With the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan, a question one might ask is how is Taliban still in power, in fact gaining more control? It is known that the majority of the Taliban's income comes from opium, but if we formulate them as a network, why is it difficult to disrupt the opium distribution?

Surely, the US has mitigated the drugs network by capturing El Chapo in Mexico (with much less jurisdiction). Why couldn't it do the same in the territory that is 652,860 km2 vs Mexico which is 1,964,375 km2 ? ref

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    What does the US have to do with the arrest of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán?
    – gerrit
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 15:30
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    @gerrit US provided intel based on his network, that led to capture and subsequent re-capture of Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán.
    – user0193
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 18:25
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    The US has not stopped the drug trade in Mexico (or elsewhere) at all. They just helped capture the kingpin of one of the biggest cartels. Now there is a new kingpin of that cartel out there somewhere.
    – TylerH
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:40
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    Perhaps it's worth mentioning that the world "Taliban" is the plural of the Arabic "talib", meaning "student" (in a religious sense, of the Koran). If we said: oh, look, how come the students (involved in things like Extinction Rebellion) are still around, decades after Kent State, we might seem a bit foolish. The may be an imperfect analogy, but some politico-sociologico understanding of who these "students" really are is probably called for. This is probably a case of "successful branding" for the people involved. Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:56
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    "Surely, the US has mitigated the drugs network by capturing El Chapo in Mexico" - Citation needed. Also the comparisons to the Taliban and the Sinaloa Cartel pretty much end with drugs, afaik Sinaloa Cartel never wanted to directly run a government and doesn't receive aid from foreign countries. The Taliban is much more than a simple drugs running organization.
    – BruceWayne
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 15:01

4 Answers 4


TL;DR: The Taliban has lasted for so long because it has a durable organizational structure and safe haven in Pakistan. Undercutting the Taliban is more complicated than rooting out its network of poppy cultivation. Yes, the sudden removal of its drug funds would likely hurt the group, but the organizational structures, recruitment networks, and other streams of revenue will endure. The Taliban will continue to hide out in ungoverned spaces (made worse by the withdrawal of U.S. troops) or civilian populations to evade counterinsurgency efforts.

Longer answer:

To answer this question, it is important to understand why the Taliban was formed and how it has developed over time. The group has used revenue from opium to fund its activities, but its operations and goals have never been solely about drug cultivation and production.

The Taliban was not created as an organization to make money. It was formed in 1994 by a cadre of religious scholars that sought to establish an Islamic government in Afghanistan. At that time, Afghanistan was engulfed in a power struggle between competing warlords. The Soviet Union had withdrawn from Afghanistan in 1989, leaving a puppet government behind to manage the country. In 1992, the USSR-imposed leader resigned, and several mujahideen factions attempted to build a coalition interim government. However, this cooperation soon stalled, and the factions began to fight for control of the country rather than share it. This violence began the Afghan civil war.

The Taliban emerged during this conflict. Composed of religious scholars and students dedicated to a strict interpretation of Islam, the Taliban sought to take over the country and impose an Islamic system of governance. The group's original motives were not driven by the desire to make money, as might be expected in a drug trafficking or criminal organization. Rather, the Taliban is better classified as a center-seeking militant group (i.e., an organization that uses violence to to overthrow and replace the government).

This difference in goals between the Taliban and more traditional criminal organizations is important to note. Given that Taliban militants are fighting for more than just money, undermining the drug trade in Afghanistan is not enough to stop the Taliban from engaging in violence. It may impede the group's ability to pay for operations, but it will not address the underlying motives that drive Taliban militants to carry out attacks in the first place.

The Taliban quickly routed other armed factions fighting in the civil war and took control of Kabul in 1996. (For a great explanation of how the Taliban did this, see Organizations at War in Afghanistan and Beyond by Abdulkader Sinno). The group then transitioned to become the government of Afghanistan, known as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Though it was only recognized by a handful of countries, the Taliban government effectively controlled more than 90% of the country (see Sinno 2008, 222 for more info). Also see here for more on the Taliban's goals and organizational development.

