KABUL — U.S. and Afghan forces are accelerating plans to decapitate the Taliban insurgency, expanding a new offensive strategy that appears to be stumping the group’s efforts to make dramatic gains on the battlefield.
After 15 years of war and several failed attempts to reach a negotiated peace deal, the dynamics of the conflict changed in the spring, when President Obama for the first time ordered a U.S. airstrike to kill the Taliban leader in Pakistan. Over the past four months, Afghan special forces have also killed more than three dozen senior and mid-level Taliban commanders in targeted airstrikes or raids, according to an Afghan security document obtained by The Washington Post.
The operations are part of a broader effort by Afghan forces, backed by increasing U.S airstrikes, to treat the Taliban more as a foreign enemy than as a domestic insurgent group worthy of some military restraint, according to Afghan officials and analysts. As a result, they say, there are signs the Taliban is under strain this summer while Afghan security forces, at least the elite ones, are finally becoming a battle-ready force.
“Last year, we did not have the same achievements, and we did not do this,” said Sediq Sediqqi, chief spokesman for the Afghan Interior Ministry, referring to Afghan commandos and special operations forces in action against Taliban targets. “This year, they had a mission, they had intelligence, they were trained, and [Taliban leaders] were targeted.”
“It’s not that they were killed by accident,” Sediqqi added. “They were targets.”
The raids were carried out by both Afghan police and army special forces units relying on a target list developed by the country’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security, Sediqqi said.
Brig. Gen. Besmellah Waziri, commander of the Afghan army’s special operations division, referred to the operations as an “outright change in strategy” aimed at “ringleaders,” regardless of where they are located.
“We usually pick our targets based on their peculiarities,” Waziri said, adding that Taliban commanders and those who oversee weapons depots or explosives factories are more “important this year, compared to last.”
The Afghan military’s more muscular approach was first flagged by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in late April after a Taliban truck bomb killed more than 60 people in Kabul. Ghani, who had staked his political reputation on peace talks with the Taliban, declared in a speech to parliament that it was time to “execute” enemies of the state and undertake preparations for an extended war. Over the past two years, both Afghan civilian and military casualties had continued to climb, and officials worried that the Taliban had become increasingly brutal.
Ghani’s comments marked a significant departure from the policy of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. During his final years in office, Karzai halted night raids on Taliban targets and frequently accused the United States of killing civilians in airstrikes, leading to considerable friction in the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
But Ghani is once again leaning heavily on the U.S.-led coalition for support, and he received another boost last week when Obama abandoned his plan to withdraw most of the remaining 9,800 U.S. troops stationed in Afghanistan by January. Instead, Obama will keep 8,400 troops there into 2017, allowing most of the existing NATO bases to remain operational.
Troop levels, however, tell a small part of the unfolding story here about continued U.S. engagement in the war.
In early June, Obama also expanded the circumstances in which commanders can order airstrikes against Taliban militants.
Previously, those strikes were supposed to be confined to instances where the Taliban posed a direct threat to coalition or Afghan forces or when Afghan forces faced “a strategic defeat” on the battlefield, Nicholson said. Now, however, the U.S. military can also help Afghan forces achieve a “strategic effect” including support in purely offensive missions.
Even before that policy went into effect, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan had been increasing.
According to the U.S. Air Force’s Central Command Air and Space Operations Center, American warplanes and drones released 451 weapons (as the Air Force terms them) in Afghanistan from January through May, compared with 189 during the first four months of last year.
Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland, chief spokesman for the NATO coalition, expects the pace of strikes to increase in the coming days now that the Islamic holy month of Ramadan has ended.
“We will gear up more and more as we move through July,” said Cleveland, noting that coalition commanders have been urging Afghan security forces “to get more offensive across the board.”
The Taliban figures killed by Afghan special forces recently include shadow governors in Helmand and Ghazni provinces, a deputy shadow governor in Farah province, and a Taliban judge, also in Ghazni, the statistics show. Nearly two dozen Taliban leaders have also been killed in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, where Afghan forces have been focused on avoiding a repeat of the Taliban offensive last fall that briefly allowed it to capture the city.
For much of the winter, after that humiliating setback for the Afghan military, many analysts predicted widespread Taliban gains on the battlefield this year. Some suggested the Taliban could gain control of entire provinces.
But so far, the killing in Pakistan of Taliban leader Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, together with ongoing Afghan security operations, have kept Taliban gains far short of expectations, according to interviews with more than a dozen provincial and military officials.
Though the Taliban launched a major assault in Uruzgan province in late May, U.S. airstrikes and Afghan commandos now control far more territory there than they did last year, local officials said. In Helmand province, a full-scale Taliban assault on Lashkar Gah that had been predicted for months has yet to materialize, and attacks overall in the province are down 15 percent compared with last year.
In Kunar province in eastern Afghanistan, an estimated 7,000 fighters affiliated with 11 different militant groups remain, but faced with airstrikes no longer control even one of the province’s 15 major roads, said Habib Sayedkhaili, the police chief.
“The unprecedented show of coordination has proved to be very effective in crushing the Taliban’s momentum,” said Jailani Farahi, deputy police chief of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. “We can easily send supplies and other necessary goods by road to the districts.”
Sediqqi said the Taliban remains a serious threat to about 40 Afghan districts, compared with 70 at this time last year.
Still, he and other security officials caution, there remains considerable concern that the Taliban will mount a major offensive in the coming weeks or months.
If the Taliban continues to be squeezed by airstrikes in rural areas of the country, Sediqqi said, the group might turn to soft targets in Kabul and other cities. Taliban hit-and-run attacks are also expected to continue to inflict high casualties on Afghan forces.
But at least for now, there has been “a killing of the Taliban’s momentum,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst.
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad Sharif in Kabul and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.