KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan — Winter usually means a lull in the fighting here. Taliban fighters blend back into their villages, where it's warm, and U.S. forces hunker down through the holidays.
But for the first time in 16 years, the cold has not slowed the war in the air. U.S. and Afghan forces conducted 455 airstrikes in December, an average of 15 a day, compared with just 65 the year before. Even in December 2012, when there were nearly 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, barely 200 strikes took place.
All told, 2,000 airstrikes were carried out between August and December of last year, nearly as many as in all of 2015 and 2016 combined.
The huge spike in airstrikes is the product of new rules of engagement, adopted as part of a strategy that President Trump announced in August. U.S. forces can now strike Taliban targets at will, whereas under the Obama administration they were restricted to defending Afghan forces under imminent attack. As more than a half-dozen U.S. military officers put it, "The gloves are off."
The blitz is set to intensify as U.S. military operations draw down in Iraq and Syria and assets such as jets, field advisers and surveillance drones are redeployed in Afghanistan. U.S. bases here are abuzz with activity. Numerous military officers used a phrase often repeated during this war: "We're at a turning point."
But whether the new strategy is a decisive step toward forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table or just another curve along a seemingly endless road of war depends on whom you ask.
High above Afghanistan's spectacular snow-swept mountains, from the vantage point of a KC-135 Stratotanker on a recent refueling mission, what was clear was the quickening pace of the air campaign. Over the course of six hours circling above the two most active areas of fighting — Helmand and Nangahar provinces, which are hundreds of miles from each other — F-16 fighter jets swooped in again and again, taking on tens of thousands of pounds of fuel in midair.
"Where last year we'd do a 12-hour flight over Afghanistan and offload maybe 20,000 pounds of fuel, now we do four hours and might offload 50,000 pounds," said Ronny, a senior airman who controlled the "boom," a device lowered from the back of the KC-135 that can refuel almost any military aircraft. (The Washington Post is complying with a request from the military that, for security reasons, personnel in active combat engagements who are not commanders not be identified by their full names.)
A year ago, the U.S. Air Force was preoccupied with bombing the Islamic State in Mosul and Raqqa, and the KC-135s were flown out of an air base in Qatar, concentrated mostly on that effort. That meant combat pilots in Afghanistan might often be able to stay in the air for just an hour at a time before running out of fuel. Under the new strategy, KC-135s are based in-country at Kandahar Airfield, enabling combat pilots to stay out much longer.
"How's it going down there?" Ronny asked one of the F-16 pilots while their planes flew in tandem, connected by the boom. The pilot could see him through the boom's window and talk to him over a radio. After some small talk — college football, dormitory high jinks, preferred breakfast meats, "Game of Thrones" — the conversation turned to the matter at hand.
"We dropped two big ones on them about an hour ago. The guys on the ground called it in, saying they were responding to sniper fire," said the F-16 pilot. "We might need to come back for one more round [of fuel], but I'm not sure yet."
That luxury of time is new. And although defending friendly troops under fire isn't, many of the recent airstrikes have taken full advantage of the new rules of engagement. Dozens of them, for instance, have targeted labs where the Taliban turns poppy into narcotics such as heroin, which it uses to finance its operations. Hundreds of Taliban fighters have been killed.
"We've started to hear of Taliban commanders saying they can't sustain this level of casualties," a senior intelligence officer said during a briefing this month in Kabul. "Not that there's any shortage of fighters, but it is creating friction within their ranks."
The new strategy presupposes that U.S. and Afghan forces can pound the Taliban so hard that it has no choice but to relinquish its war against the Afghan government and instead join it in some sort of power-sharing agreement. The intelligence officer said that the Taliban could even be given control of entire provinces in such an agreement. Yet even though that would be a major walk-down from the George W. Bush era, when many Americans thought the Taliban could be vanquished, many analysts doubt the new goal is attainable.
"U.S. strategy is so military-centric. Even 100,000 troops couldn't finish the Taliban, and ever since those days, they have been zealously confident," said Borhan Osman, senior analyst for Afghanistan at the International Crisis Group. "The U.S. is misreading Taliban psychology. Their whole fight is about saying, 'We were a legitimate government and you toppled us and installed a puppet government.' This new U.S. strategy will only make them more willing to fight."
U.S. military leaders acknowledge that the Taliban controls or contests nearly half of Afghanistan's districts — a number that has slowly crept higher through the past year, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, a U.S. government watchdog. But they also generally praise the scrapping of what Trump called President Barack Obama's "arbitrary deadlines" for troop withdrawal and the return to a "conditions-based approach." The shift, they say, sends a signal to the Taliban and its regional backers that the United States is "here to stay." They also argue that it boosts the resolve of the Afghan government and aligned forces by showing that the United States has recommitted to keeping them in power.
From a U.S. domestic standpoint, the political cost of recommitting to years of more war has diminished as Afghanistan has faded almost entirely from the national conversation. In private conversations, foreign officials here say the U.S. military may be in Afghanistan indefinitely, as it is on the Korean Peninsula and elsewhere.
In the coming years, the U.S. military hopes to double the size of Afghanistan's special operations commando force and to triple the size of the Afghan air force. It has already committed to sending roughly 3,000 more American troops, bringing its total to 14,000 to 15,000. Many will embed with beleaguered Afghan ground forces. With more ground troops, more and more aircraft will be required to provide cover.
Human rights groups have long expressed concern that more airstrikes could result in an increase in civilian casualties. Military officials are quick to point out that, per their own numbers, civilian casualties decreased in 2017 from the previous year, despite the huge increase in airstrikes. Independent verification of that claim is hampered by constant violence, and recent reporting from Iraq by media and monitoring groups has uncovered systematic underreporting of civilian casualties by the U.S. military.
Despite being on his third deployment over the course of a decade, Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, the NATO mission's director of "future ops" — meaning he leads the mission's strategic planning — is almost unbridled in his optimism. Elaborating on comments by Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., commander of U.S. forces here, that the war is at a stalemate, Bunch said it is a "stalemate where the momentum has clearly shifted." He said that the new strategy was having "tremendous impact" and that what he wants people back home to understand is that the new strategy is a "game changer."
To Barnett Rubin, a senior fellow at the Center on International Cooperation who has studied and written about Afghanistan for decades and advised the U.S. government and NATO, the appropriate response to that optimism is to ask, "Okay, but, so what?"
"I'm not skeptical in the sense that they say its going great and I say it's not," Rubin said. "It's more that it doesn't matter what happens on the battlefield. The Taliban cannot be eliminated. We can say we'll wait them out, but we can't. We have the option of leaving, and they don't. Eventually, one way or another, we'll take that option."
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the context for a statement by Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch about the war in Afghanistan that he offered in elaborating on Army Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr.'s comments. Bunch says he was not "brushing off" Nicholson's comments, as the article stated originally.