Letter from Washington — From the April 2018 issue

Mobbed Up

How America boosts the Afghan opium trade

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Lance Bunch has had an impressive year. In July 2017, he gained a coveted star, having been promoted to brigadier general while serving as the principal military assistant to James Mattis, the secretary of defense. His job put him at the epicenter of all US national security issues — and among the most pressing for Mattis at that moment was Afghanistan.

The prepresidential Donald Trump had repeatedly questioned the need for US forces to stay in the country. The military leadership felt otherwise, and once Trump was elected, they argued that he should send more troops and hang on for the long haul. This meant beating back efforts by Steve Bannon to hold Trump to his earlier isolationist instincts. H. R. McMaster, the national security adviser, reportedly even showed the president a Seventies-era photo of miniskirted women in Kabul as indication that the Afghans were not beyond redemption. Ultimately, the generals carried all before them. Late in August, Trump announced, implausibly, that he had “studied Afghanistan in great detail and from every conceivable angle” and concluded that the top brass should have the open-ended commitment they demanded.

An aerial view of Helmand province, Afghanistan © Pieter ten Hoopen/Agence VU/Redux

“We will also expand authority,” said the commander in chief, “for American armed forces to target the terrorist and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan.” For Bunch, this feature of the plan would have particular significance. The following month, he was awarded his own command position: director of Future Operations at the American headquarters in Kabul. This was a brand-new unit (inevitably reduced to the acronym FUOPS) established to implement the new targeting strategy.

Three months into the job, Bunch briefed the Pentagon press corps via video link on the novel features of his mission. “Before,” he explained, “we could only target essentially in defense or in close proximity to Afghan forces that were in contact. Now, with our new authorities, we’re able to target networks, not just individual fighters.”

In other words, airpower commanders could now operate autonomously, selecting and striking targets without reference to ground operations — the core doctrine of the US Air Force ever since it began its fight for independence from the Army between the world wars. Central to this approach is the idea of “critical nodes,” elements in an enemy system that, when identified and destroyed, will cause that system to collapse. Accordingly, Bunch explained, his command would now target the Taliban in their “so-called safe zones, command-and-control nodes, illicit revenue-generating ventures, and their logistical networks.” Among these, the drug trade had been classified as especially vital, supposedly generating $200 million a year — 60 percent of the Taliban’s annual budget. If his campaign went according to plan, proclaimed the ebullient young general, “the future of Afghanistan is one free of terror, corruption, and narcotic production.”

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is the Washington editor of Harper’s Magazine and the author, most recently, of Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins.

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