The War on Drugs has fewer battle lines more clearly defined than those in Afghanistan, which is still the world’s greatest heroin producer and exporter after almost two decades of U.S. attempts to eradicate the trade.
And in May this year, after a reported local boom in crystal methamphetamine production, U.S-led forces did what they always do: they dropped some bombs. U.S. and Afghan forces dropped laser-guided missiles on what they said were 68 Taliban-run meth labs in the southwest of Afghanistan.
Abdul Rahman Rahmani, deputy spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense, said the strikes would deny the insurgency of “$1 million a day” in lost revenue. Local media said 150 “Taliban terrorists” were killed in the raids.
U.S. forces have occupied Afghanistan for nearly two decades, but have nonetheless failed to prevent an unprecedented growth in opium cultivation, heroin production and now methamphetamine supply.
Even so, U.S. military officials claim they are winning big. They say their aerial assaults on Afghan drug labs have denied the Taliban tens of millions of dollars in revenue.
In June 2018, Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance R. Bunch, assistant deputy commanding general for Air, U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A), told journalists that Operation Iron Tempest, a year-long campaign that began in late 2017, had obliterated 200 heroin labs, cutting off vital Taliban funding.
“By all estimates, these air operations have taken over $45 million in revenue away from the Taliban in the strikes leading up to the cease-fire,” Bunch claimed.
In November 2017, General John W. Nicholson Jr, the overall commander of USFOR-A at the time, told reporters that the raids were “a demonstration of our will to take the fight to the enemy in all of its dimensions. And specifically, in striking northern Helmand and the drug enterprises there, we're hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances."
Yet a team at the London School of Economics (LSE) has comprehensively debunked these claims. Using on-the-ground research, satellite imaging, and open-source intelligence gathering, the LSE team, led by Professor David Mansfield, discovered that many of the ‘labs’ were just farmhouses, while other labs had been inactive for months. Their findings were initially detailed in a report published in January 2018, updated in April this year.
Mansfield and his team collaborated with Alcis, a satellite-imaging tech startup, to scrutinise 23 videos released online by the U.S. military. They then carried out interviews on the ground in Afghanistan to establish the facts, interviewing 450 farmers across Helmand who had been hit by the campaign, as well as lab owners and heroin cooks. All said that most of the labs hit by Iron Tempest were not in operation at the time of the campaign.
“There have been claims by U.S. military forces in Afghanistan that the aerial bombing campaign against drugs labs over the last 18 months denied millions in revenue to both traffickers and the Taliban,” said Mansfield. “The evidence we have painstakingly collected on the ground and using high-resolution imagery contradicts these claims—and indicates the costs of the campaign and the destruction caused did far more harm than good.”
The video footage of one bombardment looks like a scene from a video game: the camera jump cuts, the ghostly crosshairs hover. Then a plume of smoke flowers from the scrub as a compound partly occupied by local opium trader Hajji Habibullah and his family is hit by multiple missile strikes. But it wasn’t an active heroin lab.
“This was [also] a domestic household, a mud-walled compound, bombed with precision missiles,” said Mansfield.
Nine men, women, and children were asleep in the compound when the U.S. military used an incredible amount of force to wipe it out in late 2017. The military's post-action report mentions everything from a B-52 strategic bomber and an F-22 Raptor stealth fighter to an M142 truck-mounted rocket launcher being used in the operation. Nine civilians died.
Not only did the strike kill civilians, it was exorbitantly expensive. For example, the F-22 is the most advanced stealth fighter plane in the world. Each F-22 costs $140 million, and every hour in the air costs upwards of $35,000 in fuel and ground staff support.
“That one strike hit a total of nine buildings [including multiple inactive labs and a Taliban lodging] and cost $1.25 million,” said Mansfield, whose team used published Department of Defense figures to calculate the costs. “The estimated value of the buildings and contents destroyed was $120,000.”
Mansfield said it was clear even at first sight of the videos that no heroin was being made at the vast majority of the so-called labs. And even where actual labs were destroyed, operators could rebuild and refit them for as little as $10,000 in a matter of days.
Professor Mansfield, a senior fellow at the International Drug Policy Unit at the LSE, has documented the last 23 Afghan opium harvests. He said Iron Tempest and the attacks on local meth labs have achieved little—and that U.S. claims of success in both cases are untrue.
“There were one or two places, more mom-and-pop establishments, where a small amount of opium had not been removed,” said Mansfield. “Primarily, the U.S. military were hitting empty buildings. There was no loss to the criminal enterprise behind the drug trade except for the building itself and that was owned by individuals, not the Taliban.”
Most of the facilities bombed had been involved in drug synthesis and storage of related chemicals and equipment either at the time of the raids or at some time before. But in most cases, hugely expensive bombs were dropped onto mud huts that were not at that time even making any heroin.
Labs making heroin are difficult to hide. Hefty, 200-litre steel barrels are filled with opium, water, lime, and ammonium chloride, and then set to boil over wood fires. This produces a more refined opiate, morphine base, which is then boiled with acetic anhydride and sodium carbonate to create heroin.
