles. Fares for Mashkel’s longest route through Pakistan initially increased four to six times during this period. Official border crossings with Iran are closed for most migrants.
The economic importance of drug trafficking has also increased. When the Taliban took power, drug prices rose significantly. In Nangarhar, dried opium increased from PKR 20,000 (Pakistani rupees, the equivalent of about £ 86) to PKR 33,000 (£ 141) per Afghan seer, which is equivalent to about 1.25 kg. In Nimroz, opium increased from PKR10,000 (£ 43) to PKR28,000 (£ 120) per kilo. The price increase was driven by traders who bought products at a time of uncertainty.
But prices fell and stabilized once it became clear that the Taliban would quickly consolidate their power. One sign of confidence in the market has been the opening of opium bazaars in areas previously controlled by the government. The Taliban’s new monopoly on taxing drug trafficking manifests itself in districts like Durbaba in Nangarhar, where they collect taxes of PKR 1000 (£ 4.28) per seer for opium, PKR 500 (£ 2.14) per kilo of hashish and PKR 2000 (£ 8.56) per kilo of heroin.
The Taliban and the drug economy
Under pressure and in conditions of economic decline and a growing crisis, the Taliban are unlikely to act against the drug economy. The exception is often draconian measures against drug users in Kabul.
There is still no indication that the Taliban are targeting other parts of the drug business, such as growing, refining, trading, and cross-border trafficking. Unlike ISIS-K (Islamic State Khorasan), drug cultivation and trafficking are not an ideological issue for the Taliban, but rather a bargaining chip in their negotiations with the West around funding and recognition.
At the same time, those involved in the trade are hedging their bets by piling up stocks in case the laissez-faire policy of the Taliban changes.
While the underlying drivers of the drug economy – instability, poor governance, and widespread poverty – remain as strong, there is no credible or humane way to achieve sustained reductions in poppy cultivation. Billions of pounds invested in anti-drug efforts by international actors over the past 20 years failed to do this and the Taliban have neither the resources nor the inclination to enforce drug bans now. Doing so would further impoverish an already desperate population and, at the same time, undermine the Taliban’s central base of support in the poppy-growing areas of southern Pashtun. It would also cut off a major source of income for the regime.
Most of Afghanistan’s illicit drug production and trafficking occurs in border areas, building on long-standing business networks and social connections that predate the modern Afghan state and have been strengthened and rejuvenated for more than four decades of war.
The sudden withdrawal of Western funding has exposed a strongly shaped economy, polity, and society dependent on external financial support, technical assistance, and military capabilities. In the current context, the Taliban government will find it difficult to support any public sector activity, including the provision of basic health and education services. The chances of survival in the border areas of rural Afghanistan are already severely limited by shrinking farm sizes and high levels of landlessness, and repeated droughts caused by the climate emergency.
Human trafficking and drugs are two border economies that can be understood as responses to a context of radical uncertainty. Border regions are places of improvisation and innovation, often the first regions to react to moments of rupture and transition. While the legal economy has been hit hard by the banking crisis, the drug and human trafficking industries continue to be financed by the “halwaldars,” the informal currency exchange system.
Unfortunately, the international response has been forceful and dogmatic. An indefinite “wait and see” approach by Western governments, megaphone diplomacy with the Taliban, or efforts to “quarantine” illicit flows from Afghanistan will exacerbate a growing humanitarian, financial and security crisis with regional and regional ramifications. global. Humanitarian and development funding must be delivered now and on a large scale.