U.S., Afghan forces strike opium factories to curb Taliban funds





By Girish Gupta

KABUL (Reuters) - U.S. and Afghan forces have launched joint attacks on Taliban opium factories to try to curb the insurgent group's economic lifeline, officials from both countries said on Monday.

U.S. Army General John Nicholson showed videos at a press conference of targeted aerial strikes against what he described as Taliban drug factories.

"Last night we conducted strikes in northern Helmand to hit the Taliban where it hurts, in their narcotics financing," said Nicholson, flanked by Afghan Army Lieutenant General Mohammad Sharif Yaftali.

The southern province of Helmand suffers heavy fighting and is the single-largest producer of opium.

Opium production in Afghanistan reached record highs this year, up 87 percent on last year, the United Nations said last week.

The U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) said output of opium made from poppy seeds in Afghanistan, the world's main source of heroin, stands at around 9,000 metric tons this year.

UNODC has warned in the past that Kabul's weakening grip on security was contributing to a collapse in eradication efforts.

NARCOTICS TRAFFICKING

Nearly half of Afghan opium is processed, or refined into morphine or heroin, before it is trafficked out of the country, according to U.S. and Afghan officials.

"We're determined to tackle criminal economy and narcotics trafficking with full force," said Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Twitter.

Nicholson said the attacks were part of U.S. President Donald Trump's new policy toward Afghanistan as he boosts troop numbers.

The four-star general showed one video of an F-22 fighter jet dropping 250-pound bombs on two buildings, emphasizing that a nearby third building was left unscathed.

U.S. troops have long been accused of causing unnecessary collateral damage and civilian deaths. The United States says it takes every precaution to avoid civilian casualties.

The United Nations said at least 10 civilians may have been killed by a strike in Kunduz earlier this month, contradicting a U.S. investigation that found no civilian deaths.

(Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by James Mackenzie)

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