In an important shift in American policy, US military sources have reported the beginning of bombing campaigns targeting Taliban run opium production facilities.
According to reports, the bombings are essentially a series of attacks on narcotics laboratories in southern Afghanistan, marking the start of what could become a long, expanded air war on Taliban drug infrastructure.
U.S. Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told media sources the bombings are the implementation of new powers granted to the president which allow him to target Taliban revenue streams, in addition to actual fighter and military assets.
Nicholson concluded his statement with “there are many, many targets that have been identified,” saying that US armed forces will “continue to strike these targets as we further refine them.”
Any observer should talk to heart the importance of this development. It signals how the administration has ramped up its efforts by focusing on the long-term in Afghanistan.
Destroying Afghanistan’s opium infrastructure will impact the state of the country in two important ways.
First, in the Taliban’s ability to sustain their conflict against the US and coalition partners. The American Drug Enforcement Administration estimates that there are 400 to 500 opium facilities across Afghanistan (only 10 of which have been bombed so far) and constitute a major source of cash for the militant group. According to estimates, the Taliban pulls in around $400 million in profit from opium sales per year. However, the bombing of Taliban opium assets means more than just cutting off the funding for militants.
Afghanistan is the opium capital of the world, producing 70 percent of the global yield according to UN sources. This accounts for some 3,300 tons of the drug every year. This production finds itself sold in markets across Central and Western Europe. Although this is still in the area of speculation, historical increases in the production of opium in Afghanistan can be linked to increases of heroin use in several European countries, as indicated by the aforementioned report.
Additionally, the new US strategy has the ability to shift Afghanistan’s economy to more legitimate areas, making it feasible for the country to integrate into the global market. These efforts are not new. The United States has sought ways to encourage other areas of commerce for Afghans. The growth of pomegranates, wheat, and other crops is a real possibility, and a potentially profitable one at that.
While in the past these efforts have not taken hold, recently Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has sought ways to open trade with neighboring countries, specifically Pakistan and India. If these negotiations are successful, it could open up new opportunities to replace the opium trade that is now being systematically destroyed.
With all the benefits of the recently commenced bombing campaign, the new strategy still has a long way to go. The bombings, for instance, have not yet begun to target opium fields, only laboratories where drugs are synthesized. As mentioned, only a fraction of facilities have been hit. However, there is no doubt that this news a positive development for Afghanistan, both on the military, and on the socio-economic front.