Helmand, Afghanistan (Commonwealth Union)_They come in droves, armed with AK47s and holding large sticks. But this time the Taliban is not about to hit out at Afghans for something they consider not aligning with their fundamentalist religious belief, but rather they use the same brutal force on the innocent-looking yet deadly poppies, enjoying a little time in the sun. As the slashing continues in the vast acreages of poppy fields, stalks, leaves, and petals fly in the air while the distinctive pungency of the poppy sap in its most raw form assails the sense.
The speed of the slashing is such, that six fields, each between 200-300 sq meters in size, are cleared in just over half an hour. A short while later, an uneasy calm settles, as the armed men pile into pick-up trucks and move onto the next field, leaving behind a trail of destruction of a crop that for most Afghans is their livelihood.
The Taliban anti-narcotics unit has been tasked with eradicating the cultivation of poppy from which opium, the key ingredient for the heroin is extracted. In April 2022, poppy cultivation was prohibited with harsh penalties including the destruction of fields and various other penalties instituted based on Sharia law, which the Taliban adheres to. Given that countries across the globe are fighting an unforgiving drug war, this ban on poppy cultivation could have been one of the Taliban’s diktats that resonated positively with the rest of the world.
Ever since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, their rules, regulations, and laws have been exceptionally fundamentalist. Women’s empowerment regressed, education for women and girls banned, dress codes strictly adhered to, religious police meting out harsh public punishments, and a very violent milieu of ruthless and cruel laws based on their own readings of the Qur’an and Islam.
While prior Afghan leaders have paid some lip service to the crackdown on poppy cultivation, it seems that the Taliban is the only ruling party that has been successful enough to actually implement the directive. A Taliban spokesman was very clear that the ruling was imposed due to the harmful impacts of opium which goes against their religious beliefs.
Afghanistan produced more than 80 percent of the world’s opium and 95 percent of the heroin manufactured in Afghanistan is used in Europe in past years. Since the ban, poppy production has reduced significantly as most farmers complied with the ban. However, with the slashing of the existing fields, production in 2023 will be even less than the lessened crop in 2022 – 20 percent less than last year. Poppy cultivation in Helmand province has reduced by more than 99 percent – just 1,000 hectares remain compared to 129,000 hectares the previous year.
For the farmers who have seen their entire livelihoods destroyed, it’s more than a war on drugs. It’s a war on their lives. Most have taken to poppy farming as it’s way more lucrative than wheat cultivation. Some farmers, however, have decided to bite the bullet and revert to growing wheat as a matter of good sense prevailing. If they value their lives, it would safer for them to eke out a living rather than face the barrel of an AK47 which can go off at any time.
And maybe, just maybe, the world will be rid of the majority of the opium that wreaks so much havoc across the world.