Afghan farmers harvest opium sap from a poppy field at Gereshk in Helmand Province. Photo: Noor Mohammad / AFP / Getty Images.

Opium poppy production is at an all-time high in Afghanistan, increasing 87% — from 4,800 to 9,000 tons — over the past year, according to a U.S. government report. This is providing a crucial revenue stream for the Taliban, which has been gaining territory in the 16th year since the U.S. invasion.

Why it matters: Seth Jones, the director of the Transnational Threats Project at CSIS, tells Axios that opium is "the single most important revenue for the Taliban." According to a new BBC report, the Taliban is now operating in 70% of Afghanistan — in full control of 14 districts and maintaining "an active and openly physical presence" in 66% of the country.

  • The 2017 Afghanistan Opium Survey from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime states that poppy cultivation now covers 320,000 hectares, an area about the size of Rhode Island.

Michael Kugelman, the Asia Program deputy director at the Wilson Center, tells Axios another factor in increased poppy production is its profitability for farmers:

"U.S.-led efforts to design alternative livelihood programs for Afghan farmers have failed because they haven't been able to come up with anything more profitable."

The spike in production has led to an increase in labs being built around the country, Jones says. The drug is more frequently being processed in Afghanistan, and while it's being sold to neighboring countries, it has also left the country with a growing drug addiction problem.

  • The U.S. has been targeting drug labs in Afghanistan, the SIGAR report reveals, destroying 25 labs in November and December.
  • But, but, but: The labs are easy to replace, the report states, typically taking around three or four days to re-build.

Jones tells Axios: "The Taliban is...an insurgent group, but it's also a drug cartel. Drug revenue accounts for about half of the Taliban's total financing."

Go deeper

Updated 8 mins ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 12,573,041 — Total deaths: 561,865 — Total recoveries — 6,915,740Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 2 p.m. ET: 3,213,902 — Total deaths: 134,420 — Total recoveries: 983,185 — Total tested: 38,919,421Map.
  3. Public health: Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter: "Please wear a mask to save lives" Fauci hasn't briefed Trump on the coronavirus pandemic in at least two months — We're losing the war on the coronavirus.
  4. Food: How the coronavirus pandemic boosted alternative meat.
  5. Sports: Charge of "money grab" by college football.
  6. World: India reimposes lockdowns as coronavirus cases soar.
  7. 🎧 Podcast: Rural America has its own coronavirus problem.

Scoop: Don Jr. plans convention-week Biden book

Cover via Don Jr.

Donald Trump Jr., in quarantine since girlfriend Kimberly Guilfoyle tested positive for the coronavirus, says he's used the time to finish a book that he'll self-publish the week of the Republican convention, at the end of August.

What he's saying: Don Jr., whose controversial blasts connect with President Trump's base, told me in a phone interview that "Liberal Privilege" will be his effort to paint a picture of Joe Biden and his record that the press ignores.

Romney calls Stone commutation "historic corruption"

Sen. Mitt Romney. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) on Saturday tweeted a scathing response to President Trump's Friday night commutation of former associate Roger Stone's prison sentence, calling the move "[u]nprecedented, historic corruption."

Why it matters: Romney has emerged as the party's most prominent Trump critic. He sent shockwaves through Washington after announcing he would vote to convict Trump in the impeachment trial — becoming the only Senate Republican to break ranks and vote for the president's removal from office. Now he is the first major GOP lawmaker to condemn Trump's Friday night call regarding Stone.