Strikes on Taliban opium facilities first major use of new bombing authorities in Afghanistan
WASHINGTON — U.S. and Afghan warplanes bombed 10 Taliban-controlled opium production facilities in Helmand province Sunday in the first major use of new White House-approved authorities to target the insurgents’ revenue stream, the top U.S. general in Afghanistan said Monday.
American B-52 bombers and stealth F-22 Raptor fighter jets struck eight drug labs where the Taliban was producing narcotics, including heroin, from the vast poppy fields that it controls in the region, said Army Gen. John Nicholson. The Afghan air force struck two other facilities with their American-provided A-29 Super Tucano attack planes and Afghan commandos conducted a raid on a prison in a mission tied to the operation dubbed Jagged Knife.
Nicholson said the operation would continue to target much of the Taliban’s 400 to 500 other heroin-producing facilities throughout the coming weeks.
“This is going to be steady pressure that is going to stay up,” he told reporters at the Pentagon from his headquarters in Kabul. “We’re not going to let up.”
The strikes were conducted under new rules granted in August as part of President Donald Trump’s reworked strategy for south Asia including Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. The strategy includes boosting American forces in Afghanistan by some 3,000 troops to the roughly 14,000 there now.
The new authorities also allow the United States to target the Taliban directly with airstrikes. In recent years, American warplanes could only strike the Taliban if it was in support of an Afghan security forces operation or to protect U.S. or NATO troops. Among the tools that Trump provided Nicholson was the ability to launch strikes such as those attacks Sunday designed to cripple the Taliban’s narcotics network, which accounts for the bulk of its funds, the general said.
The Taliban is believed to take in about $200 million yearly from poppy cultivation and opium production, Nicholson said.
The insurgents have used the funding to achieve battlefield gains. They are now said to control more territory than at any other time since a U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban from power in 2001.
Washington has provided $8.6 billion for counternarcotic efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR. Still, the area used for poppy cultivation in the country has continued to grow.
This year, opium production in Afghanistan reached a record high, a report released last week by the Afghan government and the U.N. said.
The report said production jumped from about 5,300 tons last year to 9,900 tons so far in 2017.
“It is high time for the international community and Afghanistan to reprioritize drug control,” said Yury Fedotov, executive director of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime.
Nicholson said the counternarcotics operations were part of the U.S.-backed Afghanistan security forces’ plans to continue offensive operations against the Taliban throughout the winter, a time of year when fighting has traditionally lulled in the country.
The strategy seeks to push the Taliban toward reconciliation talks within two years. Nicholson said the Afghans aim to control about 80 percent of Afghanistan’s nearly 36 million people by 2019.
As of August, the government controlled or influenced only 56.8 percent of the country’s 407 districts, a 1 percent decline during the past six months and a more than 6 percent decline from the same period last year, according to the most recent SIGAR report. The Taliban controlled or influenced 13 percent of the population, a 2 percent increase in its territory from the previous six months, the same report found. The rest of the nation is contested.
Nicholson pushed back Monday on concerns about the Taliban’s gaining influence. The areas where the insurgents gained control were in rural regions, he said, adding the advances occurred before Trump granted the new war authorities in August.
“We didn’t see the enemy attempt to take cities like they did,” Nicholson said. “They did go after some district centers, but when they did they undertook heavy casualties. … These new authorities give me the ability to go after the enemy in ways that I really couldn’t before, and it’s freed us up now to use airpower the most effective way going forward.”
The attacks Sunday included the first use of the advanced F-22 fighters for strikes in Afghanistan.
While the B-52s dropped 500 and 2,000 pound bombs to obliterate opium facilities, the F-22s were used to fire smaller, more precise munitions.
“We used an F-22 Raptor aircraft that can carry 250-pound bombs and hit direct targets,” Nicholson said.
The twin-engine, stealth aircraft had been engaged in anti-Islamic State missions in the Middle East. But the plane had not been used operationally in Afghanistan until now.
With the United States dropping fewer munitions on ISIS in Iraq and Syria last month than it had since November 2014 and operations against the terrorist group in those countries winding down, Nicholson said he has more resources available to fight in Afghanistan.
“We’re beginning to see the effects of a shift of resources, which will increase over the course of the winter going into the spring,” he said, adding the United States expected to continue to expand its bombing campaign in Afghanistan next year.
“We’ve dropped more munitions this year [in Afghanistan] than in any year since 2012,” Nicholson said. “These new authorities give me the ability to go after the enemy in ways that I couldn’t before.”