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Attacking Opium Processing Labs in Afghanistan: Cutting a vital source of funding for terrorism

By: Amanda Swietlik

The production and trafficking of narcotics, including opium and heroin, have long been major sources of revenue for terrorist organizations. Some would even apply the label of ‘drug cartel’ to groups like the Taliban. According to the United Nations Office on Drug and Crime, there has been an 87 percent increase in production of opium in the last year in Afghanistan. Furthermore, Afghanistan was one of the twenty-two countries listed in the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report released in March 2017 by the Department of State as a country with major drug production and transit in addition to narcotics-related money laundering.

Prior to August 2017, drone strikes against opium processing labs in Afghanistan were prohibited as such strikes were only available for use against those “high-level militants” who posed “continuing and imminent threats” against Americans. However, President Trump issued a new strategy in his remarks during his speech on August 21, 2017, that allows for the United States to attack the financial resources of terrorists as was most recently seen during attacks on Taliban-controlled drug facilities. Notably, a safeguard is in place for the civilian bystanders as there is a requirement of “near certainty” that no innocent lives will be endangered.

In November, airstrikes commenced attacking opium labs in the Helmand provinces located in Afghanistan. The strike attacked ten Taliban-controlled facilities with American B-52 bombers and F-22 Raptor jets, and Afghan Air Force units.

These attacks on the facilities served simultaneous purposes. First, it assisted in the global war on drugs as the products of these facilities reached multiple counties. Most of the heroin consumed in the United States is of Mexican origin; however, Afghanistan is the origin of the majority of the heroin consumed in Canada. Furthermore, the Department of State report noted that Afghanistan is a major supplier of the opium trafficked through Europe. This leads to the second purpose of the attacks: these facilities serve as a known financial source of the Taliban. The Drug Enforcement Administration has stated that this drug operation annually provides the Taliban with a substantial cut of the multi-billion dollar drug trade. Reported by the Department of State, insurgent groups have generated significant income through drug facilities and by taxing drugs passing through their territories. These drone attacks on the drug production facilities, along with others, have caused a predicted loss of over $300 million to drug traffickers per the Drug Enforcement Administration.

However, drone attacks and air strikes are not without critics. Since the air strike on Syria in April of 2017, the basis for the President’s authority was questioned. Primarily, Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution of the United States provides the President with the powers of Commander-in-Chief, which has come to be interpreted as the authority to make war. Under the Constitution, Congress is the body with the sole power to declare war. In 1973, Congress sought to limit the President’s power to introduce troops into hostilities without the approval of Congress, and return once more to an environment more along the lines of that envisioned by the Framers of the Constitution: the result was the War Powers Resolution of 1973. The Resolution requires both for the President to notify Congress when U.S. combat troops are introduced into hostilities and within 60 days, with the possibility of a 30-day extension, Congress is to consider the Executive’s reasons for introducing combat troops and either issue a declaration of war, an authorization for the use of military force, or, in the absence of either, in order to abide by the Constitution, the Executive should promptly remove such forces.

The Trump Administration has referred to the War Powers Resolution to establish that the President has the authority and has provided the necessary notice in order to conduct air/drone strikes. Prior to these operations, the Trump Administration provided notification of the plans and their correlation to national security. The President has most recently affirmed his authority and actions on December 11, 2017, in a letter to Congress. While there may be policy concerns about the use of unmanned drones, the powers are vested in the President with the constraints provided by The War Powers Resolution of 1973. As these drone attacks are aimed at facilities run by the Taliban, the power can be vested in the President through the 2001 Authorization for Military Use. In this joint resolution, Congress granted the President with the power necessary to combat those who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001, as well as “any associated forces.” This provides the President with an additional authority for these air/drone strikes.

Exercising the President’s powers, as authorized under the War Powers Resolution of 1973 and the 2001 Authorization for Military Use, through drone attacks and airstrikes against sources of narcotics funding for terrorist groups ensures the safety of Americans and the nation’s security. By going directly after these labs, the United States has not only attacked a funding source of the Taliban but a provider of the majority of heroin consumption in Canada. These attacks ultimately aid in the combat of the two wars which America is currently facing–the war on drugs and the war on terror.


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