"The DEA told us from day one, that those amounts that we were claiming we were destroying were, I wouldn’t say fictional, but there was no basis."
This process gives active heroin labs a significant heat signature clearly visible on infrared cameras—which was found on just one of the videos analysed by Alcis, in a lab with 200 of the barrels glowing white on the satellite image, indicating a major facility. But it was a notable exception.
Mansfield’s team are not the only ones doubting these bombings have hit the Taliban for $45 million.
John Sopko, the director general of the U.S. agency charged with oversight of the war in Afghanistan, SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), told journalists in April that DEA officials rejected the claim that Operation Iron Tempest had denied the Taliban of $45 million.
“[The] DEA told us from day one, that those amounts that we were claiming we were destroying were, I wouldn’t say fictional, but there was no basis,” he said. That was because most of the alleged labs were standing idle and empty as the bombs fell, and little in terms of heroin supplies were destroyed.
Even if the $45 million figure is to be believed, this amount is still less than a quarter of the $200 million the U.S. FOR-A admits itself the insurgency takes from the trade.
But crucially for the ongoing War on Drugs in the region, there is no evidence to show the multi-million dollar campaign has impacted Afghanistan’s drug-trafficking networks. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Organised Crime found in its 2018 opium survey that, at 6,400 metric tons, opium production post-Iron Tempest was still almost double the level of 3,300 metric tons produced in 2015. And this despite the country’s opium crop being hit by blight last year. And according to the UN, despite Tempest, the opiate economy was valued in 2018 at around 10 percent of Afghanistan’s entire GDP, exceeding the value of the country’s officially recorded licit exports of goods and services.
So why did the U.S. target these rudimentary facilities? In 2017, Afghanistan was looking at a bumper harvest, according to the UNODC, which monitors opium crops in Afghanistan. To the US military, "bombs were the answer; something had to be seen to be done," Mansfield said. Iron Tempest began a few days after that.
He said the link between drug production and Taliban funding is not as simple as the US government makes out. The claims that the bombing of 68 labs resulted in a loss of $1 million a day to the Taliban can be disproven by a knowledge of the economic structure of the drug trade in Afghanistan, said Mansfield. Few labs are owned and operated by Taliban fighters personally; they instead they levy taxes on owners. Taliban commanders extract a $6/kilo tax on any "powder" drug produced at labs in its territory, whether that is heroin or morphine or meth, said Mansfield.
“The Taliban does not typically run or operate heroin labs,” said Mansfield. “This is a sector characterised by the work of highly independent actors. Taxes are paid to whoever controls the territory on a flat-rate basis equating to as little as 1 percent, rather than the U.S. claimed 20 percent of farm-gate opium production figures.”
“To have had such an impact—of $1 million a day—each of these labs would have had to have been producing almost 2.5 metric tons of methamphetamines each day. This would have required over 300,000 boxes of decongestant pills each day, or between 250 and 750 metric tons of Oman.”
That he said, is a logistical impossibility given the size and nature of these labs.
What’s more, labs can be replaced almost instantly, Afghans on the ground reported. The raids achieved nothing, at huge expense, and were repeated again this year to the same exaggerated fanfare and minimal impact. “Labs can be replaced within three to four days,” Mansfield said.
The quantity of land under poppy cultivation has quadrupled since U.S. boots hit the ground here in 2001, despite the $8.62bn spent trying to wipe out the trade since 2002, as reported by SIGAR in June.
And that’s not to mention the burgeoning new meth trade. Mansfield said that May’s meth lab bombings have also been hyped. “The reported losses of $1 million per day to the Taliban from the destruction of the 68 meth labs seems highly improbable,” said Mansfield.
Annual seizures of meth in Afghanistan in 2010 were tiny—just a few kilos. They reached 180kg in 2018—and in the first half of 2019, seizures have hit a record 650kg, said the UNODC, who reported the seizure of a 49kg meth haul in July near Kabul.
Mansfield found that local cooks are converting a cold remedy, Panadol CF, which contains pseudoephedrine, into methamphetamine in ramshackle kitchen labs. In a new development, Afghan meth cooks are now using "Oman", a locally grown shrub that contains the stimulant ephedrine and converting that into crystal meth.
VICE approached USFOR-A for a response to the findings in Mansfield's LSE report. But a spokesman said our questions "lacked any neutral position" and could not be immediately addressed.
Earlier this month President Donald Trump cancelled peace negotiations between the Taliban and United States. Meanwhile the war in Afghanistan between US-Afghan forces and the Taliban rages on. During August it was estimated that on average 74 people were killed per day - a fifth of whom were civilians.
We have to accept, after 18 years, that the drug war in Afghanistan simply cannot be won—not even with the might of the U.S. military and its overwhelming firepower lined up against peasant farmers looking to make a living. That remains true no matter how many lies are told, and no matter how many bombs are dropped.
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