As the primary U.S. war effort shifts from defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria to demoralizing the Taliban, the U.S. Central Command is also shifting air and intelligence assets to Afghanistan to maximize the effectiveness of President Trump’s new strategy.
“Afghanistan has become CENTCOM's main effort, thanks to the recent successes in Iraq and Syria,” Maj. Gen. James Hecker, NATO’s Air Commander in Afghanistan. “This has allowed CENTCOM to shift more assets our way, which will significantly improve our ability to assist the Afghans.”
At a briefing for Pentagon reports piped in from Kabul, Hecker showed videos of recent air strikes against Taliban targets in the north, including a series of strikes in which a single U.S. B-52 dropped 24 smart bombs on three separate targets in the rugged mountain terrain.
“What allowed this impressive air power to be unleashed was a critical modification that we made to the B-52 in late November, installing a conventional rotary launcher that allows B-52s to carry more precision-guided munitions,” Hecker said.
The U.S. ability to intensify attacks against the Taliban is enabled by the addition of more attack planes, including a squadron of U.S. Air Force A-10s, but also an increasingly capable Afghan Air Force equipped with A-29 light attack planes and ND530 helicopter gunships.
But the most important part of any air campaigns target selection, and that's where the increase in intelligence assets is making a real difference, Hecker argues.
“The intelligence community is the backbone that develops our targets, provides data analysis, and eventually produces the targets we strike in Afghanistan,” Heckler said. “This behind-the-scenes legwork allows us to hit the Taliban where it hurts most, whether it's command-and-control or their pocketbooks.”
Currently, the fledgling Afghan Air Force has 12 A-29s and 25 ND530 helicopters, but plans are to more than double that number of both types of aircraft by the end of this year.
In addition, the U.S. has delivered eight UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters on the way to an eventual fleet a fleet of 159.
“The Afghan Air Force airstrike sorties are now almost double what the U.S. Air Force conducts in Afghanistan,” Hecker said, “Between the added air power provided by the United States, new authorities and the Afghan's continuing air force growth, we are putting unrelenting pressure on the enemy these days.”
While the Afghans conduct about 40 strikes a week, compared to about 25 a week for U.S. warplanes, it’s still the U.S. — with its satellite and laser-guided precision bombs — that are doing the bulk of the damage.
“The Taliban trembles as they hear our approach,” said Hecker. “So now they have a constant eye to the sky, as we force them to engage our actual battlefield, where the Afghans are attacking from all sides.”
Hecker said the intensified air campaign is just one part of the strategy to force the Taliban to negotiate a peace agreement with the Afghan government, which also includes putting pressure on Pakistan to deny the Taliban safe haven across the Afghanistan border.
“You're not just going to bomb them into submission. But it is another pressure point that we can put on them,” Hecker said.