Taliban instability could fuel opium trade

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Opium poppies have been a major source of funding for the Taliban

Mullah Mansour, Afghan Taliban leader and the commander of a militia of thousands of men, died a lonely death.

He was rattling across the arid wastes of the Baluch desert in Pakistan on Saturday morning in that most Afghan of cars – a battered white Toyota Corrola – when the missile, fired from a US drone, struck his vehicle.

All that was left was a charred and twisted wreck beside the desert highway.

US President Barack Obama described his death as an “important milestone”, but disentangling what it actually marks is not straightforward.

The most obvious question is what it will mean for the Taliban.

The Pentagon said it had targeted Mansour because he had become “an obstacle to peace and reconciliation”.

But it isn’t clear that the new leader will be any more open towards the peace process.

Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhunzada was Mullah Mansour’s former deputy, and the official line from the Taliban is that his approach is going to be very similar.

What’s more, his appointment doesn’t rule out the possibility of a battle for succession.

Mansour struggled to contain the splintering of the movement into a series of factions that followed the death of Mullah Omar, the founder of the Taliban.

That would increase instability in Afghanistan, fuelling local conflicts and entrenching the insurgency.

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Then, there is the question of what it means for US relations with Pakistan, which are regarded as crucial to the effort to fight global terrorism.

The drone attack suggests the US has lost patience with the Pakistani authorities, which have failed to bring the Taliban to the table, while allegedly harbouring the movement’s leaders.

So the killing of Mullah Mansour may actually set back the efforts to negotiate a peace settlement.

On Monday, the US ambassador was summoned to the Pakistani Foreign Ministry to be harangued about what it described as a “violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty”.

The official Pakistani line is that the attack will be an obstacle to future talks.

The third question is the one most likely to affect those outside the region: the impact on the drugs trade.

It would be tempting to conclude that removing Mansour will make the battle to eradicate opium more straightforward.

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Mullah Mansour was killed in a drone strike at the weekend

Mansour helped oversee the transformation of the Taliban from a movement of pious fanatics, largely funded by true believers from abroad, into something very different.

After the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, remittances from the Gulf fell away.

The Taliban needed new sources of finance.

Mullah Mansour is thought to have developed a huge new source of income for the Taliban – along the way enriching himself and his fellow tribesmen.

The movement he officially took over last year had been refashioned into what is, in effect, a multi-billion dollar drugs cartel.

Afghanistan has now completely eclipsed the former hub of world opium production, the so-called Golden Triangle between Myanmar, Laos and Thailand.

But whether the death of Mansour will reduce Afghanistan’s opium production is a moot point.

Helmand is a Taliban stronghold and traditionally accounts for around half of Afghan opium output.

A senior official admitted to the BBC that the intense conflict in the province meant there had been virtually no eradication effort at all this season.

Nevertheless, there is evidence that some farmers are moving away from poppy and back to less profitable food crops.

One reason may be the effects of a mysterious blight that badly affected last year’s poppy harvest.

Take a look at the changing patterns of cultivation in these desert areas of Helmand.

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At the same time, there is considerable evidence that poppy production has increased in areas that are – nominally at least – controlled by the government.

Last week, I visited an agricultural community just half an hour away from Mazar-e-Sharif in the north of Afghanistan.

The city is, by Afghan standards, a model of good governance and has never been a stronghold of the Taliban, yet I found poppy being grown openly.

Conversations with locals suggest that poppy production is not just tolerated, but is actively supported and protected by local police and government officials in return for kickbacks.

“Of course the authorities know we are growing poppies,” a farmer called Taza Meer told me.

“They can see we are growing it, but they’ve got to keep quiet about it. The economy here is weak, people have no money.

“The authorities know poppy is the only way people here can make decent money, and they know that people would be very angry if they stopped them.”

He said if the government came in and destroyed his crop or that of other farmers, they would “take to the mountains”.

“The people will take up arms,” he told me. “They’ll have no choice but to rebel and there will be chaos here.”

Experts on opium cultivation say this is a pattern repeated across the country.

They say opium cultivation is a sign of the weakness of the government.

It occurs when local authorities have no choice but to come to an accommodation with farmers.

On that basis, there has been a steady deterioration of central authority, as this chart illustrates.

It is striking that more opium was produced in 2014, the last year of the Nato combat mission, than in any other year since the UN started keeping records in 2002.

Mansour may be dead – but, in the absence of other successful businesses, the opium trade has become an increasingly important enterprise in areas the government controls as well as Taliban-controlled areas.

What that suggests is that, whoever is leader of the Taliban, Afghanistan is likely to continue to be the world centre of opium production.

Indeed, this year, Afghanistan is expected to produce more opium – and therefore heroin – than the world consumes.

It isn’t hard to work out what that means: more and cheaper heroin coming to a street near you.

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