KABUL — A newly announced campaign of U.S. and Afghan airstrikes against Taliban-run narcotic centers was met with alarm and criticism Tuesday from political leaders in Helmand province — the heart of Afghanistan's huge opium trade — where officials said 10 such air attacks were carried out in the past week.
Some legislators and provincial representatives expressed worries that civilians could be harmed. Others dismissed the campaign, announced by U.S. military officials Monday, as a dramatic but misplaced effort to showcase Washington's determination to go after insurgent bastions and criminal activities as part of its new military strategy.
A spokesman for the Taliban, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, was reported in some Afghan media as having denied U.S. and Afghan reports of targeting numerous insurgent drug laboratories and other facilities in the vast desert province, where more than 75 percent of the world's heroin supply is reported to originate.
"We reject the existence of heroin factories in and all over Helmand. These are baseless reports from the puppet regime," Ahmadi wrote on a WhatsApp account, according to reports.
On Monday, the senior U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, announced unexpectedly that U.S. planes were targeting drug production facilities in the country under a new strategy aimed at cutting off Taliban funding. He said the Taliban was "becoming a criminal organization" that was earning about $200 million a year from drug-related activities.
Nicholson, in a news conference with the Afghan army chief, said aerial raids were conducted Sunday in Helmand, with both Afghan and U.S. aircraft participating. The initiative was launched under the Trump administration's new policy that expands the role, size and mandate of the U.S. military mission here.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani strongly endorsed the new campaign. "We're determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force," he said. "It's the main source of financing violence and terror."
A spokesman for the Helmand governor's office said Tuesday that the past week's air operations had involved eight attacks by coalition forces and two by Afghan air force planes in three districts. He said that there were "direct strikes on Taliban hideouts and narcotics centers," that more than 40 Taliban fighters were killed, and that a "main processing center of narcotics was destroyed" along with about 2,200 pounds of drugs.
But a number of Helmand leaders said Tuesday that the United States should be focusing its efforts on the border-crossing areas with Pakistan and Iran that serve as international transit centers for drugs, especially Bahramchah, rather than on targets that some described as rudimentary rural sheds or buildings where opium is processed.
"In the latest bombardments, civilians have suffered. They are caught in the middle between the Taliban and the joint operations," said Habiba Sadat, a legislator from Helmand. "Bahramchah is the real place of big narcotics factories, and people even transport drugs by planes. A big world mafia is involved in this business. Why is this area not being targeted?"
One main factor behind the new military role is that poppy and opium production have risen exponentially in the past several years, with a record amount of 9,000 tons of opium produced so far this year, according to the United Nations. The other is the parallel increase in Taliban involvement in the drug trade, which Taliban rulers once banned.