The way the United States tells it, launching devastating airstrikes on drug-making labs across western Afghanistan is needed to staunch a harmful trade that funds the Taliban’s rebellion against a weak central government.
Think again, says the United Nations. A study released this week says the Taliban only raises a small amount of cash from the drug trade, and US airstrikes on narcotics labs kill more innocent civilians than they do militants.
The alarming, 21-page report found that a blitz of American strikes on May 5 killed or wounded at least 39 civilians, including 14 children, and broke international humanitarian rules as the victims were factory workers and civilians – not fighters.
Speaking with reporters on Wednesday, UN spokesman Farhan Haq described carnage after US forces hit 60 “alleged drug-processing facilities” in and around the remote Bakwa district of Farah province in western Afghanistan.
The UN is investigating “credible reports” of a further 37 civilian casualties, mostly women and children, said Haq. The “report concludes that drug facilities and associated workers may not be lawfully made the target of attacks and should be protected,” he added.
Researchers from the UN mission in Afghanistan, known as UNAMA, spent four months probing the incident, including face-to-face interviews with those affected to assess claims that US forces also hit homes, shops, a fuel station and vehicles.
Drug labs in Bakwa district were run by local crooks with connections to international narcotics dealers and were not operated exclusively by the Taliban, UNAMA said. As such, the labs were not “legitimate military objectives”.
While the folks working in the drug labs were engaged in “illicit drug activity”, they were not enemy combatants, UNAMA said. Like the women and children also killed in the strikes, the workers deserved protection.
“While the report fully acknowledges that the illicit drug industry in Afghanistan causes extensive harm to the civilian population in the country and beyond, it concludes that the appropriate – and legal – response to illicit drug activity is through law enforcement, not military, operations,” the report said.
The US has long sought to wipe out Afghanistan’s poppy-growing fields, heroin production centers and, more recently, the methamphetamine labs that have sprung up in the west to mass-produce the highly addictive stimulant.
The US says intelligence reports show that drug labs are run exclusively by the Taliban to fund a conflict that has ravaged Afghanistan since the US invaded soon after the 11 September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington.
As such, drug labs are a legitimate military target because they finance the war, the Pentagon says.
US forces “took extraordinary measures to avoid the deaths or injuries of non-combatants” in the May 5 attacks, US military spokesman Col Sonny Leggett said via Twitter in response to the UN report.
Col Leggett was “deeply concerned by UNAMA’s methods and findings” because the world body’s researchers had relied on “sources with limited information, conflicted motives and violent agendas” who “are not credible.”
The US is “fighting in a complex environment against those who intentionally kill and hide behind civilians, as well as use dishonest claims of non-combatant casualties as propaganda weapons,” Col Leggett added.
Afghanistan, long a center for opium production, has witnessed a boom in methamphetamine drug production these past five years, according to a report in August from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.
Annual seizures of the drug were no more than a few kilos earlier in the decade, but reached 180kg in 2018 and went “off the scale” with 650kg of seizures in the first half of 2019, the UN says.
Taliban insurgents, who were already fuelling their insurgency with tens of millions of dollars annually from opium, are now understood to be taxing meth-making gangs in the barren western regions.
The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, weeks after the 9/11 attacks, to topple the Taliban. The hardliners regrouped and have waged a fierce insurgency for years against the government, US forces and other Western allies in Afghanistan.
The Taliban control more of Afghanistan than at any time since its regime was toppled in 2001, and government security forces are struggling to contain the militants even as negotiators have been hammering out a peace deal in the Gulf state of Qatar.