Afghanistan: An ever-expanding drug economy

By Abhinav Nath Jha | Edited by Ashna Ranade

After returning to power almost after two decades in Afghanistan, one of the first public announcements that the Taliban made was a pledge to curb all modes of production and sale of drugs. Interestingly, that’s a promise the Taliban has made in the past too in the late ’90s but has found it very difficult to uphold. Well, it will not be too far-fetched to call the opium poppy, the economic backbone of many people in Afghanistan, home to a war-torn, ravaged economy. The value of yearly opium production was as high as $1.4 billion as estimated by the United Nations in 2017. This value amounts to 7.4% of Afghanistan’s total GDP. But, before diving deep down into Afghanistan’s drug economy, we first must gain a basic understanding of how the economy functions in a narco-state. (Pierson, 2021)

While the illegal trade and consumption of drugs are prevalent in every nation-state, differing in frequency and volume, only certain countries are labelled as narco-states. According to Collins Dictionary, a narco-state is defined as, ‘’a country in which the illegal trade in narcotic drugs forms a substantial part of the economy.’’ There are certain socio-economic factors that contribute to the creation of a narco-state.

One of the most significant factors in any economy that determine the high use of illegal drugs is its inversional correlation with the economic growth of the national economy and the employment levels associated with it. It has been seen that countries that witness greater periods of recession and high levels of unemployment levels lead to a steady increase in consumer base in the illegal drugs market. High recession and unemployment levels lead to an increase in psychological distress that leads people to use illegal drugs as a coping mechanism. For instance, during the 2001-2003 recession in Bueno Aires, a study of ethnographic origin concluded that there was an increase in consumption of illegal drugs because of the inability to accept dire economic decline. There was also an increase of first-timers during this period as far as either non-prescribed or prescribed drugs are concerned.

Recessions also lead to a decrease in working hours because of loss of jobs or reduced incomes that leads to people taking up part-time jobs. The number of non-working hours has a direct correlation with the consumption of illegal drugs. The same study on Buenos Aires that concluded how recessions lead to psychological distress that further leads to increased demand for drugs, also confirmed that the more the number of mean hours per week was spent without any work or looking for a job, that also meant an increase in mean hours using illegal drugs per week.

Now, that we have looked at how a narco-state is conceived because of particular socio-economic factors, let us return once again to the examination of Afghanistan’s drug ecosystem. Afghanistan for over three decades has been in the throes of war right from the 1979 invasion of the Soviet Union to the American involvement in the War on Terror, right up to the return of the Taliban to power this year. Such political instability in the country leads to a dire economic situation. Afghanistan has majorly depended on foreign aid for its economic survival. In 2009, foreign aid amounted to 100% of Afghanistan’s GDP. Yet this number came drastically down to 42.9% of the GDP in 2020. (CNBCTV18, 2021) With the Taliban back in power, foreign aid is further set to decrease, leaving Afghanistan in an economic imbalance.

In such a situation, people are compelled to become a part of the illegal drug trade which is able to give employment to many people across its different stages such as production and sale. It is estimated that over 350,000 people in Afghanistan get employment in the drug business with some working part-time and some being full-fledged workers. While the individual farmer per se may not get much profit by cultivating opium which is a source of drugs such as heroin and morphine, they still choose to do so as compared to cultivating other crops since the prices are more stable in the former case. Also, rural parts in Afghanistan are primarily devoid of a strong infrastructure and as a result, most villages are dependent on poppy cultivation and manufacturing of drugs.  Even as the COVID-19 pandemic plagued most parts of the world including Afghanistan, the poppy crop saw a rise in its cultivation by 37% according to the UNODC. (Kursawe, 2018)

So, what does the future of the drug trade in Afghanistan look like in the wake of Taliban hegemony? Well, it seems like that there are no real chances at stopping the rise of the ever-expanding opium economy. Even if the Taliban make claims of banning opium, it is a very tall claim to make as the Taliban has mainly funded its operations by extracting indirect taxes right from the cultivation of the poppy plant up to the sale of heroin in international drug markets.) Also with foreign aid coming to a halt, the Taliban is far more dependent on the thriving opium economy. This essentially means that there is no stopping as far as the expanding of the drugs economy in Afghanistan is concerned.


CNBCTV18. (2021, August 16). Explained: Afghanistan’s frail economy closer to collapse after Taliban takeover. Retrieved from

Kursawe, J. (2018, December 3). Afghanistan’s opium trade: A nice little earner – for everyone. Retrieved from

Nagelhout, G. E., Hummel, K., de Goeij, M. C. M., de Vries, H., Kaner, E., & Lemmens, P. (2017). How economic recessions and unemployment affect illegal drug use: A systematic realist literature review. International Journal of Drug Policy, 44, 69–83.

Person, & Landay, J. (2021, August 16). Profits and poppy: Afghanistan’s illegal drug trade a boon for Taliban. Reuters. Retrieved from

Pierson , D. (2021, August 29). The Taliban says it wants to ban drugs in Afghanistan. here’s why it can’t. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from

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