On 15 August 2021, the Taliban took over Afghanistan. Two decades of attempts made by the United States of America to revitalize a terror-riddled country were all in vain. The US government tried its level best to bring forth a new beginning to a shell of a country while also trying to locate Osama Bin Laden, the perpetrator behind the 9/11 bombings on the World Trade Center. In ten years, it exhausted almost a trillion dollars: in counter-insurgency operations, catering to the American troops’ survival needs and funding reconstruction projects, anti-drug campaigns, humanitarian aid and some of this money was lost between the lines in corruption, abuse and fraud. Despite the western superpower’s active presence and financial capacity, the Taliban continued to grow in numbers and prominence that this year, they were able to capture the whole country again. The secret ingredient to this successful coup was something that the USA, despite its saviour complex, could not control or banish— opium.
Opium is a narcotic drug obtained from the plant, opium poppy. The drugs obtained from opium are labelled opiates and they are traditionally used to relieve or suppress pain. It is a drug that with chronic use/misuse may deteriorate one’s physical and mental health and even turn fatal. Opium production prospered in the Golden Triangle ( the region where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet in Southeast Asia) in the mid-1990s. Drug-control programs launched by United Nations tried to contain the production of opium in this region in the late 1990s but the newly formed mujahideen government in Afghanistan would pose a threat to the UN’s efforts.
After fragmentation within the broad group of people who used Islam as inspiration for terror, the Taliban, as we know it today, emerged in 1996. With it, a new socio-political fabric was invented for Afghanistan, especially for the Afghani women and trade. It banned poppy growing in 2000 to seek international legitimacy but it realized that to embark on its anti-USA mission, it must have funds. The illicit trade of opium promised to compensate for the expenses and this facilitated the rapid growth of opium cultivation in the early 2000s.
The 9/11 bombings (2001) on the World Trade Center by Al Qaeda propelled the USA’s interest in Afghanistan. By 7 October 2001, the US military had officially commenced military efforts to eradicate the Taliban’s presence with Operation Enduring Freedom. The United States’ war on Afghanistan evolved from airstrikes to organizing major reconstruction projects, by the end of the decade. One of these projects involved spending 8 billion dollars over 15 years trying to ban the opium trade. However, opium contributes 7 per cent to Afghanistan’s GDP. A US official was quoted saying that the opium trade is Afghanistan’s biggest industry, apart from war. Therefore, a lot of lives (especially, those with blue-collar jobs) are dependent on this illicit trade. The attempts to ban opium production was met with sympathy for the Taliban, especially by farmers and labourers. Afghanistan’s geographical position also plays an advantageous role in the distribution of heroin to the rest of the world. It utilizes three routes to traffic heroin to the rest of the world: Balkan routes, southern routes and northern routes. Afghanistan shares borders with Pakistan and Iran, both serve as a conduit for the flow of Afghan heroin into Balkan and southern routes. The opium trade continued to grow as eradication efforts decreased.
By 2007, Afghanistan accounted for about 93 per cent of the world’s opiate production. In 2014, it was estimated that opium-poppy cultivation occupies 224,000 hectares in Afghanistan. By 2017, 9,900 tonnes of heroin were worth some 1.4 billion dollars in sales by farmers. With opium trade flourishing and foreign funding piled up, the Taliban grew strong and stubborn to all American efforts. The US had no choice left but to cease its mission in Afghanistan.
The twenty years in yet another third-world country must have helped The United States of America realize that the philosophy of salvation is not enough to replace the livelihood of many.