U.S. and Afghan aircraft on Monday began destroying poppy processing facilities in southern Afghanistan — under direction from the Trump administration to disrupt sources of Taliban revenue, military officials of both governments said.
B-52 bombers, F-22 Raptor fighters, unmanned aircraft, Marine Corps rocket fire and Afghan A-29 aircraft struck eight narcotics processing sites in Helmand province, the U.S. military and Afghanistan government announced in Kabul.
“Our combined operations over the last 24 hours are demonstration of our will to defeat terrorists and those who support them especially in the narcotics networks,” said Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan and the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission, told reporters on Monday.
“We hit the labs where they turn poppy into heroin. We hit their storage facilities where they keep their final product, where they stockpile their money and their command and control,” Nicholson said.
The combined airstrike operations were on seven Taliban drug labs and one command-and-control node in northern Helmand province, NATO officials said. Three of those strikes were in the Kajaki district, four in Musa Qalah and one in Sangin, key terrain the Taliban has historically used to grow massive poppy fields and produce large quantities of heroin.
The strikes were the first major use of authority granted Aug. 21 by President Donald Trump to target the Taliban’s revenue stream, officials said, adding that insurgents generate an estimated $200 million a year from poppy cultivation and opium production, which is 60 percent of the militants’ income.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced the operation via Twitter on Monday, saying, “We’re determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force. [The drugs] are the main source of financing [for] violence and terror.”
Nicholson said the strikes were ongoing Monday.
Opium and heroin are produced from poppies and Afghanistan is the world’s top cultivator, with Helmand the top province followed by Kandahar, Badghis and Faryab.
“The Taliban failed to meet their military objectives in 2017. They suffered a significant amount of casualties from Afghan-led offensive operations,” Gen. Nicholson said. “This reveals their evolution into a narco-insurgency.”
Opium production in Afghanistan has reached a record high of 810,000 acres this year — up 87 percent from last year, the Afghan Ministry of Counter-Narcotics and the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime reported last week.
The production, worth $1.39 billion, is roughly 7 percent of Afghanistan’s estimated gross domestic product, according to the report.
The growth in poppy production is not new. The special inspector general for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, said in a 2014 report that poppy cultivation was at an all-time high, even with $7.8 billion dollars having been spent on counter narcotic operations during the previous decade.
Afghan farmers grew an unprecedented 209,000 hectares of opium poppy in 2013, surpassing the previous record of 193,000 hectares in 2007, and predictions that further increases in cultivation were likely in the following years — despite the fact that Afghanistan was already producing 80 percent of the world’s opium.
“The Afghan government, considering the fact that it would be difficult to ensure peace and stability without fighting the criminal economy, has taken serious decisions and measures to target the sources of narcotics processing and trade,” Ghani said.
Poppy cultivation was banned by the Taliban in the late 1990s when it governed the country.
By Allen Cone and James LaPorta