U.S. Airstrikes Rise In Afghanistan as Fighting Intensifies

By Thomas E. Ricks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 18, 2006

As fighting in Afghanistan has intensified over the past three months, the U.S. military has conducted 340 airstrikes there, more than twice the 160 carried out in the much higher-profile war in Iraq, according to data from the Central Command, the U.S. military headquarters for the Middle East.

The airstrikes appear to have increased in recent days as the United States and its allies have launched counteroffensives against the Taliban in the south and southeast, strafing and bombing a stronghold in Uruzgan province and pounding an area near Khost with 500-pound bombs.

U.S. officials say the activity is a response to an increasingly aggressive Taliban, whose leaders realize that long-term trends are against them as the power of the Afghan central government grows.

"I think the Taliban realize they have a window to act," Army Maj. Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commander of the 22,000 U.S. troops in the country, said in a recent interview. "The enemy is working against a window that he knows is closing."

But some experts believe that the Taliban, the fundamentalist Muslim rulers ousted by the U.S. invasion in 2001, have sensed an opening in the south as the central government in Kabul has failed to gain much influence there and as the United States prepares to transfer command to NATO.

"I think it is an attempt by the Taliban to preempt the changeover from coalition to NATO command," said Barnett R. Rubin, a political scientist at New York University. "They are trying to show that there is a war in the south and that the British, Dutch, Canadian or any other forces will have to take casualties and fight, not just patrol and build schools. They hope that this will have an impact on internal politics in these countries."

The arrival of late spring, historically the beginning of Afghanistan's fighting season, usually brings an increase in combat. Since early May, a resurgent Taliban militia has launched numerous attacks in southern Afghanistan in which more than 300 insurgents, soldiers and civilians have died. It has attacked in larger numbers and more frequently, burning 200 schools in the south and driving out foreign aid groups. Suicide bombings, a tactic relatively new to Afghanistan, have also increased.

Commanders say the combat is more intense than in the past three springs, both on the ground and from the air. The offensive has coincided with an effort to wipe out opium poppy crops in the south, resulting in an alliance between wealthy drug traders and anti-government Taliban forces. Anti-government fighters are moving in where the government has left a vacuum, especially where there is money to be made from drug trafficking and extortion.

"The Taliban are opportunists," said John Stuart Blackton, a retired U.S. diplomat who consults on Afghan issues with the National Intelligence Council, which produces government intelligence forecasts. "They have no deep ideology and no deep theory that informs what they are doing. . . . In other words, they are better understood as being like a crime family in New Jersey."

The airstrikes between early March and late May concentrated on two areas -- the provinces of the south-central mountains that are the Taliban's major redoubt and eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and its allies operate. But U.S. warplanes have also hit targets near the capital of Kabul, near the main U.S. base at Bagram, and near other major cities such as Jalalabad and Ghazni.

The attacks have been executed by aircraft ranging from large B-52 bombers to small Predator drones, and have employed attacks including 2,000-pound bombs and strafing.

The U.S. military and its allies have started "going into areas that haven't been gone into with a lot of forces," most notably, Freakley said, in Konar province, north of Jalalabad.

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