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Unprecedented rise in US air strikes in Afghanistan

Updated October 11, 2017

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WASHINGTON: The number of US airstrikes in Afghanistan hit a seven-year high in September as the military acted on President Donald Trump’s new strategy for the country, the US Air Forces Central Command reported on Tuesday.

US forces dropped 751 bombs against the Taliban and the Islamic State (IS) targets in Afghanistan last month, an increase of 50 per cent from the 503 dropped in August and the most since the Battle of Sangin in late 2010, when more than 100 US and British troops were killed while fighting the Taliban.

“This increase can be attributed to the president’s strategy to more proactively target extremist groups that threaten the stability and security of the Afghan people,” the report said. “Additionally, the recent addition of six F-16s at Bagram Air Base, coupled with more B-52 missions dedicated to Afghanistan, offer the additional strike capacity needed to target these groups.”

Since 2010, the highest number of bombs dropped in a month in Afghanistan by the US military was 589 in August 2012, still over 150 less than September 2017.

The US has so far dropped a total 3,238 bombs in Afghanistan this year, more than two times the 1,337 dropped the year before.

As part of the new US strategy, Washington is also trying to build up Afghanistan’s nascent airpower capabilities. Under a $6.8 billion, five-year effort to modernise and increase the Afghan Air Force fleet, the United States is also providing 159 UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters to the AAF.

“This fleet of UH-60s, as well as other strike and mobility aircraft, will give a decisive advantage to the (official Afghan forces in) the fight against anti-government forces,” the report added.

On Aug 21, President Trump unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan in which he hinted at new rules of engagement that would allow airstrikes to increase.

In congressional testimony last week, US Defence Secretary James Mattis elaborated that American forces in Afghanistan can now launch airstrikes on Taliban targets even if they do not face a direct threat. The previous policy allowed US forces to engage the Taliban only when attacked or facing a direct threat.

“We are no longer bound by the need for proximity to our forces,” Secretary Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee. “Wherever we find the enemy, we can put the pressure from the air support on them. It used to be we had to basically be in contact with that enemy.”

Air Forces Central Command’s most recent data also marks a “key milestone” in the US-led coalition’s fight against ISIS in the group’s territory in Iraq and Syria — surpassing 100,000 bombs since the start of the campaign in 2014.

Published in Dawn, October 11th, 2017