As U.S. and Afghan forces pound Taliban drug factories this week, farmers in the country’s largest opium producing-province and narcotics experts say the strategy just repeats previous failed efforts to stamp out the trade.
U.S. Army General John Nicholson, who heads NATO-led forces in Afghanistan, announced on Monday a new strategy of attacking opium factories, saying he wanted to hit the Taliban “where it hurts, in their narcotics financing”.
Critics say the policy risks further civilian casualties and turning large swathes of the population dependent on poppy cultivation against the Afghan government.
“The Taliban will not be affected by this as much as ordinary people,” said Mohammad Nabi, a poppy farmer in Nad Ali district in the southern province of Helmand, the heartland of opium production.
“Farmers are not growing poppies for fun. If factories are closed and businesses are gone, then how will they provide food for their families?”
Opium production in Afghanistan reached record highs this year, up 87 percent, according to the United Nations.
The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said last week that output of opium from poppy seeds in Afghanistan, the world’s main source of heroin, stood at around 9,000 metric tons in 2017, worth an estimated $1.4 billion on leaving the farms.
In Helmand, cultivation area increased 79 percent.
Publicizing the new strategy, which he said was open-ended, Nicholson showed one video of an F-22 fighter jet dropping 250-pound bombs on two buildings, emphasizing that a nearby third building was left unscathed.
U.S. troops have long been accused of causing unnecessary collateral damage and civilian deaths. The United States says it takes every precaution to avoid civilian casualties.
The four-star general emphasized that farmers were not the targets.
“They are largely compelled to grow the poppy and this is kind of a tragic part of the story,” said Nicholson.
Experts, however, question whether the new strategy will have an impact on Taliban financing.
“All these things have been tried before and not produced effective results. If they had, we wouldn’t be where we are now,” said Orzala Nemat, director of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which has been researching the country’s drug trade for a decade and a half.
Another analyst said it was simply a futile game of “whack-a-mole.”
Those familiar with the drug industry in Afghanistan said it would only take three or four days to replace a lab, which generally has a low sunk-cost. They also say it was not just the Taliban involved in Afghanistan’s drug trade.
“Drugs are elemental to the political economy of Afghanistan, to those who rule and to those who oppose that rule,” said one analyst, asking not to be named.
Prior to being ousted by U.S.-led forces in 2001, the Taliban virtually eliminated the trade, saying it was forbidden by Islam.
The United States and its Western allies, the Afghan government and United Nations have made repeated efforts since to eradicate poppy cultivation, including encouraging farmers to cultivate alternatives such as saffron, spraying poppy fields with herbicide, and destroying labs.
However, they have not made any serious headway in stemming the rise in drug production.
The issue underlines problems faced by the Afghan government and its allies, as they seek to cut off a major source of financing for the Taliban and stem the flow of drugs to Europe.
The Taliban said that U.S. forces were mistaken in their targeting and were hitting civilians.
“There are no drug producing factories in these areas. Invading Americans are carrying out these attacks based on false information and to make propaganda, which most of its victims are civilians,” said Taliban spokesman Qari Yousuf Ahmadi on Wednesday.
Although World Bank projections show Afghanistan’s economy picking up modestly, the improvement is more than offset by population growth, leaving many in rural areas saying they have no alternative to growing poppies.
“The government must provide jobs so people can feed their families and survive,” said poppy farmer Haji Daoud in Sangin, Helmand. “It should provide security and infrastructure.”
Additional reporting by Mirwais Harooni; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by James Mackenzie and Alex Richardson.