KABUL — At least 30 civilians were killed by US airstrikes that targeted drug labs in western Afghanistan this spring, according to a United Nations report released Wednesday, a figure that the US-led mission in the country quickly disputed.
The strikes, on May 5, targeted more than 60 sites in Farah province and neighboring Nimruz province, the UN report said. As of last month, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan had verified that 39 civilians were either wounded or killed in the strikes. Seventeen of those were working in the drug labs, which were primarily producing methamphetamine.
A statement from the US-led mission in Afghanistan disagreed with nearly all of the report, citing its “reliance on sources with conflicted motives” and the decision to call those killed in the bombings civilians instead of insurgents.
The dispute sheds light on America’s current war methods — relying heavily on overhead surveillance, air support, and local forces to select and attack targets — and the sometimes contentious definitions by which the US military identifies combatants on an increasingly murky battlefield.
In the case of the May 5 strikes, the US military said in its statement that its own “exhaustive and comprehensive review” had determined that the labs were producing revenue for the Taliban, and that the people working in them were Taliban fighters and “lawful military targets.”
It said the timing of the strikes was chosen to avoid civilian casualties, but the UN report disputed this. Its report said that one of the targeted sets of facilities, in the Bakwa district of Farah province, “were not controlled and operated exclusively by the Taliban, but rather they were owned and operated by criminal groups with connections to international drug trafficking networks.”
These differing assessments are at the core of the dueling findings. While the US military sees economic engines that contribute to the Taliban’s war effort as legally legitimate targets, the UN considered the sites hit on May 5 strikes to be outside that categorization.
The people inside the labs were not “performing combat functions,” the UN report said, and “while some of the sites may have been associated with illicit activity, they did not meet the definition of legitimate military objectives under international law.”
An American defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said revenue from the targeted drug labs was directly funding Taliban Red Units, a well-trained branch of the insurgent group that is responsible for some of its more deadly attacks.
After the strikes, the US military, primarily using overhead surveillance, determined that no civilians were injured or killed. In June, the UN sent a fact-finding mission to several of the sites and conducted interviews with 21 local people, according to its report.
With decreasing numbers of US troops deployed in combat zones, a lack of people on the ground to assess the damage caused by airstrikes has become a staple of US combat operations in recent years. In April, the military command in Africa determined that civilians had been killed in an airstrike in Somalia only after a rights group and pressure from lawmakers prompted a review.
And the fight against the Islamic State group has been rife with civilian casualty allegations after extensive American bombing campaigns in cities such as Mosul, Iraq, and Raqqa, Syria.
The US military has not targeted any other methamphetamine labs after the May strikes, the defense official said. A UN report released in June said that 717 civilians were killed by American and Afghan government forces in the first six months of this year.
The United States has spent more than $8 billion on anti-narcotics operations in Afghanistan, according to the US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction. Officials have shifted anti-drug strategies several times over the course of the long war. The latest iteration, which began in 2017 and primarily targeted opium-producing facilities, was called off late last year.
And while opium poppy growth has long been a financial foundation for the Taliban, methamphetamines have quietly appeared across Afghanistan in increasing quantities. In September last year, the Afghan counternarcotics police seized more than 9 metric tons of chemicals that could be used to make the drug.