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The FATA: Drug Trade, Terrorism, and Regional Politics

The Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which is geographically adjacent to Pakistan and Afghanistan, has consistently been a source of insecurity and instability. Due to its autonomy from both Afghani and Pakistani governments, the region has especially been a hotbed for terrorist and militant cells for many years, inarguably producing repercussions at both local and regional levels. An inability to entirely control militant groups has substantially exacerbated the consequences of illicit activity within the local communities that form the FATA. Most notably, opium production continues to be a prevalent means of subsistence for local farmers. While detrimental to the moral fabric of the communities, the practice persists. Why this is the case can be understood by analyzing the underlying economic situation of the average farmer in the FATA.

The Diplomat highlights that the average monthly salary of “the average Afghan worker” in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, is approximately $200. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC), the average price of dry opium in Eastern Afghanistan (the geographical region in which Kabul lies) was $239. Moreover, anecdotal evidence suggests that individual farmers have been able to sell dry opium for “about $240 to $335.” Thus, many of the farmers that produce poppy lack a significant incentive to stop doing so, thereby worsening a broader cycle of crimes. Namely, the aforementioned terrorist and militant groups (e.g. the Taliban) often benefit from this illicit drug activity by either ensuring the safety of the poppy crops used to create opium, or through trafficking the drugs post-production.  According to Business Insider, the Taliban obtains at least 60% of its revenue from the local drug trade in the FATA, further highlighting that such revenue is only a fraction of the “billions of dollars” in circulation due to drug trafficking, which allow such groups to perpetrate terrorism, as “drugs and insurgency are caused by, and affect, each other.” Thus, the revenue produced by local drug production, supports, to some extent, militant activities. Additionally, these localized issues have far-reaching regional effects. Importantly, the lack of governance in the FATA allows members of groups such as the Taliban to move between Pakistan and Afghanistan without significant obstacles, thus making the issue of drug trade a multi-national problem.

Though the drug trade is but one of the many problems tied to the militants, its support of terrorist activity is substantial. The variety of illicit activities that terror groups participate in, including drug trafficking, has ultimately led both the Afghani and Pakistani governments to identify ways to better control the FATA. One proposal requires the construction of a fence along the “2,500 kilometer frontier,” which would tangibly separate Eastern Afghanistan from Northwestern Pakistan – something that has been extensively debated. While several Pakistani officials have gone on the record attesting to the importance of the wall in deterring militant activity, one Afghan official, among others, has countered this position by noting that a wall would “create ‘more hatred and resentment’ between two neighbors and will do neither country any good.”  By contrast, another proposal that has garnered broader support calls for a merger between the FATA and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP), the latter being located in the northwestern region of Pakistan. Points of contestation arise about whether the FATA should be a separate province, rather than merging with the KP, which would subject it to external authority. Given the broader support for this unification proposal, it is worth noting that achieving regional integration and establishing a sovereign authority might truly produce the best outcome for the regional populace.