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With Trump's OK, US unleashes air offensive to take out Taliban drug labs

Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and United States Forces-Afghanistan launched a series of ongoing attacks to hit the Taliban where they are most vulnerable: their revenue streams. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Tech. Sgt. Anthony Nelson Jr.)

The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan says he is using new authority given him by President Trump to launch a bombing campaign against Taliban drug production facilities to cut off the revenue streams that have been funding the insurgency against Afghan government forces.

"In striking northern Helmand and the drug enterprises there, we're hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances,” said Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, commander of the NATO-led Operation Resolute Support. “This is the first significant use of the new authorities.”

Until Trump unshackled U.S. commanders, airpower could be used only to protect U.S., NATO and Afghan forces, and not for offensive strikes.

“These new authorities allow me to go after the enemy in ways I couldn’t before,” said Nicholson, who says it took months to track Taliban revenue streams and develop targets that would not result in civilian casualties.

The U.S. estimates the Taliban have 400 to 500 drug labs in the country, which generates $200 million in revenue. “We took 10 of those off the battlefield last night,” said Nicholson, adding that the attacks would continue in the coming days.

"Our message to the enemy is that you cannot win the war. It's time to lay down your arms and enter into a reconciliation process," Nicholson said. "If they don't, they're going to be consigned to irrelevance, as the Afghans expand their control of the country, or death. And so these are the choices they face."

Yesterday, strikes involved U.S. B-52 bombers dropping precision 500-pound bombs, and F-22 Raptor fighters dropping 250-pound munitions, as well as two strikes carried out by A-29s from Afghanistan's fledgling air force.

The smaller munitions were selected to destroy the Taliban drug labs, without causing undue collateral damage.

Nicholson underscored that farmers, many of whom are forced by the Taliban to grow opium poppies, are not being targeted in the campaign.

"This is kind of a tragic part of the story," Nicholson said. "When the farmer can't pay their debts, the Taliban end up taking their sons or daughters as collateral, or they simply live in debt, a form a slavery, to the Taliban."