Pakistan’s Baluchistan province is facing a new crisis. Plagued for years with a separatist insurgency, and a brutal counter-insurgency, rampant kidnappings and home to the Taliban’s Quetta Shura the region is now emerging as a new center for poppy cultivation. Farmers have turned large areas of the remote province over to opium production and in the process are earning ten times what they did from traditional crops like wheat, barley and vegetables that have been grown in the area for centuries.
Growing lawlessness in areas that border the Afghan provinces of Kandahar, Helmand and Zabul has resulted in drug lords and their affiliated smuggling networks moving their operations across the Afghan border into Baluchistan say experts. Farmers interviewed recently by VOA in the Loralai district, east of the provincial capital of Quetta reported receiving cash advances and technical help on poppy production from people who had crossed the porous border – an area where there are few checks on the movement of people and goods.
Lisa Curtis a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington says any increase in poppy cultivation in Baluchistan will be a major setback for Pakistan, which she says has up until now largely been able to control poppy cultivation in the region.
“Now this could signal it’s going back up. This is going to be extremely problematic for Pakistan and for the U.S. because the U.S. has spent around six billion dollars in combatting drug production in Afghanistan and the problem is expanding into Pakistan,” she said.
The U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs have invested heavily in crop substation efforts in traditional poppy growing areas of Pakistan. But those are largely in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, known as FATA and not in Baluchistan. Recently efforts were stepped up to help Pakistan’s Frontier Corps build more than fifty outposts in Baluchistan to combat the problem.
Curtis says the effort is welcome but the U.S. is likely to have a limited impact in the region. “There has been a history of cooperation between the two countries in combatting drugs, but relations between the two countries have become very tense during the last two years, and particularly Pakistan is sensitive about Baluchistan because of the insurgency in the province,” said Curtis.
Pakistan’s main priority in the area is fighting a decades-long insurgency by Baluch separatists and while Pakistan’s anti-narcotics force claims to have recently destroyed 139 hectares of poppy crops in the region that is only a small fraction of what is likely under cultivation.
As poppy production grows in Baluchistan so do fears of growing instability. Poppy production in Afghanistan has fueled the Taliban insurgency and there are fears that as the U.S. and its allies end their combat operations in Afghanistan, poppy-fueled instability in Baluchistan could result in the area becoming the new epicenter of extremism, criminality and violence in the region.