Agriculture in Afghanistan is mostly at the subsistence level. Only a very small share of Afghanistan’s land, mostly in scattered valleys, is suitable for farming, and a majority of this farmland requires irrigation. Water is drawn from springs and rivers and is distributed through surface ditches and through underground channels, or tunnels, which are excavated and maintained by a series of vertical shafts. Such a tunnel is known as a karez or qanat.
Wheat is the most important crop, followed by barley, corn, and rice. Cotton is another important and widely cultivated crop. Fruit and nuts are among Afghanistan’s most important exports. Afghanistan is noted for its unusually sweet grapes and melons, grown mostly in the southwest, north of the Hindu Kush, and in the fertile regions around Herāt. Raisins are also an important export. Other important fruits are apricots, cherries, figs, mulberries, and pomegranates.
Livestock is nearly as important as crops to Afghanistan’s economy. Karakul sheep are raised in large numbers in the north. The tight curly fleece of Karakul lambs is used to make Persian lamb coats. Other breeds of sheep, such as the fat-tailed sheep, and goats are also raised.
Afghanistan has long been a major supplier in the international drug trade. In the late 1990s Afghanistan replaced Myanmar (Burma) as the world’s biggest producer of opium, producing about 4,600 metric tons in 1999. Significant quantities of hashish were also produced in Afghanistan. In July 2000 the Taliban regime banned the cultivation of opium poppies, declaring that drug use was contrary to Islam. However, the ban ultimately raised opium prices on the international drug market, and the Taliban were widely suspected of profiting from the drug trade. With the collapse of law and order in 2001, many fields were sown with opium poppies, and Afghanistan again became the world’s largest supplier. Although the interim government of Afghanistan decreed the cultivation and processing of opium poppies illegal in early 2002, many impoverished local farmers remained financially dependent on the crop. Although agriculture in Afghanistan is a net income earner for the nation, there is a growing concern that the opium trade is fueling the insurgency by the Taliban.