The U.S. military has conducted more than 100 air strikes on opium-production facilities in Afghanistan since a major shift in counter-narcotics efforts launched in November with bombardments of 10 locations believed to be drug labs in Helmand province. Since then, the U.S. has extended its air campaign to neighboring Nimruz and Farah provinces. The goal, U.S. commander Army General John Nicholson said at the time, is to hit the Taliban “where it hurts, which is their finances.”

The bombing campaign, however, is an ineffective counter-narcotics approach and won’t advance a counterterrorism strategy. Not only is it based on misguided notions of how much the Taliban benefits from or depends on poppy cultivation to fund its insurgency, the operations also do not address the underlying problems that fuel the opium trade. Instead, the U.S. is likely to undermine the fight against the Taliban. The strikes against drug labs eliminate the only source of income for many local residents without providing a replacement, and they foster even greater resentment of the foreign military presence and the already unpopular central government.

These considerations are particularly crucial as the State Department seeks to complete a revised counter-narcotics strategy for Afghanistan that has been underway since 2014.

In outlining the start of the campaign, Nicholson, who commands U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said the targeting of drug labs is based on additional authorities granted to the military by President Donald Trump in a new strategy for South Asia that he outlined in August 2017. Speaking in a press briefing, Nicholson said the new authorities allow U.S. forces in Afghanistan to “take the fight to the enemy in all of its dimensions,” specifically to “strike revenue streams and support infrastructure.” The general said it was “the first significant use of the new authorities.”

Despite spending $8.62 billion on counter-narcotics programs, the U.S. has failed repeatedly to permanently reduce poppy cultivation and opium production since both began to increase during the war that followed the fall of the Taliban in 2002. Afghanistan remains the world’s largest opium producer. Just days before the November air strikes, the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported that the area of poppy cultivation in Afghanistan increased to a record 328,000 hectares in 2017, up 63 percent compared with a year earlier. Opium production skyrocketed 87 percent to a record 9,000 metric tons. In his briefing, Nicholson told reporters the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency estimates 400 to 500 drug labs operate “at any given time” in Afghanistan.

Nicholson also claimed that the drug labs and associated criminals are closely linked with the Taliban. “At least $200 million of this opium industry goes into the Taliban’s bank accounts, and this … really pays for the insurgency,” he said.

Such claims are part of a long and problematic narrative that the Taliban are dependent on the opium economy. The evidence is far from clear. The UNODC, in a follow-up to its November report looking at the effects on the conflict and development, estimated that insurgent groups including the Taliban accrued a minimum of $76 million to $121 million in revenue from taxing opiate cultivation and production in Afghanistan. The UNODC acknowledged that opium is not the only source of funding for insurgent groups.

The Taliban enjoys a variety of sources of income, including cash from Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), donations from Persian Gulf countries, kidnapping, taxes on telecommunication companies, illegal mining, etc. Destroying labs, therefore, will not bankrupt the Taliban, as they will still have enough money to run their operations.

“While there is general consensus that the Taliban derives significant funding from the drug trade, there has been a wide range of estimates as to how much,” according a comprehensive report in June by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) examining lessons from 16 years of U.S. counter-narcotics efforts in the country.

The report noted an Afghan government estimate that the Taliban earned approximately $100 million from the illicit narcotics trade in 2011-2012, accounting for about 25 percent of total income that year. The UN report that cited the figure stated, “The general notion that the poppy economy in Afghanistan is the main pillar of Taliban funding merits examination.”

In 2009, in fact, the U.S. moved away from a previous program of poppy eradication after “a CIA study reportedly said the Taliban got most of its money from illegal taxation and contributions from Pakistan and Persian Gulf nations, rather than drugs,” SIGAR noted. SIGAR even found that “poor-quality estimates of poppy cultivation levels, eradication numbers, and drug money going to the insurgency made it more difficult for policymakers to accurately assess the problem and determine effective policy responses.”

Neglecting Underlying Factors

One of the results of misguided assumptions about the role of drug proceeds in financing the insurgency is that underlying factors fueling the opium trade are not addressed.

A main reason for the rise of poppy cultivation, particularly in Helmand province, is the lack of central government control in the province. Out of 14 Helmand districts that produce 44 percent of the country’s poppy, only two are under full control of the central government, 10 are under control of the Taliban, and the other two are highly contested, as I outlined in a policy brief earlier this year. Despite Taliban control over these 10 districts, I noted, it is local communities that are dependent on the opium economy, not the Taliban. In fact, Taliban-controlled areas prefer to be governed by the insurgents, in part because the group at least allows locals to cultivate poppy, in contrast to the central government’s desire to eradicate the practice.

