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These are among the reasons Afghanistan's share of worldwide opium production skyrocketed from 19 percent in 1986 to 90 percent two decades later. The greatest factor, however, was the Taliban. When it first came to power in 1996, the new Islamist government garnered support from tribal leaders by agreeing not to crack down on poppy cultivation. The supreme leader, Mullah Omar, received regular funding from trafficking groups, which he allowed to operate freely. At the same time, the new Afghan government levied a 10 percent tax on all agricultural profits. By 1999 Afghan opium production spiked to more than 5,000 tons, prompting pressure from the UNODC for a crackdown.

In July 2000 Mullah Omar issued a fatwa, or religious decree, declaring opium production a violation of Islam. The Taliban enforced the ban with brutal efficiency, as one former poppy farmer told me, "by threatening to set your house on fire." The result was a massive 91 percent reduction in poppy growing in one year.

After the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Taliban in 2001, regional warlords once again cranked up opium production. No longer in power, the Taliban now saw opium as a way to fund their insurgency. "They saw the opportunity to generate a tremendous amount of income without sacrificing the subsistence of the people," says Wes Harris of the United States Department of Agriculture. Poppy is a winter crop, so after the harvest in late spring, a farmer can plant corn, cotton, or beans in the same soil. During years when demand is high, a farmer might make as much as six times more from opium than he would from another crop. When the price of opium is low, the farmer can simply wrap his durable product in plastic and store it until the market is more lucrative. It is now believed that the Taliban had a large stockpile of opium when they enforced their ban in 2000 and were deliberately curtailing supply to drive up prices.

As the Taliban have gained control of southern Afghanistan over the past several years, growing poppies has only gotten easier. Drug traffickers advance farmers money for the harvest and later arrive to pick up the product. The drug mafia sees to it that the routes to heroin processing labs in the borderlands and then out of Afghanistan are well cleared and the appropriate individuals bought off—since, as one veteran Afghan law enforcement official puts it, "Afghanistan is controlled by the drug mafia. How else do you think those people in the government with their low-paying salaries bought their fancy houses in Dubai and the U.S. in the past few years?"

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