US, Afghan forces step up attack on Taliban drug labs

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KABUL — American and Afghan forces have expanded their air strikes against drug labs into western Afghanistan, aiming to choke Taliban revenue.

Air strikes in Afghanistan, the world’s main heroin source, also threaten civilians, however, and may not be an effective blow to Taliban militants, an expert on the country’s drug industry said.

The campaign targeting Afghan drug labs began as opium production jumped 87% last year to a record high in Afghanistan.

The Taliban, which US officials say controls the drug trade, has made large territorial gains since a US troop cut of recent years.

American and Afghan forces responded with a dramatic increase in air power since early 2017, with the number of weapons released tripling in the first two months of 2018 compared with a year earlier. US Forces-Afghanistan and Afghan forces conducted strikes on 11 Taliban drug production facilities in the western provinces of Farah and Nimroz this week, US Forces said on Saturday. The strikes are the first in western Afghanistan and aim to reduce the Taliban’s main revenue flow, the US statement said.

“By cutting off the Taliban’s economic lifelines, we also reduce their ability to continue these terrorist activities,” said Major-General James Hecker.

Drug processing and taxation generate $200 million annually for the Taliban, according to US Forces-Afghanistan estimates.

The drug lab campaign began in November, and has now included 75 strikes, especially in Helmand, the main poppy-growing province. The poppy’s fluid, opium, is processed into heroin.

David Mansfield, an authority on Afghanistan’s opium industry, says bombing labs has little effect on Taliban revenues because heroin profits and taxes are not as large as US Forces estimate and the simple labs can be quickly rebuilt. — Reuters