WASHINGTON — A new coalition air campaign aimed at crippling Taliban funding has destroyed 73 drug labs and cost the organization $42 million in lost revenue during the first six months of the operation, according to coalition statistics.
The air campaign was launched in November after President Trump expanded the U.S. military’s authority to target insurgents in Afghanistan and represents the most robust effort yet to strike at the country’s $1.6 billion drug trade.
“It’s the first time we’ve used air power to … strike and put pressure on Taliban revenue in the 17 years of the war,” said Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, who heads the air operation targeting insurgent revenues.
Officials say it is still too early to measure the impact of the strikes on the Taliban’s operations. The Taliban generally reduces its combat operations during the winter months when many areas remain impassable. A new fighting season is just getting underway.
The air campaign won’t eliminate the massive drug trade in Afghanistan but is designed to have an impact on Taliban operations as they gear up for another fighting season, said David Sedney, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and former top Pentagon official.
“You can have an immediate tactical impact,” Sedney said.
More than half the Taliban’s annual budget of an estimated $300 million to $500 million comes from drug sales, according to coalition statistics. Afghanistan accounts for two thirds of the global poppy crop, according to the United Nations.
The air campaign is not the first time the coalition and Afghanistan’s government have targeted the drug trade. Afghanistan’s government has launched eradication programs and the U.S. military has supported efforts to try and convince poppy farmers to switch to legal crops.
Those efforts weren't always sustained, Sedney said.
But the air campaign allows the U.S.-led coalition to act quickly on intelligence, striking labs in remote reaches of the country. Most of the labs, which process heroin or morphine, are in areas controlled or influenced by the Taliban and where government troops have troubling reaching.
Some of the labs are mobile facilities that are only in use for days.
Prior to the new authorities granted by the Trump administration, U.S. air power was limited largely to coming to the rescue of Afghan forces if they were in a firefight with militants. Airstrikes were also used to protect American forces as needed.
Last year, Trump authorized an expansion of U.S. military advisers to Afghanistan, bringing the number to about 14,000. He also granted the U.S. military authority to conduct offensive airstrikes against the Taliban.
The number of bombs and other weapons dropped by U.S. aircraft in Afghanistan went to 847 in the first two months of this year, up from 254 during the same period in 2017.
The changes were an effort to turn around a war that had been faltering since the drawdown of American forces in 2014, when Afghanistan’s military took the lead role in combatting the Taliban.
The Taliban, which ruled Afghanistan for four years until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled them, has been pushed out of most major towns and cities, but still controls some remote regions of the country.
“The new authority allowed us to strike in areas where previously the Taliban felt like they were completely safe,” Bunch said in a telephone interview from Kabul.
It also minimizes the impact that corruption had on previous efforts to target drug operations. For example, police or Afghan army officials could be bribed to delay or abort a drug raid. Airstrikes are centrally controlled and decisions are largely independent of local officials.
The operation reflects a growing role for airpower as the U.S. has reduced the number of ground troops it has deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Advocates of military airpower have argued practically since its inception that bombing campaigns should not be limited to supporting ground troops, but can have a broader effect on the enemy by targeting finances and other strategic targets.
The operation in Afghanistan was partly inspired by a similar effort against the Islamic State that targeted militant cash stockpiles and oil facilities in Iraq and Syria. Those airstrikes helped lead to the collapse of the Islamic State.
“We could clearly see the effect that was having in Iraq and Syria,” Bunch said.