KABUL — One month after U.S. and Afghan forces began bombing suspected Taliban drug laboratories in Helmand province, Afghan officials and analysts say they are relieved that the raids are not harming civilians but doubtful that they will be able to significantly reduce the narcotics trade or the insurgents' profits.
The Pentagon announced recently that U.S.-led coalition forces had destroyed 25 insurgent-run drug labs as part of a new U.S. military strategy to weaken the Taliban by going after its sources of revenue. It said at least $80 million worth of narcotics had been destroyed.
Initially, the raids triggered alarm in Helmand, a vast province that has long been at the heart of Afghanistan's drug production and trade. Afghan opium is the source of much of the world's heroin, and half of it comes from Helmand. Production and sales of Afghan opium have soared to record levels in the past several years.
The lucrative business has increasingly attracted the Taliban, which is active in Helmand and recruits many fighters there, even though the group took strict measures to ban the drug trade during its five years in power from 1996 to 2001.
When the U.S. strikes started, local officials expressed concern that civilians would be mistakenly targeted or harmed. They also suggested that it would be more effective to go after the organized Afghan and foreign smugglers who make deals and transport drugs across certain border points into Pakistan and Iran.
Today, with more than two dozen such raids completed, local fears of collateral damage seem to have waned, and some officials in the region said the campaign has already had an impact on opium sales. They expressed relief that small farmers who grow poppy are not being targeted.
“The airstrikes have had their impact for sure,” said Nimatullah Ghafari, a legislator from Helmand. He said that even in remote areas, some drug dealers have shut down their business. “Since the farmers and ordinary people are not the target, the long-term result will be good and it will not create much hatred against the U.S.”
But Borhan Osman, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, wrote in a report that the bombing of drug labs “will solve neither the country’s Taliban insurgency nor its drugs problem.” He noted that the Taliban has diverse funding sources and that the bombing could increase support for it because drug labs provide a living for “ordinary people and are usually located in populated areas.”
A tribal leader in the Marja district, Shah Wali, estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of laboratories and drugs produced in the southern part of Helmand have been destroyed by the raids, which also involve Afghan ground forces.
Wali said that some in the area have condemned the airstrikes, but several officials and tribal chiefs have demanded that the raids be expanded into northern Helmand, a more fertile region known as the hub of its drug trade. Karim Attal, the provincial council chief, said far more drug processing and storage centers are located in the north.
Although Attal said the raids in the south had destroyed more than $20 million worth of opium, local and foreign drug traffickers still "easily sold and bought drugs" in the north. Afghan opium production jumped by 87 percent from 2016 to a record 9,000 metric tons in 2017, according to the U.N. Office on Crime and Drugs.
Despite the reported success of the raids, some Afghan commentators last week expressed doubts about the U.S. motivation for embarking on the effort or its likelihood of success. They said it would be hard to make a serious difference after 16 years of fighting, during which drug cultivation and sales continued to grow.
“People look at this with skepticism,” said Wadir Safi, a professor of political science at Kabul University. “During the peak of their presence before 2014, NATO and the U.S. could not stop drugs. Now it will not be an easy job, given that they have much smaller size of force on the ground.”
Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat, said the U.S. strategy was aiming too low by targeting “small processing laboratories” instead of “going after the dealers and traffickers” in Kabul and abroad.
“Anyone can hunt a small fish,” he said. “They need to go after the big fish and whales, the mega-dealers and the mafia.”
Constable reported from Islamabad.