US air strikes against Taliban opium labs ineffective

To justify such a significant shift in responsibilities there was a need to rewrite the script
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New US Department of Defence (DoD) policy authorising the destruction of opium labs in Afghanistan is unsound, can cause civilian casualties and has a negligible effect on the drugs trade, according to a new report from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) released today (25 January 2018).

The study, which comes following the US announcement of re-escalation of military operations against the Taliban, is based on detailed analysis of satellite imagery and interviews on the ground in the ten days following the first opium lab air strikes in November 2017.

Authored by Dr David Mansfield Senior Fellow from the International Drug Policy Unit (IDPU) at LSE, the report provides a significant counter-narrative to current arguments that air strikes are making a big difference to the ‘war on drugs’ and ‘war on terror’ by disrupting the Taliban’s revenues.

In fact, evidence on the ground collected for the report casts doubt on the campaign’s value for money and its effect, particularly given the potential for civilian casualties and - contrary to official estimates – its negligible effect on the drugs trade and Taliban financing.

For example, the report outlines how after one of the air strikes in Mosaqala, the opium bazaar was open the morning after the bombardment with no obvious evidence of loss of capital in the form of precursor chemicals or inventory of opiates. Fieldwork also revealed the opiates remained the same price following the strike as did the cost of labour in the labs.

The loss of civilian life, particularly women and children has also led to local anger with an increasing apathy to foreign military presence. At the same time, figures suggesting a US $80 million loss to drug traffickers in the first 24 days of the campaign are highly disputed.

The negative impacts and lack of progress, lead the author to ask what the campaign against drugs in Afghanistan is actually designed to achieve.

Commenting Dr Mansfield says:

“To justify such a significant shift in responsibilities and to allow for the targeting and killing of those that had previously been viewed as the responsibility of law enforcement, there was a need to rewrite the script, and link the drugs trade and the Taliban and press that the two were inseparable; Taliban funding was the means by which this would be done.”     

For a full copy of the Bombing Heroin Labs in Afghanistan: The Latest Act in the Theatre of Counternarcotics report, please visit:

Behind the article

For more information or interview requests, please contact IDPU Executive Director Dr John Collins: +44(0)7848836124

The London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) studies the social sciences in their broadest sense, with an academic profile spanning a wide range of disciplines, from economics, politics and law, to sociology, information systems and accounting and finance. The School has an outstanding reputation for academic excellence and is one of the most international universities in the world. Its study of social, economic and political problems focuses on the different perspectives and experiences of most countries. From its foundation LSE has aimed to be a laboratory of the social sciences, a place where ideas are developed, analysed, evaluated and disseminated around the globe. Visit for more information

The International Drug Policy Unit (IDPU) is a cross-regional and multidisciplinary project harnessing LSE research and expertise. Hosted by the LSE US Centre. Visit for more information