A commander in the Afghan province of Helmand has ordered all drug labs to be moved out of the urban areas the insurgency controls as US airstrikes targeting the facilities are killing a rising number of civilians, according to a recorded conversation obtained by the Guardian.
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In a walkie-talkie conversation with his secretary shared on a Taliban WhatsApp group, the Taliban’s shadow governor of Helmand, Mullah Manan, said “due to one factory hundreds of the public are at risk from bombings and missiles” and called for facilities to shift to “mountains and valley sides” instead.
The recording, which was verified by experts on the Taliban, provides a rare insight into their operations, and shows how the Trump administration’s looser rules of engagement in are shifting dynamics in the 17-year-old war.
Although America’s “mini-surge” has , according to a report from the US’s own watchdog released on Monday, Mullah Manan’s message suggests the Islamist movement fears local discontent as airstrikes target drugs labs in built-up areas.
The Taliban control most of the opium trade in Afghanistan, the world’s major source of the drug, where production rose a record 87% last year, according to UN figures.
After years in which the US airforce avoided hitting opium labs for fear of alienating local populations,it has targeted them for the last six months as part of a campaign to choke off the estimated $200m (£148m) in yearly revenue they earn for the Taliban. Bombing raids nearly tripled in the first three months of this year, compared with 2017.
In the message, Mullah Manan said: “Drones are roaming in the air and they have made men, women and children scared because of bombing. We must strictly explain to people that if they do not stop drugs factories in public houses they will go to jail.”
Any Taliban who permitted such facilities would also be punished, he added.
Airstrikes have flattened several houses in Baram Shah, a border town famous for its bazaar where the drug trade flourishes. “My uncle was a nightwatchman [and not a Taliban member] in the bazaar, when it came under US bombing and he was killed,” Jan Muhammad told the Guardian. “He left seven kids behind.”
Another strike in Musa Qala, a town in Helmand, killed heroin producer Hajji Habibullah but also his wife and six children – one of them a year old – generating local publicity and outrage.
In 100 strikes on drug labs since November 2017, the US claims not to have killed any civilians. “To date, US Forces Afghanistan has not found a credible allegation of civilian casualty,” a spokesperson for the US military emailed the Guardian.
Yet that may reflect a shifting definition of the term, notes David Mansfield of the London School of Economics, a world authority on opium in Afghanistan. “Those working or residing in these labs [are] no longer viewed [by the US] as civilians involved in a criminal activity but as enemy combatants and subject to lethal force,” he wrote in a recently published paper.
Questioned on civilian deaths last year, the US Forces Afghanistan’s commanding officer, Gen John Nicholson, said killing people who work in drug-processing was legal due to “new authorities that allow me to go after revenue streams of the enemy”.
Officially, the Taliban deny involvement in the drugs trade. But they collect taxes of 10% on poppy crop, increasingly run facilities that cook the plant into heroin, and have started to charge an additional tax to bring poppy seed to public markets, locals say, partly because a collapse of the Iranian currency has hurt the market.