First U.S. Airstrikes on Heroin Labs and Opium Storage in Afghanistan

November 22, 2017
A screen grab from video footage of Operation Jagged Knife's strikes on Taliban heroine production facilities.

After religiously ignoring the opium and heroin explosion in Afghanistan for 16 years since 2001, on Nov. 19, in an apparent policy shift, U.S. B-52s and F-22s, along with Afghan A-29s, took out ten opium-refining facilities on the first day of Operation Jagged Knife in northern Helmand province. Helmand province produces about 70% Afghanistan's opium, which in turn is about 85-90% of world opium production. Unofficially, this year's opium production in Afghanistan has broken all records, and is expected to weigh in at 9,000 tons. Prior to the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, the largest recorded amount ever was 2,000 tons. Taliban, in power from 1996-2001, had raised the production to 2,000 tons and then brought it down to around 100 tons before they were ousted.

U.S. F-22s took off from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, along with B-52s from the 69th Expeditionary Bomber Squadron assigned to Al Udeid Air Bases 379th Air Expeditionary Wing, Navy Times reported.

U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander Gen. John Nicholson said "U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies estimate that the Taliban earns about $200 million a year from opium production in Afghanistan"—probably a significant understatement. The strikes are focused on the drug production facilities, not Afghan farmers growing opium poppy. Nicholson estimated that there are about 400-500 opium production facilities in Afghanistan, Navy Times reported.

During these 16 years of the Afghan war, the U.S. and NATO troops (who used to work together as the International Security Assistance Forces till 2014, when it was scrapped), opium storage and refining facilities were out of bounds for the ISAF. This order was put in place by George W. Bush's Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, who said the only focus of the Pentagon in Afghanistan was to defeat the Taliban, and not get engaged in such "mission creep" as destruction of narcotics. As a result, opium cultivation in Afghanistan exploded; the Taliban never got defeated, but they instead acquired more and more money to bring in more arms and explosives to secure control of almost 40% of Afghanistan's land area.

A few members of Congress, such as Walter Jones (R-NC) and Thomas Massie (R-KY), have been drawing attention to the issue of opium production in Afghanistan as part of their efforts to end the war there. For example, during the Nov. 1 Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing on Afghanistan, Representative Massie stated: "Even though we've spent $8.6 billion on counter narcotics efforts in Afghanistan since 2002, they increased poppy (used to make heroin) production by 43% since 2015. 60% of the Taliban's income comes from poppy.... It's time for a new strategy."