The US military and Afghan Air Force hit a Taliban command and control center and seven “drug labs” in what the Coalition described as “previously untargeted safe havens in south and southwest” Afghanistan. With a shift in strategy, strikes such as these will become the new normal, the top US commander in Afghanistan said.
The coordinated airstrikes took place over the last day in three Taliban controlled or contested districts in northern Helmand province: Musa Qala (four strikes), Kajaki (three), and Sangin (one). Musa Qala and Sangin are controlled by the Taliban, while Kajaki is hotly contested, according to ongoing analysis by FDD’s Long War Journal of Afghanistan’s districts. At least 45 districts of Afghanistan’s 407 districts are Taliban controlled and another 115 are contested. The Taliban claims to contest another 24 districts but their claims cannot be independently verified.
US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) sortied F-22A Raptors, B-52 strategic bombers, unmanned aerial vehicles and US Marine High-Mobility Rocket Systems to launch the strikes agains the Taliban targets.
Resolute Support, NATO’s command in Afghanistan, claimed the airstrikes “hit the Taliban where they are most vulnerable: their revenue streams,” and said that more than $200 million of narcotics revenue flows into Taliban-controlled bank accounts. “[T]he Taliban are responsible for up to 85 percent of the world’s opium production,” Resolute Support claimed.
The Taliban’s link to the narcotics underworld has long been known. Previous efforts to end the production and distribution of illegal narcotics such as opium and heroin have failed.
In 2012, the US government issued a series of narcotics kingpin designations for Taliban commanders and even an Iranian Qods Force general for their involvement in Afghanistan’s drug trade. The Taliban vehemently deny any links to Afghanistan’s illegal narcotics market. Additionally, the US government has identified and designated Pakistani hawalas and individuals who are involved in laundering drug money from Mullah Naim Barich, who at the time was the Taliban’s shadow governor for Helmand province.
“Just the beginning”
General John Nicholoson, the commander of USFOR-A, indicated that the strikes, which are the result of the US government’s recalibration of its Afghanistan and South Asia policy, “are just the beginning.”
Resolute Support noted that there is “a shift in operations as USFOR-A attacks insurgent network economic lines in previously untargeted safe havens in the South and Southwest.”
Despite the fact that Resolute Support noted that there are safe havens in the south and southwest, the NATO commander claimed that Coalition and Afghan forces are “in an increasingly dominant position” in the area.
Nicholson claimed that “the Taliban failed to meet their military objectives in 2017” and they “suffered a significant amount of casualties,” which has forced the group to morph “into a narco-insurgency.”
However, the evidence is contrary to Nicholson’s statement. The Taliban controls and contests more territory this year than any year since the US invaded the country in late 2001. The Taliban has clearly weathered the US surge that began in 2009 and ended in 2012. Taliban units routinely overrun Afghan military bases and districts centers while conducting major terror attacks inside Afghanistan’s largest cities.
Resolute Support used the press release to yet again urge the Taliban to negotiate a settlement with the Afghanistan government.
“It is time for the Taliban to lay down their arms and reconcile,” Afghan Lieutenant General Yaftali said, according to Resolute Support. “If they do not come to the table seeking peace, the ANDSF [Afghan National Defense and Security Forces] will capture or kill them.”
The Taliban, which has been dealing blows to an overstretched Afghan security service, has categorically rejected Coalition and Afghan calls for peace or a refutation of al Qaeda, and has consistently stated it would only negotiate if foreign forces withdrew and Islamic law (a euphemism for the Taliban) is restored.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.