If efforts to counter insurgency in Afghanistan remain unsuccessful, the proposed drawdown of U.S. troops by next July could lead to parts of the country falling to the Taliban, violent conflict erupting in other parts, and the emboldening of militants in neighboring Pakistan adding to instability. The Taliban draw financial strength from several sources, including poppy cultivation for the illicit heroin trade. But large-scale eradication of the crop will not defeat them. In fact, it would undermine the security interests of the U.S., Pakistan, and the region.
Wiping out illicit crops won’t stop insurgents because growers can adapt their cultivation practices and insurgents have access to other funding means. Eradication in the absence of firm government intervention, like alternative livelihood programs, is unsustainable and self-defeating, especially since insurgencies draw strength from mass alienation. In Afghanistan, the world’s leading heroin supplier, eradication risks estranging ordinary poppy farmers—who have little direct involvement with the insurgency—and hampering intelligence gathering. The U.S. counternarcotics policy, unveiled last year, recognizes this reality by deemphasizing eradication and focusing instead on interdiction and rural development.
Interdiction—arresting traffickers and targeting processing labs—can change the drug economy’s dangerous vertically integrated structure to a mom-and-pop one where traffickers have less coercive and corrupting powers. Targeting government-linked traffickers would also be important to signal that Kabul’s resolve to tackle corruption exists beyond President Hamid Karzai’s international speeches.
Rural development must emphasize improvements in human capital and address the reasons that people are driven toward the opium economy. Poppy cultivation, unlike its replacement crop, wheat, creates more jobs over less acreage. But farmers will often sacrifice some profit and forgo illicit crop cultivation—which attracts insecurity, insurgents, and law enforcement—as long as the alternatives bring them sufficient income. If efforts to that end succeed in Afghanistan—and as long as there is global demand for opiates—cultivation and heroin production could very likely move back to Pakistan. Such relocation would critically undermine the Pakistani state by empowering jihadists with profit and political capital.
During the 1980s, Pakistan’s Gen. Zia-ul-Haq enforced the U.S.-sponsored eradication of poppy growth in the tribal belt and the then North-West Frontier Province. But those efforts proved unsustainable and sparked violent protests from tribal growers. Funded by the U.S. and consisting mainly of small rural infrastructure projects and economic opportunity zones, alternative-livelihood efforts in the 1990s proved beneficial: the local economy picked up, previously isolated areas became better linked to the rest of Pakistan, the legitimacy of the political elites increased, and the tribes’ sense of identification with Pakistan improved.
Although the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime declared Pakistan “poppy cultivation- free” in 2000, the country has remained a major heroin refining, smuggling, and money-laundering hub. The devastation of agriculture in Pakistan by the floods makes much of the country susceptible to poppy cultivation: the crop is resilient and requires fewer agricultural inputs. Even before the floods, cultivation was already slightly resurgent in the tribal belt and the now Khyber- Pakhtunkhwa province, but the opiates market was saturated by Afghanistan.
Criminal or insurgent groups who sponsor job creation through an illicit labor-intensive economy, such as poppy cultivation, stand to gain politically. The Pakistani Taliban may have already penetrated drug trafficking in their country, but if they also gain the ability to sponsor poppy cultivation (which they will have easily learned from their Afghan counterparts), the military’s achievements in these restive areas will be jeopardized. The displacement of the opium economy into Pakistan would not be limited to the northwest. It will spill over into Balochistan, where it would strengthen secessionists. And it can also reemerge in the Punjab.
To prepare for having to mitigate the risks from the relocation of poppy cultivation to Pakistan, effective local civilian structures and sustainable employment measures need to be put in place—as hard as it may be—and as envisioned in the U.S. Enhanced Partnership with Pakistan Act of 2009. If poppy cultivation returns to Pakistan, it will have dire consequences for the security of the country— and the region.