Afghanistan is the world's opium king. Can the Taliban afford to kill off their 'un-Islamic' cash cow?

A farmer harvests opium sap from a poppy field in Afghanistan's Nangarhar province in May 2020.

(CNN)When the khaki-colored landscapes of Afghanistan are transformed by a patchwork of pink, white and purple each spring, farmers rejoice. Their cash crop of poppies is ready for harvesting.

Opium cultivation has long been a source of income for rural communities across the country, a land besieged by decades of war. But for the United States, those same colorful scenes symbolized the enemy.
"When I see a poppy field, I see it turning into money and then into IEDs [improvised explosive devices], AKs [assault rifles], and RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades]," said Gen. Dan McNeill, commander of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
    This narrative contributed to how the United States' war on drugs was fought -- and lost. Over 20 years, the US squandered nearly $9 billion on a counternarcotics policy that -- perversely -- helped to fill the Taliban's pockets and, in some regions, fueled support for the insurgents.
      Now in power, and with an interim government in place, the Taliban are navigating how to manage Afghanistan's entrenched drug economy -- the country's biggest cash crop -- as the whole nation teeters on economic collapse.
      A US Army convoy drives near Lashkar Gah in Afghanistan's southern Helmand province in April 2006. An explosives-packed car detonated near a US base there that month, injuring members of the US military and a team who were training leaders of the Afghan Eradication Force.
      Just two days after the fall of Kabul, Taliban spokesperson Zabiullah Mujahid pledged "full assurances to the world" that Afghanistan under Taliban rule would not be a narco-state.
      "Afghanistan will not be a place of cultivation of narcotics, so the international community should help us and we should have an alternative livelihood" for opium growers.
        But how the Taliban will do that remains uncertain.

        The opium economy

        Afghanistan produced an estimated 85% of the world's opium in 2020, according to the latest United Nations figures. In 2018, the UN estimated that opium economy accounts for up to 11% of Afghanistan's GDP.
        But it's unclear how much the Taliban have profited -- and will continue to do so -- from the opium economy, with estimates around these numbers varying widely.
        "Clearly drugs are a very important aspect of the Taliban's profits," Vanda Felbab-Brown, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told CNN.
        "But just like with many other insurgent groups, there is often way too much ... mystique afforded to the drug economies. What competent, even moderately competent insurgents and, frankly, criminal groups do, is to simply tax anything in the area, where they have enough influence to be able to enforce the collection of informal taxation," Felbab-Brown said, noting this can range from sheep stocks to meth production.
        While it's impossible to pinpoint just how profitable the opium economy is to the Taliban, over the last two decades, estimates have ranged from the tens of millions to low hundreds of millions. Beyond those figures it's really just "fantasy," she said.
        At the beginning of the US-led invasion in 2001, British coalition forces were tasked with developing a counternarcotics policy, but around 2004, the US muscled its way in, Felbab-Brown said, pushing for a more aggressive eradication effort. That included aerial crop spraying, a campaign from 2005 to 2008 that infuriated some Afghan communities and damaged relations between Kabul and Washington.
        The importance of the opium trade in financing the insurgency was "routinely cited as a primary reason" for the US' increased counternarcotics efforts, according to the US Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) 2018 report. But the data to support that claim was disputed, and American policy flip-flopped throughout administrations and departments during the 20-year war.
        Prior to 2004, the US strategy on drugs was viewed as an "uncoordinated effort [that was] ineffective and in need of significant changes," the SIGAR report said.
        "Everyone did their own thing, not thinking how it fit in with the larger effort. State was trying to eradicate, USAID was marginally trying to do livelihoods, and DEA was going after bad guys," one senior Department of Defense official was quoted as saying in the report.
        In 2004, however, poppy production spiked, leading to some officials calling for a stronger eradication campaign. Robert Charles, the then-assistant secretary of state for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, testified that spring t