In the last three years, poppy growing has become concentrated in the Afghan provinces of Helmand and Kandahar. In the last two years, the crop has shrunk. From poppies, you get opium (as sap from the seed pods), which is an addictive drug. But via a chemical process, opium can be refined into even more addictive heroin and morphine. Some 90 percent of the world's heroin comes from Afghanistan, and the Afghan Taliban sustain themselves by helping protect the poppy crops and heroin production.
The poppy crop has been declining for a number of reasons. First, there is economics. Government efforts to destroy poppy crops, crop diseases and the rising price of wheat, has convinced many farmers to switch from poppy to wheat. NATO troops in south Afghanistan have been going after the drug gangs in the last year, and that has made it more difficult for the drug gangs to coerce farmers to grow poppies. The military pressure has also disrupted the movement of opium and the operation of labs that turn the opium into the more compact, and powerful, heroin.
But another problem for the drug gangs has been the growing addict population in Afghanistan. Heroin and opium addiction is becoming a major, and growing, problem in Afghanistan and surrounding countries. This has been an issue for over twenty years, ever since heroin production got started in Pakistan. In the 1990s, the Pakistanis drove most of the drug lords out, and the heroin trade just moved across the border into Afghanistan. By the late 1990s, there were five million heroin addicts in Pakistan, three million in Iran, and one million in the Xinjiang province of western China. Opium and other drugs were also popular, and Pakistan estimated that five percent of adult Pakistanis were addicted. But the Taliban punished drug users in Afghanistan, and kept the number of addicts down. The Taliban tolerated opium and heroin production, and heavily taxed it, as long as it was all exported. When the Taliban were driven from power, the Pushtun drug lords began selling opium and heroin to fellow Afghans on a larger scale. There are now over a million addicts in Afghanistan, and the number in neighboring countries has increased as well.
Ten years ago, Taliban run Afghanistan was the world's largest producer of heroin, at least according to the UN. Back then, Afghanistan produced over 70 percent of the world's opium, with 96 percent of that coming from Taliban-controlled areas. Northern Afghanistan was never conquered by the Taliban, and the northerners managed to hinder heroin production from getting established up there.
The Taliban encouraged the heroin business, even setting up model farms in Herat. Farmers from throughout the south were brought in to show them the best way to cultivate the poppies. The Taliban collected a 20 percent tax on all opium and heroin sales. The same kind of tax was collected in the north, but the drug production was controlled, not encouraged, up there. Since the Taliban were driven out of power in 2001, the heroin trade was practically wiped out in the north.
During the 1990s, al Qaeda in Afghanistan also got a share of the heroin income, in return for their assistance in keeping the Taliban in power. Al Qaeda formed a brigade of gunmen who were used as enforcers. This was done because the Taliban had a hard time getting tribesmen to fight other tribesmen. The Taliban were mainly from some of the Pushtun tribes around Kandahar, and most of the territory they controlled in Afghanistan was controlled by other Pushtun tribes (who account for 40 percent of Afghanistan's population.) Letting the largely foreign al Qaeda gunmen discipline troublesome Pushtun tribes, the Taliban avoided starting long lasting blood feuds. Al Qaeda used their cut of the heroin taxes to finance terrorism outside the country. One could say that the September 11, 2001 attacks were paid for with drug money. The al Qaeda drug money also financed Islamic terrorism in Central Asia, western China (where most of the population is Moslem), India (Kashmir) and Pakistan.
In Afghanistan, and surrounding countries, opium and heroin addiction is seen as a curse and a growing problem. The addicts become economically useless, and turn to crime to feed their habit. These nations cannot afford to jail or treat all these addicts, but do know that if they can eliminate the source of the drugs in Afghanistan, the number of addicts will decline. It's a simple matter of economics. Coming from nearby Afghanistan, the drugs are much cheaper, costing less than a tenth what addicts in Western nations pay. If the source of most of the world's heroin were farther away, the cost to local addicts would increase to the point where most could not afford it. That was the situation before the 1980s, and such addiction was restricted to a small proportion of the wealthier families. It's got nothing to do with religion, except in the sense that the Moslem clergy condemns the addiction. Many clergy who back Islamic radicalism are increasingly hostile to the Taliban and al Qaeda, because those two groups encourage the drug production and profit from it. The Pushtun tribes in southern Afghanistan now produce 90 percent of the worlds heroin, and most of it is produced in the Taliban heartland, particularly Helmand and Kandahar provinces. While there is a terrorism problem in Afghanistan, it's become mostly a drug problem. Thus the NATO shift towards attacking the drug business.