U.S. Quietly Ends Anti-Opium Airstrikes Amid Taliban Peace Talks

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NOORULLAH SHIRZADA / Stringer / Getty

U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, amid ongoing peace negotiations with the Afghan Taliban, quietly ended an airstrike campaign against Taliban opium and heroin drug labs after failing to curtail the terrorist organization’s multi-million dollar trade, the Pentagon’s inspector general (IG) revealed this week.

Breitbart News recently learned from the U.S. Department of State (DOS), which is leading the Taliban peace talks, that it remains uncertain on if the United States will push the terrorist group to stop cultivating and trafficking opium and heroin, some of which is fueling the historic number of drug overdose deaths in America.

A DOS spokesperson indicated that the U.S. supports a “balanced counternarcotics strategy” in Afghanistan, where the Taliban appears to remain among the world’s most prolific opium producers.

The Trump administration has also dropped efforts to develop a counternarcotics strategy in Afghanistan, separate from Kabul’s. Furthermore, the Afghan government has decided to eradicate the country’s Ministry of Counter Narcotics (MCN) as part of efforts to consolidate several ministries, a move that has prompted concern among some U.S officials.

Echoing other watchdogs, the IG for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) revealed on Wednesday:

In 2017, U.S. and Afghan forces launched an air and ground campaign, called Operation Iron Tempest, to target Taliban narcotics sites. At that time, USFOR-A estimated that there were 400-500 drug labs in Afghanistan that produced $200 million per year in revenue for the Taliban. During the quarter [October 1 thru December 31, 2018], however, the U.S. military ended this campaign.

Although overall airstrikes against jihadis in Afghanistan reached historic levels last year, those under the anti-drug operation that began in November 2017, code-named Iron Tempest, plunged before the American military completely ended the effort as the Trump administration intensified peace-seeking negotiations with the Taliban.

“U.S. forces conducted 2 airstrikes against Taliban narcotics facilities during the quarter [October 1 thru December 31, 2018], a decline from 72 and 70 strikes in the previous two quarters,” the IG’s report noted.

The U.S. military argued that the operation was working, but a report from the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) revealed last year that airstrikes on more than 200 drug-related targets failed to cripple the Taliban’s lucrative illicit narcotics business in Afghanistan.

John Sopko, the chief of the U.S Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) agency, another watchdog, has also criticized the air anti-drug campaign as too costly and only making a small dent on the illicit opium market, noting that it takes the terrorist group only a few “days” to replace the drug labs.

At the end of January, SIGAR, citing the Pentagon, reported that the months-long “operations targeting narcotics have [only] denied an estimated $200 million to those involved in the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan, including more than $42 million to the Taliban specifically.”

The U.S. military had told the Pentagon IG that the counter-narcotics finance campaign against the Taliban led to “insurgent confusion, concern, and changes to their tactics, techniques, and procedures” and “disruptions in their command and control.”

U.S. troops in Afghanistan also told SIGAR in recent months that “the campaign remains effective at destroying the enemy’s resources, causing it to make tactical changes to avoid strikes.”

There is no explanation available to the public as to why the anti-opium operations ended. “Further information about the campaign is available in the classified appendix to this report,” the IG noted.

Taliban jihadis generate the vast majority of their funding for terrorist activities, at least $200 million annually, from cultivating and trafficking opium, the main ingredient in heroin, some of which the DEA believes is having a “limited impact” on the historic number of fatal overdoses plaguing the United States.

President Trump has declared the overdose deaths, primarily fueled by opioids, a national security threat and deemed the opioid crisis a public health emergency. Nevertheless, his administration ended anti-narcotics airstrikes in Afghanistan, the world’s top producer of opium and heroin.

While the State Department downplayed Kabul’s decision to “dissolve” its counternarcotics ministry, SIGAR expressed concerns “about the impact of [the ministry’s] dissolution on counternarcotics programs and the lack of a stand-alone U.S. government counternarcotics strategy.”

At the end of January, SIGAR also acknowledged that the anti-opium airstrike campaign had “abated” as peace negotiations ramped up.

Marking an unprecedented departure from his predecessors, Trump began going after Taliban drug labs with airstrikes and Special Operations raids in November 2017 when opium production had reached historic levels in Afghanistan.

U.S.-led opium eradication efforts ended under former President Barack Obama and counternarcotic operations at the hands of the Afghan government nearly disappeared.

Despite investing more than $9 billion on counternarcotics operations in Afghanistan since the war began in October 2001, the country remains the world’s top producer of opium.

U.S. taxpayer reconstruction money has funded irrigation canals, farming equipment, and even fertilizer used to support opium cultivation in Afghanistan.

Last month, the U.S. and the Taliban “agreed, in principle, to a framework for a deal, under which the United States would withdraw troops from Afghanistan and the Taliban would guarantee that Afghanistan does not harbor terrorists,” including its ally al-Qaeda, the Pentagon IG acknowledged.

An estimated 200 al-Qaeda jihadis continue to operate through cells in Taliban-controlled areas along the Pakistan border, the watchdog found.

The primary point of contention for negotiators remains the Taliban’s reluctance to allow the Afghan government to participate in the talks, arguing that it is an American “puppet.”

Trump administration officials have made the reconciliation between Kabul and the Taliban the primary goal of their strategy to end the more than 17-year-old war.

Echoing SIGAR, the Pentagon IG reported security had declined amid peace negotiations in recent months, noting, “Key measures of security, including population control, incidents of violence, and civilian casualties remained unchanged or worsened.”

There are some similarities between the Afghan reconciliation talks and the peace process that once involved the U.S.-designated terrorist group known as the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC).

In 20117, the U.S. State Department acknowledged that a peace pact between the Colombian government and FARC granted the terrorist guerrillas the opportunity make the South American country the world’s top producer of cocaine again, a move that also fueled overdose deaths in the United States.

Similar to the Taliban, the FARC is considered one of the largest drug trafficking organization in its host country.

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