KABUL: US Forces have launched airstrikes on drug-making laboratories in Afghanistan as part a new joint strategy with the Afghan military to cut off funding for the Taliban, authorities said Monday.
Numerous drug labs were decimated in a series of aerial bombardments in the poppy-rich southern province of Helmand – a Taliban stronghold – on Sunday night, US and Afghan officials said.
The joint operation came days after a UN report showed opium production in Afghanistan – a key source of funding for the Taliban’s 16-year insurgency – soared 87 percent this year as the area under poppy cultivation hit a record high.
General John Nicholson, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said targeting the drug labs would “hit the Taliban where it hurts” and warned more airstrikes would follow.
“The strikes that were prosecuted last night will continue,” Nicholson told a news conference in Kabul, stressing that poppy farmers would not be targeted.
“We hit the labs where they turned poppy into heroin. We hit their storage facilities where they kept their final products, where they stockpiled their money and their command and control.”
The Taliban profits from the illegal drug trade by taxing poppy farmers and traffickers across the war-torn country, pocketing an estimated $200 million a year, official data shows.
Several videos showing the airstrikes involving B-52 bombers and an F-22 fighter jet were played for reporters.
Nicholson said US Forces began identifying drug labs to hit after President Donald Trump’s strategy announcement in August made it easier for American air power to proactively target the Taliban and its sources of revenue and infrastructure.
The Taliban issued a statement denying the existence of the drug-making facilities.
The US-Afghan operation comes as around 3,000 additional American troops promised by Trump are deployed to help train and assist beleaguered Afghan security forces who have been struggling to beat back Taliban and Daesh insurgents.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime warned last week that the “significant levels” of opium cultivation and trafficking in Afghanistan would fuel the insurgency and boost funding for militants.
The area under poppy cultivation has expanded by 63 percent to a record 328,000 hectares this year – topping the previous record of 224,000 hectares in 2014 – with the number of poppy-growing provinces jumping to 24.
Only 10 Afghan provinces are now considered poppy-free.
Nicholson said the Taliban had evolved into a “narco-insurgency” fighting to protect earnings from drug trafficking, illegal mining, kidnapping and murder for hire.
“The fighting that they´re doing is to control the means of production, to control the poppy fields, to force farmers into growing poppy and then be able to process this opium into heroin in the relative safety of these areas,” he said.