A UNODC survey in 2017 also found that poppy cultivation mainly took place “in areas with less governmental presence and with less security.” In the last 15 years, a considerable number of local residents have fled government-held areas to places controlled by the Taliban to maintain their livelihoods with poppy cultivation.

A recent study by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) shows that, for millions of Afghans, the drug economy is the only source of income for many communities, not only farmers or drug traders. Even Nicholson acknowledge, “We are not going after the farmers who are growing the poppy.  They are largely compelled to grow the poppy.”

In some cases when drug labs were destroyed in the past or poppy production was otherwise suppressed, farmers who were left with no viable alternatives moved to formerly unsettled and desert areas of Helmand, where there was no central government control. More than 2.2 million people have settled in desert areas and invested in new technologies that have made opium production a profitable and sustainable form of income, according to AREU. In a little over a decade, this trend resulted in more than 300,000 hectares of previously uncultivated land being turned to poppy cultivation.

In such circumstances, air strikes might “disrupt” lab production, but it will not dampen the local community’s reliance on poppy cultivation. Without any strategy to support the local population after the drug labs are destroyed, it is likely that U.S. bombings will lead to a similar result as with other approaches — local communities fleeing to unsettled areas and most likely generating another boom in poppy cultivations.

The rise and continued dependency on poppy cultivation is rooted in persistent challenges in Afghanistan – namely a lack of security, counter-productive government control, and a poor economy. UNODC’s 2017 village surveys showed that “opium poppy cultivation is closely related to poor governance, lack of security, and lack of basic infrastructure and services that are essential for the well-functioning of a society. Moreover, socio-economic factors, for example scarce employment opportunities, lack of quality education and limited access to markets and financial services contribute as well … The ongoing instability has made sustaining livelihoods by licit means more difficult and has amplified the vulnerability of the population to economic and environmental shocks.”

Without addressing these challenges, any counter-narcotics campaign, be it through raids or air strikes, will be ineffective.

SIGAR concluded in its lessons learned report that, however short-lived, “In limited areas with improved security and greater economic opportunities, some Afghans were able to diversify their livelihoods away from opium poppy.” It is conceivable then, that more widespread security gains could suppress cultivation overall as the Afghan economy gains breathing room for normal economic activity.

Have civilians been harmed?

General Nicholson, in his November press briefing, said the U.S. military was being very deliberate in its strikes to ensure that there were not civilian casualties or other collateral damage.  While there have been no reports of civilian casualties from recent strikes on drug labs, Helmand leaders have spoken out against U.S. efforts in recent months, saying the attacks are ‘misplaced’ and damage the sole financial resources of the local residents without providing any alternative. The result will only anger local residents and prompt them to favor the insurgents, eroding support for the government.

SIGAR suggested the same in its lessons learned report: “As the campaign continues, it risks fomenting discontent towards the Afghan government if strikes are perceived as targeting civilians or ineffective at disrupting the insurgents’ source of revenue.”

Using military force to target poor farmers and low-level criminals is especially problematic and raises questions about who the U.S. government is targeting in its campaign. According to field research conducted after the series of November strikes in Musa Qala, Helmand, the U.S. government did not only target drug labs, but hit the home of an opium trader, killing him, his wife, his children aged between three and eight, and his eldest daughter and her one-year-old son.

Recommendations for U.S. policy

The current bombing campaign, like many other U.S. counter-narcotics activities in Afghanistan, will fail as it suffers from many of the same faulty assumptions. As SIGAR concluded in June, drug-control efforts in Afghanistan will continue to have a limited effect on poppy cultivation and opium production without a stable security environment.

There is no quick fix solution to poppy cultivation and drug production in Afghanistan, and it seems that the U.S. sees the bombings as being among the few options remaining. However, for a more effective counter-narcotics strategy, the U.S. should:

  • Support the central government to recapture territorial control in Helmand province.
  • Help the Afghan government establish a functioning and effective local government.
  • Assist local authorities in delivering required public services for their residents.
  • Back local efforts to establish alternative livelihoods for farmers (including sustainable, diverse, and viable sources of income) to sideline the illicit drug economy.


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