By Dion Nissenbaum
Al UDEID AIR BASE, Qatar—American efforts to cripple the Taliban drug trade in Afghanistan have fallen short of expectations, U.S. officials say, creating new challenges for the Trump administration’s efforts to weaken the insurgency as the warring parties try to jump start peace talks.
Nine months of targeted airstrikes on opium production sites across Afghanistan have failed to put a significant dent in the illegal drug trade that provides the Taliban with hundreds of millions of dollars, according to figures provided by the U.S. military.
“We’re not where we want to be with that, but we’re generally moving in the right direction,” said Gen. Joseph Votel, the head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees the war strategy in Afghanistan.
The U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan launched the new campaign against the Taliban’s drug-running operations last November as part of President Trump’s strategy for ending the 17-year-old war.
But the initiative hasn’t had the impact military officials had hoped. So far, the air campaign has wiped out about $46 million in Taliban revenue, less than a quarter of the money the U.S. estimates the insurgents get from the illegal drug trade. U.S. military officials estimate the drug trade provides the Taliban with 60% of its revenue.
The U.S. airstrikes have hit about 200 drug-related targets, American officials said, with nearly half of them in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province, an epicenter of the Taliban insurgency and the heroin business. The strikes represent a small percentage of the targets hit in the intensified air campaign launched last year under Mr. Trump’s overall strategy.
Over the last 17 years, the U.S. has spent more than $8.6 billion dollars trying to combat the drug industry in Afghanistan. The U.S. has tried to coax opium farmers to plant legal crops such as wheat and pomegranate. It has tried to punish farmers by burning or spraying the crops with pesticides. None of the efforts has had a significant affect, according to a recent report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction.
Poppy production hit record highs in Afghanistan last year, where they are the country’s largest cash crop, valued at between $1.5 billion and $3 billion. Afghanistan produces more than 85% of the world’s illegal opium.
“U.S. counternarcotics activities have failed to produce lasting reductions in both cultivation and production,” the watchdog agency said in its June report.
U.S. military officials said their effort focuses only on the Taliban use of drugs to finance the insurgency, not on combating the broader, more complex heroin industry in the region.
Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, who oversees the air war in Afghanistan as head of U.S. Air Forces Central Command in Doha, hoped to replicate the success the military had in crippling Islamic State oil revenues in Iraq and Syria.
Over the last three years, the U.S. military said it was able to reduce Islamic State oil revenue by nearly 90%. Monthly revenue fell from a high of $50 million to just $4 million.
“It’s not working as well [in Afghanistan] as in Syria,” Gen. Harrigian said in an interview.
In Syria, the U.S. was able to repeatedly target oil processing sites used by Islamic State. In Afghanistan, U.S. officials said, it has been harder to identify production sites. And the military is avoiding strikes on poppy farmers who may have no firm allegiance to the Taliban. Instead, the strikes primarily target small compounds where Afghans make, store and distribute the drugs.
“This is different than what we did in Iraq and Syria,” said Gen. Votel. “This, I think, presents a different targeting challenge, going after distribution and warehouses that are more easily concealed and shifted than in Iraq or Syria. I consider it to be a more difficult problem.”
Even if the strikes aren’t having decisive effects, U.S. officials said they are having an impact.
Col. Jeffrey A. Collins, director of counterthreat finance operations in Afghanistan for the U.S. military, said the numbers don’t fully account for the ways the campaign has put pressure on the Taliban.
“The dollar estimate of the strikes is not the primary measure we use to assess the impact,” he said. “Without going into specifics, our intelligence shows our actions have impacted the Taliban and its leaders in helpful ways.”
Lt. Col. Martin L. O’Donnell, a spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Afghanistan, said the campaign had created new challenges for the Taliban.
“The Taliban has had to make difficult financial decisions about what it can and can no longer afford, and it has had to conserve funds that are becoming more and more scarce,” he said. “As a result, the Taliban has increased taxes, tolls and extortions like a crime syndicate, thereby alienating themselves further from the Afghan people.”
The strikes, he said, “also increase the friction between Taliban fighters, who continue to place themselves in harm’s way only to suffer devastating losses, and Taliban financial leaders, who enrich themselves and live in relative comfort and safety away from the fighting.” The Wall St Journal