During this time, the Taliban was not dedicated to drug cultivation. Rather, Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar actually took several measures to cease the production of opium in Afghanistan. Between 1997 and 2001, the Taliban issued multiple bans on poppy cultivation. The group claimed to have implemented the bans for religious reasons and lost money from the policy because it could no longer collect taxes on opium production.

The Taliban ruled Afghanistan until the United States and its allies invaded in 2001. The Taliban government in Kabul quickly fell, and most of the Taliban leadership fled to Pakistan. Now much weaker, the Taliban turned to insurgency tactics to fight for control of Afghanistan. The group cultivated local ties and blended in to the civilian population so that its militants were difficult for U.S. forces to identify. Over the last two decades, the group has slowly regained control of territory in Afghanistan, benefitting from the weak Afghan security forces and the U.S.'s under-developed plan to establish a new government in Afghanistan.

Yes, the Taliban has relied heavily on drug cultivation to fund its activities during this insurgency. However, its organizational network has become so well developed and protected in Pakistan that it has been difficult for U.S. or other forces to 'disrupt' it, as you put it in your question. Pakistan has effectively protected the Taliban from counterinsurgency operations in its territory, providing the group with a valuable safe haven. (For Pakistan's motivations, see this article.)

Moreover, the idea of neutralizing the Taliban by killing or capturing its leader (as in the El Chapo case) is not guaranteed to be successful. There is a large literature in political science on the effectiveness of 'leadership decapitation' in armed groups. Since leadership decapitation is not randomly assigned among groups, it is incredibly difficult to estimate its causal effect. Some studies have found that decapitation is associated with group decline (e.g., Price 2012), while others find no effect (e.g., Jordan 2009). It is clear, however, that for groups with safe havens or a long history of successful operation, it is very difficult to dismantle the entrenched organizational structures, finance streams, and recruitment networks that keep militant groups going.

In sum, the Taliban is a highly developed, flexible, and durable organization. It has gone from fledgling armed group to government of Afghanistan to highly effective insurgency over the past 30 years. Since 2001, the Taliban has benefited from a safe haven in Pakistan, which protects it from U.S. and Afghan counterinsurgency efforts that seek to dismantle the group. The current withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan is creating a power vacuum in which the group can regain control over large swaths of Afghan territory.

Undercutting the Taliban is more complicated than rooting out its network of drug cultivation. Yes, the sudden removal of its drug funds would likely hurt the group, but its decades-old organizational structures, recruitment practices, and alternative streams of revenue will endure. The group will continue to hide out in ungoverned spaces or civilian populations to evade counterinsurgency efforts.

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    This is a good answer, but could you add a bit on what you mean by describing the Taliban as "center-seeking" here?
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 18:53
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    @reirab The term "center-seeking" is often used in political science to describe armed groups target the "center" of the country (i.e., the sitting government). These groups have some sort of disagreement with the current leader or regime, and they have decided to use violence to either reform the state or overthrow it. Criminal organizations, like the Mexican cartels, often lack these overt political goals. Instead, their actions are mostly driven by a desire to make money and not to reform the state. In this way, the Taliban is very different from a traditional criminal organization.
    – rabbit1234
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 19:36
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    Gotcha, thanks! I was thinking more along the lines of "centrist" in the political spectrum sense, which didn't make a lot of sense in the context of the Taliban, so I figured I was probably misunderstanding your meaning. Thanks for explaining.
    – reirab
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 19:40
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    TL;DR: the Taliban is not a drug gang, it is a de facto a government.
    – Mark
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 19:53
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    I usually dislike the "this should be the accepted answer!" comments. In this case however, it applies because it answers what made the Taliban resilient rather than, justifiably or not, blaming the US for something or another. Counter Insurgency wars are hard to win and this is what is being addressed here, not general geopolitics. Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 19:09

The Taliban are not just a drug-running organization, not even predominantly a drug-running organization.

