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.
"In general, I think our forces have been aggressive, and the Taliban's been more aggressive this spring than in the past," Air Force Maj. Gen. Allen Peck, deputy commander of the Central Command's air component, said in a separate interview. Peck helps oversee a two-war force that can fly from bases in the Persian Gulf region to hit targets in either Afghanistan or Iraq.
Some of the U.S. airstrikes near the southeastern border have been "hammer-and-anvil" operations carried out in coordination with Pakistani ground forces, the new Pakistani ambassador to the United States, retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in an interview this week.
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who recently returned from a visit to Afghanistan, said the Taliban have gone from operating in company-size units of about 100 men last year to battalion-size units of about 400 men this year. Some recent airstrikes have targeted those troop formations, contributing to the sharp rise in the total.
The enemy in Afghanistan is "adaptive" and "very smart," Freakley said. One tactic they have used lately to counter U.S. dominance in the air is to withdraw, when fighting, into compounds where civilians are located, which has resulted in civilian deaths in two sets of airstrikes near Kandahar.
The spate of recent civilian deaths caused by the bombing has hurt the U.S. image in Afghanistan.
In late May, the Taliban occupied a village 20 miles from Kandahar, prompting some of the U.S. airstrikes, including one that killed at least 15 civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for an investigation of the incident and asked the top U.S. military commander in the country, Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, for an explanation.
"We go to great pains to limit any kind of casualties among the civilian population," Freakley said.
The United States has introduced a variety of innovations that would probably surprise the Cold War-era designers of the warplanes flying over Afghanistan.
B-1 heavy bombers, designed to carry out nuclear strikes against major targets in the Soviet Union, are now supporting ground troops fighting guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan. "Nobody designed the B-1 to be a CAS platform," Peck said, using the military initials for "close air support," which helps forces on the ground.
"Our bombers are pretty flexible," he said in an interview. "And they can stay up a long time." They usually circle over the battlefield for several hours at a time, available to launch attacks as requested by ground commanders.
Freakley said he likes the B-1 because it can carry more bombs than a B-52 and is able to "loiter" longer over a battlefield. In addition, its ability to go supersonic -- it has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25, or 825 mph -- means that it can get to anywhere in Afghanistan in minutes, he said.
Another innovation has been hitting caves on the near-vertical faces of mountains. In recent months, U.S. forces attacked two major cave complexes in Konar and Paktika provinces that were used by enemy fighters as munitions dumps, Freakley said.
Striking those caves "was a tough problem," Peck said. An F-15 pilot himself, Peck said Air Force F-15E fighters delivered a "specially designed munition" -- a version of the 2,000-pound GBU-24 Paveway III bomb -- that could fly toward its target at a shallow angle and hit near the mouth of a mountainside cave.
But the biggest change for the Air Force may be that the service now finds itself operating so closely with the Army. "We're basically supporting a ground campaign," Peck said. "It's all driven by the ground commander."
Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.