As Canadian troops combat the Taliban over rugged terrain in the isolated, rural communities of Afghanistan’s Kandahar Province, they are traversing geography from which 90% of the global opium and heroin supply originates, according to the United Nations.

NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is mandated with delivering security and stabilization in southern Afghanistan, but Canadian Forces face a situation where narco-trafficking plays a significant role, challenging the mission, ISAF and, ultimately, the government and people of Afghanistan.

The relationship between narco-traffickers and the Taliban is a symbiotic one – each relying on the other to achieve respective goals. As they fight Coalition and Afghan Forces, the Taliban seek the support of the rural population and fight among the villages and fields where opium poppy is grown and narcotics are manufactured. To deliver revenue and logistical support to the insurgency, they levy the crops and narcotics production. And drug dealers stand ready to supply money, weapons, ammunition, shelter, security, transport and intelligence to support Taliban operations.

In reciprocation, the Taliban provides drug traffickers and smugglers safe havens for harvest and production, secure transportation routes, security for drug storage/shipments and enhanced fighting capacity when counter-narcotics forces engage the dealers.

From a macro-strategic perspective, therefore, the symbiotic relationship centers on the joint objectives of maintaining continued instability in southern Afghanistan and denying control to Afghan and Coalition Forces of large areas of rural land in the south provinces.

The exploitation of illicit economies by insurgents or resistance groups is not a new phenomenon, nor is it limited to Afghanistan, and the link between the two has been well documented in a number of conflict areas across the globe. The point of contention for the international community, however, is how to deal with narcotics as a resource for insurgents, especially now that the Afghan opium poppy crop has burgeoned throughout 2006 to its highest recorded level.

To address this, it is vital to understand the more complex relationship between insurgents and narcotics in Afghanistan. To be sure, drug profits enable the Taliban to improve their capacity to wage campaigns and retain operational effectiveness against Afghan and Coalition Forces. Equally important, however, is the important strategic benefit of rural support.

In a rural, agrarian economy dominated by opium poppy, the Taliban are perceived to be protecting the sole, reliable source of livelihood for the rural populace. They openly pledge to protect crop harvesting by migrant farm labourers and the income derived from the production of opium. With convenient irony, they have established their own justice and administration system in areas they control, systems that do not interfere with the rural opium economy or narcotics production.

In areas where support for the Afghan government is weak, and where Afghan and Coalition Forces are seen as a threat to the only rural livelihood, communities cease to cooperate and will not provide intelligence on Taliban activities, particularly in southern Afghanistan.

Traditionally, however, the focus of counter-narcotics efforts has been to eradicate opium poppies in rural areas. This was certainly the case following the initial defeat of the Taliban in 2002, yet it yielded few tangible results and associated international and Afghan government presence in rural areas with destruction of the sole livelihood.

The strategic objective of eradication is to block revenues collected by insurgents by inhibiting the illicit economy and profits from high crop yields. Like all illegal economies, however, the flexibility and resilience of crops, as well as the continued demand, will ensure the problem simply shifts to other areas that border Afghanistan where interference from government or Coalition Forces is limited or nonexistent.

Rather than eradication, the counter-narcotics strategy must focus on the rural economy of Afghanistan – supplanting the drug economy and the support it provides the Taliban with a more stable, legitimate livelihood for Afghan communities.

Such a strategy would need to establish funding for micro-credit systems among Afghan farmers to support alternative crops, rebuild irrigation and transportation infrastructures, subsidize lost income and establish a verification scheme to ensure opium poppy crops are replaced. Additionally, implementation of an aggressive agrarian economy program would need regulation to prevent abuse and/or corruption. Such a program will not produce instantaneous results or figures of annual hectares destroyed, but farmers will supplant the opium poppy crop if it is more profitable and can feed rural communities.

A comprehensive plan for Afghanistan with international backing and donors would likely cost far less in the long run than continued unsuccessful attempts to eradicate the poppy crop. Worse still, with rising levels of poppy cultivation and little success, there will always be a temptation to turn to chemical ground or aerial spraying as a means to achieve successful interdiction of insurgency funding.

The cliché of ‘winning the hearts and minds’ tends to emerge quickly when dealing with an insurgency or resistance campaign – forces fighting an insurgency seek to deny such groups the support they gain in rural areas, and poppy eradication appears to work as a parallel strategy.

Beyond simple clichés, achieving a level of confidence among the rural population in both the Government of Afghanistan and Coalition Forces will require investment in their livelihoods. The recent pledge by the Canadian government to help rebuild rural irrigation systems destroyed during the Afghan-Soviet conflict is the type of measure that will provide tangible results to rural Afghans.

Thus far, the Taliban use the eradication approach as a means of gaining support among the rural population and achieving propaganda victories. But the relationship between the Taliban and narco-traffickers is at best a tenuous one, which could be easily exploited. Success, however, may depend, first and foremost, on establishing security and defeating the Taliban.

Eradication of crops will run the risk of alienating the rural population, whereas investment in developing alternative crops over time will serve as a bond between rural Afghans, their government, and the Canadian troops that have come to provide security and stability to their communities.

Inspector Paul Richards of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police served as an advisor, criminal intelligence, with Task Force Afghanistan in Kandahar.