Agriculture has traditionally driven the Afghan economy, accounting for approximately 50 percent of GDP before the Soviet invasion in 1979. Nevertheless, the agricultural sector has never produced at full capacity. Before the invasion, only 30 percent of the total arable land of 15 million hectares was cultivated. At that time the main exports were sugarcane, sugar beets, fruit, nuts, vegetables, and wool. However, the continuing war reduced production significantly. Soviet troops planted land mines all over the country, rendering large areas of land useless and forcing large sections of the population to become refugees. The resulting cut in production caused massive food shortages. Kabul University produced a report in 1988 which found that agricultural output was 45 percent less than the 1978 level. The UNDP estimated that in 1992 only 3.2 million hectares of land were cultivated of which only 1.5 million hectares were irrigated. In 2001, the principal food crops were corn, rice, barley, wheat, vegetables, fruits, and nuts. In Afghanistan, industry is also based on agriculture, along with raw materials. The major industrial crops are cotton, tobacco, castor beans, and sugar beets. Sheep farming is also extremely valuable. The major sheep product exports are wool and sheep skins.
In 2000, Afghanistan experienced its worst food crisis ever recorded because of a very severe drought. Such low levels of recorded rainfall had not been seen in the country since the 1950s. The water used to irrigate the lands comes from melting snow, and in 2000 the country experienced very little snowfall. The southern parts of the country were badly affected, and farmlands produced 40 percent of their expected yields. Half of the wells in the country dried up during the drought, and the lake feeding the Arghandab dam dried up for the first time since 1952. The barley crops were destroyed and the wheat crops were almost wiped out. In the middle of 2000, the drought’s consequences were felt in Kabul, when more and more displaced people were migrating to the capital.
The prices of staple foods have also increased in different parts of the country because demand is much higher than supply. For instance, in Kabul, a family of 7 can earn US$1.14 a day if the head of the family is lucky enough to find employment, whereas a loaf of bread costs US$0.63, roughly half an individual’s income per day. A large segment of the Afghan population depends on food imported from abroad or distributed by aid organizations. The civil strife and drought increased the country’s food import requirements to a record 2.3 million metric tons in 2000/2001, according to the UN World Food Programme. Much of the needed imports come from the international community and the rest from Pakistan. The disruption to the flow of this international aid caused by the 2001 war between U.S.-led forces on the Taliban has threatened widespread famine and starvation to much of the Afghan population.
The number of livestock was greatly reduced during the years of war. In 1970, the total livestock population was estimated at 22 million sheep, 3.7 million cattle, 3.2 million goats, and 500,000 horses. According to a survey carried out in 1988, the number of cattle had declined by 55 percent, sheep and goats by 65 percent, and the number of oxen used to plow the fields was down by 30 percent. Much of the livestock is malnourished and diseased.
Afghanistan in 2000 was the world’s largest producer of opium, used to produce the drug heroin. The total opium production for 1998 was estimated at 2,102 metric tons against a total of 2,804 metric tons in 1997. This reduction in the level of poppy production was due to heavy and continuous rains and hailstorms in some of the major poppy producing provinces. However, in 1999, the country produced a staggering 4,600 metric tons. The rotting economy forced farmers to grow the opium poppies as a cash crop , and this practice was supported by the Taliban until 2001, because it provided farmers with money that they would otherwise not be able to earn. However, in 2001, the Taliban ordered the country’s farmers to stop growing poppies following an edict by Mullah Omar, the supreme religious leader, that opium cultivation is not permitted under Islam. While analysts contend that the reason had more to do with convincing the United Nations and the international community to lift sanctions, officials from various countries argued that this was done in order to boost the market price for heroin. Heroin still flowed from Afghanistan, only at a much higher price—after the Taliban’s ban on opium growing, the price shot from $44 to $700 per kilo. This caused speculation that the Taliban had stockpiled a large supply of the drug, and the higher proceeds allowed them further funding for military and government operations. With the September 2001 attacks on the United States, opium production was believed to be resumed.