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The U.S. Military Killed Dozens of Civilians While Trying to Bomb Meth Labs, U.N. Alleges

According to a new U.N. report, a United States counternarcotics operation against alleged Afghan drug labs caused multiple child casualties. The U.S. has denied the report.

by Mike Power
Oct 9 2019, 3:38pm

U.S. Army soldiers run for cover across an opium poppy field after Taliban insurgents opened fire on March 14, 2010. Image: John Moore/Getty Images

At least 30 civilians, including women and children, were killed by U.S. forces in May airstrikes on alleged methamphetamine labs in western Afghanistan, a UN agency alleged in a report on Wednesday.

The majority of those killed or injured were not working in drug labs, the agency said.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) said that it has received reports on 145 civilian casualties resulting from the airstrikes on May 5. Of those, UNAMA "verified 39 civilian casualties (30 deaths, five injured and four whose status of killed or injured remains undetermined), including 14 children and one woman." The report states that 17 of these civilians were working in drug labs at the time.

In addition, “UNAMA received reliable and credible information to substantiate at least a further 37 more civilian casualties (30 deaths and seven injured), including 30 children and two women. It is working to further verify these civilian casualties,” said the report. The remaining 69 casualties for which UNAMA has received reports remain unverified.

The report also confirmed claims that some of the sites struck were not drug labs. "Moreover, UNAMA received credible information that several of the sites that were hit were not associated with drug production activities, including residential homes," added the new UN report.

The U.S. has dismissed the UN’s report. “United States Forces – Afghanistan (USFOR-A) disputes the findings, legal analysis, and methodology of the UN report,” it said in a statement. It questioned the UN's sources: “USFOR-A is deeply concerned by UNAMA’s methods and findings. Sources with limited information, conflicted motives and violent agendas are not credible. USFOR-A follows the highest standards of accuracy and accountability to avoid harm to non-combatants and collateral damage,” the agency's statement said.

This is not the first time that the U.S. military has been accused of hitting civilian targets in its anti-drug bombing campaigns. VICE has previously reported on the last two years of these campaigns, including an investigation by researchers from the London School of Economics that found some targets chosen by the U.S. military were not drug-making facilities, but civilian homes.

David Mansfield, a Senior Fellow at the London School of Economics, led the team that first investigated an earlier US drug-lab bombing campaign, Operation Iron Tempest, that targeted Afghan opium labs from 2017-2018.

The LSE team used on-the-ground reporting with local experts, along with high-resolution satellite imagery and open-source intelligence to report on civilian casualties during Operation Iron Tempest.

That campaign did little to disrupt the flow of heroin from Afghanistan, which is still the world’s leading producer of the drug.

“The decision to bomb labs always struck me as overreach,” said Mansfield.

The US returned to its failed strategy in May this year, this time targeting methamphetamine production facilities, which Mansfield’s team again investigated.

Afghanistan drug chemists have adopted a new route to methamphetamine synthesis using a wild mountain shrub, known as oman, containing ephedra, a precursor to crystal meth production. This has led to a boom in local production and use.

“I'd like to think that the kind of painstaking research we have done at LSE on both the lab strikes and methamphetamine production over the last few years has helped highlight how costly and counterproductive the bombing of drug labs has been, and helps point to more effective responses that are compliant with international law," Mansfield added.

Those who were killed inside the labs were not legitimate military targets, UNAMA said in its new report.

“Personnel working inside the drug production facilities were not performing combat functions. They were therefore entitled to protection from attack, and could only have lost this protection if, and for such time, as they had been directly participating in hostilities," the UN report said.

The US again rejected this claim, calling this definition of legally targetable combatants “narrow.”

U.N. data shows a sharp spike in meth seizures in Afghanistan from 9kg in 2014 to the 127 seized in 2017. Annual seizures hit 180kg in 2018 and have already reached 650kg in the first half of 2019, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

Correction: The subheadline of this story initially said the UN report stated 14 children were killed in the strikes. The report states that UNAMA confirmed 14 child casualties, not deaths. We regret the error.