China, the Taliban and the threats from the illegal drug trade

·4-min read

China could offer farmers in Afghanistan help with alternative crops to opium poppies to try to counter threats to China posed by the Central Asian nation’s continued dependence on the illegal drug trade, Chinese analysts suggested.

Trafficking in poppy-based drugs and methamphetamine remains the Taliban’s largest single source of income, according to various estimates, and is likely to remain so with the prospect of international sanctions on the militant group.

In the past, one of the main routes for heroin from Afghanistan entering China was via Pakistan and China’s western province of Xinjiang.

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Wang Jinguo, an international affairs expert with Lanzhou University, said China needed to focus on ensuring the trade was not revived in the aftermath of the US pull-out from the Central Asian state.

“After the US withdrawal [from Afghanistan] China’s anti-narcotics agencies need to pay close attention to preventing drugs from Afghanistan flowing into China through the northern route again,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Wang as saying last month.

The United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime said in June that Afghanistan accounted for around 80 per cent of global opium and heroin supplies.

Afghanistan generated between US$1.2 billion and US$2.1 billion in income from consumption, production and exports of opiates in 2019, the office said.

The trade has proved lucrative for the Taliban, with the UN Security Council saying in June that the militant group collected about US$460 million in taxes from opium growers last year.

Since entering Kabul and taking power in Afghanistan this month, the Taliban has vowed that the new government will not turn the country into a fully-fledged narco-state.

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But Zhu Yongbiao, an expert on Afghanistan issues from Lanzhou University, said the Taliban would struggle to live up to its commitments to stamp out the illegal drug trade in the country, especially with the loss of international aid and the likelihood of sanctions.

“Drug control is closely related to the sanctions imposed by the international community and the freezing of assets,” Zhu said.

“I don’t think it can be solved despite the government ban [on heroin], or to say it’s impossible to be resolved in a short time.”

World leaders are expected to consider new sanctions on the Taliban when the G7 group of advanced economies meet on Tuesday to discuss the crisis in Afghanistan, according to Reuters.

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Afghanistan is a cash economy and its currency, the afghani, was propped up by regular bulk shipments of US dollars from abroad every few weeks to Afghanistan’s central bank.

Those funds are drawn from some US$9 billion to US$10 billion in foreign currency and gold reserves as well as liquid assets such as US Treasury bonds, according to Ajmal Ahmady, former head of the country’s central bank, who escaped from the country.

The United States froze roughly US$9 billion in assets belonging to Afghanistan’s central bank. And the International Monetary Fund said last week that Afghanistan would no longer be able to access the lender’s resources.

Aid flows represented 42.9 per cent of Afghanistan’s US$19.8 billion gross domestic product last year, according to World Bank data.

In an academic paper published in May, Luo Yi, a professor from Sichuan University, warned that if drug smuggling in Afghanistan could not be contained, the security of neighbouring countries, including China, would be challenged. China’s Belt and Road Initiative would also be affected, Luo said.

“In this sense, the drug smuggling problem in Afghanistan is directly related to China’s major national interests,” she said.

Zhu, from Lanzhou University, said there was a danger that the link between drugs and terrorism could be strengthened.

“A hidden danger is the forces involved in drug trafficking might collude with extremist terrorism forces,” he said.

Yang Shu, former dean of Central Asia studies at Lanzhou University, said it was uncertain whether the Taliban would ban poppy growing but China could contribute to a solution.

“China can help them engage in alternative planting to grow economic crops, and help train their personnel about anti-drug technology,” Yang said.

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