US conducts airstrikes on Afghanistan opium labs

Posted at 7:54 PM, Nov 20, 2017

(CNN) -- The US conducted airstrikes targeting opium processing labs in Afghanistan Sunday, Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Michael Andrews tells CNN.

The airstrikes were part of a joint US-Afghan operation targeting drug facilities in Taliban-controlled areas in northern Helmand Province.

Three of the strikes occurred in Kajaki district, four in Musa Qala and one in Sangin.

The airstrikes were carried out by US F-16s out of Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan and US B-52s flying out of Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, Andrews said.

Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US forces in Afghanistan, told reporters at the Pentagon that a US F-22 Raptor and Afghan Air Force A-29s also participated in the strikes.

The strikes marked the first use of the F-22 in Afghanistan, according to US officials. The advanced stealth fighter aircraft is based at Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and required refueling support from KC-10 and KC-135 aircraft to reach the target.

US Air Forces Central Command, which oversees US aircraft in the region, said the US Marine Corps also operated long-range High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems in support of the operation.

Nicholson said 10 facilities were hit during the course of the operation, with eight of them struck by US aircraft and two by Afghan warplanes.

In one of the strikes a US B-52 used 2,000-pound bombs to destroy a facility and 50 barrels of opium, which Nicholson said held a street value of millions of US dollars.

The general said that US forces had conducted hundreds of hours of surveillance and hundreds of analysts worked to identify the targets and minimize collateral damage, saying that the success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria had freed up assets to support the operation.

Nicholson estimated that there are approximately 400 to 500 such facilities in Afghanistan in operation at any time, promising that such strikes would continue.

"These operations will continue on in the coming days," Nicholson said while adding, "We are not going to let up."

A US defense official told CNN that US aircraft had since launched additional strikes against Taliban-linked opium facilities in addition to the 10 Nicholson announced.

The operation which is officially known as Operation Jagged Knife, aims to target the source of Taliban revenue in much the same way the US military used airstrikes to destroy oil and other revenue sources for ISIS in Iraq and Syria.

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani announced the operation via Twitter on Monday saying Afghan forces supported by international troops "launched operations in Helmand to abolish opium processing labs" and that eight labs were destroyed.

"We're determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force," Ghani said, calling drugs "the main source of financing (for) violence and terror."

Analysts believe the Taliban obtains much of its funding through the opium trade, increasingly processing the drugs in areas under its control.

The new push against Taliban opium facilities comes in the wake of a new report by the United Nations Office on Drugs which recently estimated that opium production in Afghanistan had increased by 87 percent in 2017.

Nicholson said that Afghanistan supplies an estimated 85% of the world's opium and about 4% of the heroin in the US according to estimates made by US law enforcement agencies.

The ability for the US military to target Taliban facilities, regardless of whether they pose a direct risk to US or allied forces, was recently granted to commanders as part of changes to US strategy made by President Donald Trump. Under the previous administration the US could only target the Taliban under certain specific circumstances.

"The new authorities allow me to go after the revenue streams of the enemy," Nicholson said Monday.

He said the new counternarcotics campaign "hits the enemy where it hurts, which is their financial apparatus."

But Nicholson said that while US troops would target refinement and trafficking facilities, they would refrain from targeting the poppy crop that is the source of the opium, saying that the Taliban is often forcing farmers to grow the illicit crop.

"We are not going after the farmers that are growing the poppy," he said.

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