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In Afghanistan, US Destroys $80M in Drug Money During Counter-Taliban Campaign

FILE - A U.S. Marine patrols a village while on a joint mission with Afghan National Army soldiers to clear the town of Taliban insurgents in the Helmand province of Afghanistan, Aug. 13, 2009.

American military officials say the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan has destroyed 25 illegal drug-processing laboratories in Helmand province, eliminating $80 million in narcotics money during the first three weeks of an air campaign aimed at countering Taliban revenue.

Speaking via teleconference from Kabul, U.S. Air Force Brigadier General Lance Bunch told reporters $16 million of the $80 million in destroyed funds was set for "direct revenue" to the drug lords' Taliban partners.

The air campaign marks the first time in 16 years that counter-Taliban forces have used air power to target revenue streams.

"This is a new war," Bunch said. "The gloves are off."

He praised the new authorities granted under the Trump administration, which allow the U.S.-led coalition to strike Afghan Taliban support structures, ranging from weapons caches to revenue generators.

Prior to the policy change, the U.S. military was only permitted to conduct American airstrikes in defense of Afghan National Security Forces who were in close proximity to Taliban fighters.

"It has definitely been a game changer, and the Taliban is definitely feeling it," Bench told reporters Tuesday at the Pentagon.

According to the U.S. military, the Taliban generates a total budget of between $300 million to $500 million a year. Sixty percent of that, or nearly $200 million, comes from the narcotics trade in Afghanistan, the vast majority of which originates in Helmand province.

Bunch said the United States, Afghanistan and international allies are looking for opportunities to disrupt the Taliban's ability to fund their operations, recruit fighters and buy weapons, which he said will prevent the insurgent group's ability to reset in the upcoming months.

"It's only just begun, and it's going to be a long winter for the Taliban," he said.