A year-long bombing campaign that pitted some of America's most high-tech Air Force fighter jets against primitive Taliban "heroin labs" has quietly ended after failing to achieve much of anything, according to the latest report on continuing US operations in Afghanistan from the Defense Department's inspector general.The campaign, dubbed Operation Iron Tempest, was only the latest iteration of America's endless and fruitless effort to suppress the country's opium economy, which has delivered hundreds of millions of dollars a year into the hands of the Taliban and corrupt Afghan officials alike. Since the U.S. invaded in 2001, American taxpayers have forked out nearly $9 billion to fight Afghan opium, yet Afghanistan continues to produce the vast majority -- about 85 percent -- of the global opium supply.
Despite all those counter-narcotics dollars, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime reported opium production at record highs in the last years, with more than 6,400 tons of raw opium produced last year. Iron Tempest didn't make much of a dent in it.
As part of the Trump administration's bid to look tough against both drugs and the Taliban, Iron Tempest was unleashed in November 2017 with F-22 stealth fighters and B-52 strategic bombers deploying 250- and 500-pound bombs against nondescript buildings in the Afghan hinterlands. Those F-22s, designed to be deployed against the most advanced aircraft in the world, cost $35,000 per flight hour, and they were used to blow up the barrels, tubes, and piles of raw material that constitute Afghan "heroin labs."
But hundreds of air strikes against what U.S. commanders estimated were 500 "heroin labs" operated by the Taliban failed to put a serious dent in the trade. In fact, they probably hurt Afghan security and political figures involved in the opium trade more than they hurt the Taliban.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported in January that while the air strikes had deprived the Taliban of an estimated $42 million (out of its estimated annual take from the opium trade of $200 million), while unspecified others "involved in the illegal drug trade in Afghanistan" lost $200 million. (The estimated value of the opium crop alone is above $1 billion a year when prices are high; but additional profits come from taxes on the trade and the value added by processing the raw opium into more profitable heroin.)
But the numbers on the economic pain caused the Taliban are iffy, SIGAR conceded. It was difficult to weigh the actual financial impact because "no ground verification takes place to weigh and assess the amounts of the precursors or products actually destroyed by an airstrike."
SIGAR didn't mince words in its assessment of overall Afghan and U.S. counter-narcotics performance: "To put it bluntly," the watchdog said, "these numbers spell failure."
That same January SIGAR report quietly noted the end of Iron Tempest. As evidence mounted that the campaign was ineffective, the number of air raids dwindled. In the last three months of 2018, only two air strikes took place, marking the end of the campaign. Operation Iron Tempest had gone out not with a bang, but with a whimper.
That could be the epitaph for the entire American adventure in Afghanistan. After nearly two decades of invasion and occupation, Trump administration officials are now engaged in direct peace talks with the Taliban that could lead to Afghan coalition government including the Taliban and the final withdrawal of American forces.