WASHINGTON — In a first use of expanded military authorities in Afghanistan, U.S. warplanes destroyed eight Taliban opium production facilities in Helmand Province Sunday, the top U.S. general there said Monday.
U.S. Forces Afghanistan commander Gen. John Nicholson said U.S. and Afghan forces in total took out 10 facilities on the first day of Operation Jagged Knife, a combined air operation that involved Afghan A-29s and U.S. B-52s and F-22s to take out a series of factories that Nicholson said were used as a revenue source for the Taliban.
The operation marked the first use of the F-22 to conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan. The highly advanced stealth fighter has capabilities that exceed what should have been necessary to destroy a Taliban target, raising questions as to why that platform was selected.
On Monday, Nicholson said the F-22 was selected in a last-minute decision, based on what aircraft was available with the capability to carry a small diameter precision bomb. Nicholson showed a clip of a target hit by an F-22 that dropped 250-pound small diameter bombs inside a compound. The bombs destroyed two of the structures inside the compound, leaving one, “to avoid collateral damage,” Nicholson said.
“It wasn’t because of some of the other capabilities of that aircraft,” that the F-22 was selected, Nicholson said.
In a statement, U.S. Air Forces Central Command said the F-22 was used “for a variety of reasons, but primarily to mitigate collateral damage and civilian casualties by employing small diameter bombs carried by the aircraft.”
In another strike, B-52s dropped 2,000-pound bombs on another drug production facility.
The ongoing operations reflect how the U.S. military has changed tactics since August, when President Donald Trump approved expanding the authorities under which U.S. forces could attack the Taliban and other militant groups in Afghanistan, Nicholson said. Before, U.S. forces could strike only in defense of Afghan forces and when they were fighting in close proximity to them.
Previously, “these targets were much harder to get to and really were not part of the [old] authorities,” Nicholson said.
“These new authorities allow us to attack the enemy …. to attack their financial networks, their revenue streams,” Nicholson said.
Nicholson said U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies estimate that the Taliban earns about $200 million a year from opium production in Afghanistan. The strikes are focused on the drug production facilities, not Afghan farmers growing opium poppy, the core ingredient in heroin and other opiate drugs, Nicholson said.
The Marines also provided overhead fires support with the High-Mobility Rocket Systems (HIMARS), and the Army provided surveillance support, Air Forces Central Command spokesman Lt. Col. Damien Pickart said.
Nicholson declined to say how many U.S. aircraft were involved in the operation or how many facilities the U.S. intends to strike in the continuing operation. Nicholson estimated that there are about 400 to 500 opium production facilities in Afghanistan.
Pickart said the F-22s took off from Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates and the B-52s were from the 69th Expeditionary Bomber Squadron assigned to Al Udeid Air Base’s 379th Air Expeditionary Wing,
The airstrikes were supported by KC-10 and KC-135 refuelers, surveillance aircraft and command and control aircraft, Pickart said.
Tara Copp is a Pentagon correspondent for the Associated Press. She was previously Pentagon bureau chief for Sightline Media Group.