  • The US-led coalition invaded Afghanistan because the Afghan government at the time sheltered terrorists. For all the cost of the longest war, it never did spend enough effort to really reconstruct Afghanistan. Instead it went to Iraq, and elsewhere.
  • The West has repeatedly installed inefficient and corrupt governments because they are not Taliban. Many people in Afganistan find corruption and inefficiency objectionable, possibly more objectionable than religious extremism.
  • 40 years ago, the West sponsored religious extremists to fight the Soviets. The Soviets are long gone, some extremists remain extremist and not willing to accept a secular government.
  • Pakistan finds it a geopolitical necessity to prevent Indian influence in Afghanistan. The Pakistani central government is also not in control of their own tribal areas, which have ethnic and political ties to Afghanistan.
  • A number of conservative Gulf states are sponsoring some conservative Taliban and the US supports these states for geopolitical reasons.

You might have noticed that none of these bullet points mentioned drugs.

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    This answer would be improved with sources and specific examples.
    – qwr
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 9:09
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    Might be worth being explicit that the religious extremists that the US installed are the Taliban
    – gntskn
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 11:16
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    @gntskn, the Taliban are not a monolithic bloc. Some people who were later Taliban had been trained or supported by the US.
    – o.m.
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 14:49
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    "40 years ago, the West sponsored religious extremists to fight the Soviets. The Soviets are long gone, extremists remain." -- This is a bit of an oversimplification. You're right that the West (particularly the United States) sponsored the mujahideen to fight the USSR during the Soviet-Afghan War. But not all mujahideen went on to join the Taliban. Rather, many of mujahideen factions fought against the Taliban and even joined with the United States as part of the Northern Alliance. Why did the Taliban persist while other mujahideen factions didn't, given that they share a common background?
    – rabbit1234
    Commented Jul 7, 2021 at 16:12
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    Also worth noting that the Taliban, more than just a gang of drug runners, were the actual government of Afghanistan for the five years from 1996 to the events of 2001.
    – J...
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 12:12

TL;DR: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Afghanistan Every few decades since 1500 B.C. some great military nation tries to take over Afghanistan and loses. India, Mongolia, China, Middle East, Britain (3 times), Russia and now the US. The trick for when the aliens invade is get them to start with Afghanistan. This might be a flippant answer but they have experience and culture of repelling invaders.

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    Someone said that Afghanistan is where empires go to die.
    – Kjetil S.
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 14:28
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    "Never get involved in a land war in [Afghanistan]"
    – Tony Ennis
    Commented Jul 8, 2021 at 17:08
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    Best illustrated in the historically accurate documentary, "Carry On Up the Khyber". Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 19:31
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    This post does not make any sense. The Taliban is a foreign organisation, the leaders are from Pakistan and the fighters come from all over the Muslim world as it also happened at the time of the mujahedeen. They are invaders as well.
    – FluidCode
    Commented Jul 9, 2021 at 22:28

They are not the same Taliban. In all these years many of the attacks against NATO troops that were attributed to the Taliban by the media were actually carried out by local rebel groups. Different insurgencies different militia groups some funded by Pakistan some seeking shelter from the Pakistani army, criminal organisations funded by the opium trade, they all were reported under few labels that hid the complexity of the situation on the ground.

You say

It is known that the majority of the Taliban's income comes from opium

what Taliban are you talking about? The Taliban who took control of Afghanistan in the early 2000s eradicated all poppies crops because they were against the Islamic law. Some of the groups connected to the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan mignt be less fanatic and ready to compromise, but did they have enough control over the territory to get the raw material from the local farmers? This seems more something that the local warlords might be able to do, but the media is not always keen to talk about them because they are considered friends or enemies of the US depending on the period in a context of continuosly shifting alliances. Just see the story of the general Dostum, one of the few warlords that managed to survive the many changes that happened in the past decades.

a question one might ask is how is Taliban still in power,

They are not in power, they are fighting now to retake power. Since the US invasion the leaders and many of the member of that group that the American authorities recognise as representatives of the Taliban and with whom they had official talks have changed considerably, their first leader the Mullah Omar died a long time ago, other leaders died fighting against local warlords or have been killed by US Drones. The support they have from the local population is patchy because many see them as invaders as much as the Americans. So, a better question might be: how come they have still the resources to fight? How did they manage to get new recruits and replace all the losses they had? But this is something related to the present, in the past they were supported by Pakistan, is Pakistan still supporting them?

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