This essay explores the interface of Islamic militancy with opium poppy cultivation and the drug trade in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region and draws implications for U.S. national security. It analyzes the evolution of the narcotics economy in the region since the late 1960s and the progressive involvement of various state and nonstate actors in the economy since then, with particular attention to current Islamist jihadi networks in the region. The essay also assesses the effectiveness of various counternarcotics policies, especially since 2001, and evaluates the effectiveness of these policies not only with respect to the narrow goal of narcotics suppression but also with respect to counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, state-building, and the stabilization of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Although counternarcotics suppression policies progressively intensified in Afghanistan from 2001-09, they have not resulted in a substantial and sustainable reduction in the cultivation of opium poppies nor have they succeeded in curtailing the Taliban’s drug income. Instead, these policies have strengthened the bond between poppy farmers and the Taliban by alienating farmers from both the Afghan national government and location representatives, with negative repercussions for counterinsurgency efforts, including the diminishment of human intelligence flows on the Taliban and other jihadists. At the same time, efforts to promote alternative livelihoods have been underresourced and cast too narrowly, focusing almost exclusively on relative price ratios of opium to legal crops while largely ignoring the complex and multifaceted drivers of opium poppy cultivation.
After decades of cultivation and the collapse of legal economic opportunities, opium is deeply entrenched in the socio-economic fabric of Afghan society and underlies much of the country’s economic and power relations. Many more actors than simply the Taliban participate in the opium economy, and these actors exist at all social levels.
The longer alternative livelihoods efforts fail to generate sufficient and sustainable income for poppy farmers, the more problematic and destabilizing it will be for location elites to agree to poppy bans and the greater the political capital that the Taliban will obtain from protecting the poppy fields. And intense eradication campaign under current circumstances will likely make it impossible for the counterinsurgency effort to prevail. Yet, as many other cases of the nexus between drugs and insurgency and terrorism show, through greater resources and improved strategy, counterinsurgent forces can defeat insurgent groups deriving substantial income from drugs. Although the new U.S. counternarcotics strategy appropriately deemphasizes eradication, instead focusing both on interdiction of Taliban-linked traffickers and on alternative livelihoods, this strategy is not free of pitfalls. Its effectiveness with respect to counternarcotics and stabilization will be determined by the actual operationalization of interdiction and alternative livelihood programs.
The objective of this kind of [safe zones] project may be described as fundamentally humanitarian, but the reality is that any number of parties, starting with the Assad regime and the Islamic State, are going to see it as a threat, and that’s going to make it a target instead of a safe place.