Afghanistan: air-strikes spike in anti-opium drive

US forces in Afghanistan have dropped more munitions in the first three months of 2018 than during the same time period in 2011—a time widely considered the height of the war. The spike in bombing comes after years of drawing down US troops across the country's remote rural areas—and therefore relies  increasingly on technical rather than human intelligence. Figures released by US Air Forces Central Command indicate 1,186 "munitions expended by aircraft" in January, February and March this year. In 2011, during those same months, the military documented 1,083 weapons released from both manned and unmanned aircraft. The increase in "kinetic air operations" is part of a strategy to degrade the Taliban’s finances by targeting drug labs, which the insurgents are believed to tax.

The spike in air-strikes come as troops are being drawn down. During 2011, the number of US troops in Afghanistan hovered just below 100,000. As of September 2017, that number was reported to be around 15,000. So today's strikes are less in support of ground forces than to eliminate pre-chosen targets.

“The increased airpower supports a deliberate air campaign designed to degrade the Taliban’s primary means of funding its operations—narcotic production,” said Air Force Capt. AnnMarie Annicelli, spokesperson for Air Forces Central Command. “The [United States] has shifted from a time-based approach to one based on conditions. Conditions on the ground —not arbitrary timetables—will guide the strategy. In this new campaign, we no longer recognize arbitrary 'fighting seasons,' but instead will apply relentless pressure on the Taliban as demonstrated by the nonstop airstrikes since late November."

Some missions against drug labs are carried out by teams of Afghan and US special operations forces. But to date, these efforts combined have deprived the Taliban of an estimated $220 million in revenue, according to Army Col. Lisa Garcia, a spokesperson for US forces in Afghanistan.

However, some experts have expressed doubt about these numbers. David Mansfield, a senior fellow at the London School of Economics, has researched Afghan opium production for the past 20 growing seasons. In a January report for the LSE's International Drug Policy Unit, he questioned the high tax rate that US officials claim the Taliban apply to drug labs, as well as the total value of the drugs said to be destroyed.

"I really don’t know how [US forces] came to the conclusion of a 20 [percent] tax rate to the Taliban,” Mansfield told Military Times. “Fieldwork—and, indeed, economics — suggests that it is nothing like this."

Mansfield also expressed concern that ground-based intelligence gathering and post-impact reporting after air-strikes was poorly done, based on a Nov. 19 airstrike in Musa Qala in Helmand province. His research determined that three of the six buildings struck that night were not actually drug labs.

One building was frequently used by local Taliban, while the other two were owned by an opium trader known as Hajji Habibullah. He and his family, inlcuding four young children, were killed in the attack, according to Mansfield's research—indicating it was a home and not a drug lab.

With the troop draw-down, human intelligence used to determine targets may be deteriorating. David Shedd, former acting director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said that the "technical intelligence is as good as it's ever been," but human intelligence gathering has likely receded along with the US troop footprint. "I can't imagine the human intelligence piece is just as good with fewer people, but the technical collection remains very, very strong."

Shedd pointed to the greater capabilities of aircraft sensors to scour targets, as well as the monitoring of radio frequencies and other signals and imagery collection. "Does it replace on-the-ground, tactical elements that I would trust to report back accurately? Probably not 100 percent," Shedd said. (Military Times, April 26)

Photo: USAF