Trump’s opium war: US begins bombing Taliban drug labs as new Afghanistan strategy takes hold

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 10:21am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 November, 2017, 10:48pm

The US and Afghan air forces launched a series of strikes on narcotics laboratories in southern Afghanistan on Sunday, marking the beginning of what could be a long, expanded air war there under US President Donald Trump.

The strikes marked the “first significant use” of legal authorities granted August 21 by the Trump administration that will allow the Pentagon to target Taliban revenue streams, said Army General John Nicholson Jnr, the top US commander in Afghanistan. Previously, the US military carried out strikes only when facing imminent threat or working directly with Afghan forces.

Nicholson, speaking Monday from Kabul to reporters at the Pentagon, said that the strikes – carried out by B-52 bombers, highly advanced F-22 Raptor fighters, unmanned aircraft and Marine Corps rocket fire – were still ongoing. The Afghan air force began the strikes by dropping bombs from A-29 aircraft, and the United States continued the bombing campaign afterward.

“There are many, many targets that have been identified,” Nicholson said. “We are striking some, and we will continue to strike these targets as we further refine them.”

Nicholson said that the strikes were not carried out until now, nearly three months after Trump approved his new strategy, because it took extensive preparation and observation by surveillance aircraft to assess the targeted sites. The Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that there are 400 to 500 opium laboratories across Afghanistan, and about 10 of them have been bombed so far, the general said.

“These strikes required the mapping of their revenue streams, and mapping of their infrastructure in areas where we had not done this before,” Nicholson said.

Hundreds of intelligence analysts have been involved, along with hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance, he added. He indicated that the tempo of air strikes in coming days will be roughly the same.

The strikes have been concentrated in northern Helmand province, an area where the Taliban have long held sway. More than 20,000 Marines were based there during the Obama administration, rooting out the Taliban while training Afghan forces to fight the militants. The Taliban swiftly reclaimed large swathes of territory after the Marines withdrew in 2014.

The strikes Sunday hit seven Taliban drug laboratories and a headquarters in three districts across northern Helmand that have long been volatile. Three strikes occurred in Kajaki district, four in Musa Qala and one in Sangin – all areas controlled by the US military at the height of the Obama administration’s troop surge.

Nicholson highlighted several of the strikes as the Pentagon played video of them Monday. In the largest one, a B-52 struck a opium-processing facility where 50 barrels of drugs were cooking at the time, he said.

The general said that the new strategy does not focus on regular Afghans who farm poppy, which is ubiquitous across Afghanistan and Helmand in particular. Rather, it will target Taliban drug processing hubs, with the hope that if the Afghan government can expand the area it controls, it can encourage the growth of other legal crops.

The United States has sought ways to encourage the growth of pomegranates, wheat and other crops in the past, but those efforts rarely took hold. Nicholson said that one difference now is that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has sought ways to open trade with India, and send legal Afghan crops there.

Ghani expressed support for the new bombing campaign Monday. The US and Afghan governments, are determined to tackle his country’s “criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force,” he said on Twitter, adding that it is the main economic source for terrorism.

The strikes are not expected to have a significant effect on the supply of US heroin or other illegal opium-based products. Nicholson said that about 4 per cent of heroin in the United States comes from Afghanistan. The majority of it comes from Mexico.

The aircraft used in the strikes came from US bases both in and outside Afghanistan – a reflection, in part, of how much the air campaign against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has slowed down.

The F-22 – which cost about US$340 million each to make – was used for the first time ever in Afghanistan on Sunday. Nicholson said it was deployed because of its ability to carry precise, 110kg small-diameter bombs, but other US aircraft also carry those. The jet also has advanced sensors, and is sometimes used at the top of a “stack” of strike aircraft to oversee the airspace.

Even prior to the new strikes, US air strikes in Afghanistan were up significantly since Trump announced his new strategy in August. The Air Force alone dropped 503 weapons in August and 414 in September, up from 108 and 162 in those same months in 2016, according to statistics released by the service. The Air Force had dropped 2,901 weapons in Afghanistan in 2017 through the end of September, up from 1,337 in all of 2017 and 947 in all of 2015.