Opium protests catalyze anti-Taliban sentiments

Amidst a tumultuous landscape marked by escalating terrorism, deepening ethnic divisions, widespread protests, and the ravages of natural disasters, Afghanistan finds itself at a critical juncture two plus years into Taliban rule. The recent surge in anti-Taliban sentiments, particularly ignited by the public unrest in Badakhshan Province, underscores the multifaceted challenges facing the Taliban’s governance as a state-actor.

Badakhshan protest wave and ethno-economic grievances

On April 22 the Taliban banned all cultivation of opium poppies under strict new laws, significantly reducing the country’s poppy supply and implicating many farmers who rely on poppy farming for their livelihood.

In early May, the Taliban started to reenforce this policy in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan Province, home to some of the country’s largest poppy farms. Badakhshan locals claim that a group of Taliban members raided a Badakhshan poppy farm on May 3,  killing two ethnic Tajik locals and reportedly assaulting one woman.

This sparked an ongoing protest wave across the province, with farmers and residents expressing their dissent against the Taliban’s administration for a consecutive week. In addition to concerns over losing their poppy farms, locals argue that the Taliban’s Pashtun-centric practices enable the persecution of Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other non-Pashtun ethnic groups. The protests escalated on May 13, when the Taliban’s Badakhshan Omar Sales 219 Military Unit opened fire on protesters, killing at least two locals.

Widening Ethnic Divisions and Internal Rifts

The momentum generated from the Badakhshan protests has caused internal rifts within Taliban’s leadership. On May 11, non-Pashtun members of the Taliban recently threatened to declare a rebellion over discriminatory practices within the group. Commanders and lower-ranking non-Pashtun Taliban members from Balkh, Panjshir, Kapisa, and Parwan Provinces have reportedly sent videos to the Amaj News local Afghan media outlet, threatening to escalate should the Taliban’s discretionary policies persist.

This rift was instigated by the ethnic Tajik Taliban commander Abdul Hamid Khorasani, who on May 11 claimed to have resigned in support of the Badakhshan protests and the Taliban’s policies. Khorasani is a high-ranking member who has repeatedly voiced his criticism against the Taliban and accused the group of bigotry and ethnocentrism in a series of video clips he posted on his social media.

Terrorism surge and ideological challenges

The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), which is an enemy of the Taliban, capitalized on the unrest to advance its agenda by targeting Taliban fighters in Badakhshan. The group claimed responsibility for the May 8 bombing that struck a Taliban patrol in Faizabad that killed three and wounded five Taliban fighters. ISKP acts of terror have surged in recent months across Afghanistan. A week prior, ISKP claimed responsibility for the April 29 Shia mosque shooting in Herat Province that killed six ethnic Hazaras, a minority group in Afghanistan that follows Shia Islam.

This surge not only undermines the Taliban’s authority over the country, but also taints their relations with Pakistan. The Taliban administration claimed that ISKP has entered Afghanistan from Pakistan to orchestrate terrorist attacks. The Afghan Taliban later published a video alleging that the ISKP members arrested for the May 8 attack were Pakistani nationals.

Natural disasters and absence of emergency response infrastructure

The absence of proper infrastructure to effectively address the challenges stemming from natural disasters are likely to further fuel the ongoing anti-Taliban sentiments. Flash floods from heavy seasonal rains in Afghanistan on May 10 have tragically killed more than 300 people and destroyed over 1,000 houses. Taliban chief spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid stated that “the extensive devastation” has resulted in “significant financial losses.”

Afghanistan is heavily reliant on foreign aid from various international NGOs, namely the United Nations World Food Program (UNWFP). From January to March this year, the UNWFP provided emergency food aid to 7.1 million Afghans out of a population of 43 million. By May, UNWFP can assist only an estimated 3.3 million due to funding constraints. Between June and September, the number is expected to plummet to about 400,000, leaving thousands of families without food or cash support.

Flood victims have expressed their resentment against the ruling Taliban administration, as they do not possess logistical capability to effectively evacuate people, nor can they afford to offer financial assistance to the Afghan people. “All fields of wheat, potatoes and beans were ready for harvest. The Taliban will not offer any economic help, its officials looked at us from a helicopter. This is going to make us bleed economically in the coming months,” said a flood victim. This heavy reliance on external assistance during times of crisis underscores the Taliban’s deficiency in developing the country’s critical infrastructure, and the growing resentment from flood victims will inevitably further fuel the widespread anti-Taliban sentiment across Afghanistan.

Janatan Sayeh is a research analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies focused on Iranian domestic affairs and the Islamic Republic’s regional malign influence.

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