Gone are the days when the Taliban, citing religious objections to opiates, banned the growing of poppies. Now up to 85 percent of the world’s opium production occurs in areas under Taliban influence, leading to the Taliban and other non-State armed groups annually lining their pockets and financing nefarious activities with hundreds of millions of dollars from the illegal drug trade.
But the United States and its Afghan partners have the Taliban’s narcotics networks squarely in their sights. In November, the allies began targeted strikes on Taliban drug labs, including airstrikes by U.S. forces that are part of the expanded legal authorities given to the U.S. military under President Donald Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan, announced in August.
At a recent press briefing, General John Nicholson, Commander of Resolute Support and U.S. forces Afghanistan, said the new authorities are a demonstration of the will of the United States to take the fight to the enemy in all its dimensions:
“Specifically, in striking northern Helmand and the drug enterprises there, we’re hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances.”
General Nicholson said the strikes occur only after numerous hours of surveillance, not only to pinpoint the specific objective, but to minimize collateral damage. He also made clear that the U.S. and Afghan forces are not targeting the farmers who grow the poppies. The farmers are often compelled to do so by the Taliban as a payment of debt or form of coerced servitude. Instead, the targets are the labs where poppies are processed – into opium, morphine and eventually into heroin.
General Nicholson said the level of trust between the United States and Afghanistan has never been higher:
“And it’s because of this that we’re able to conduct these kinds of joint operations, and we’re able to do these operations with the full support, and indeed, leadership of the Afghan government.”
General Nicholson said the U.S. and Afghanistan will continue to apply military pressure on the enemy, and that the international community’s increased diplomatic and economic pressure is having an effect on the external enablers of the insurgency. Credible elections in Afghanistan will add crucial social pressure. “These…are the things that will mean that the Taliban cannot win,” said General Nicholson. “Our message to [them] is…it’s time to lay down your arms and enter into a reconciliation process.”