One of the U.S. generals running the war in Afghanistan said he is now a true believer, convinced that after 16 years of stalemate things are about to change thanks to a fresh strategy approved by President Trump in August.
The new authorities allow U.S. commanders to target Taliban networks and revenue sources, as well as back up Afghan forces on the ground in ways they couldn’t before.
“It's only just begun,” said Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch in a briefing piped into the Pentagon from Kabul. “This will be a very long winter for the Taliban.”
Bunch described the new strategy as “taking the gloves off,” and said it has dramatically shifted the momentum in favor of Afghan forces in the past few months.
“These are new efforts that have never been tried before in Afghanistan,” Bunch said. “These are new, the war has changed.”
“We are able to go after their [Taliban] weapons cache sites, their revenue generation, their C2 [command and control] nodes, all the areas where they thought they were safe and they are no longer so,” Bunch said. “It has definitely been a game-changer, and the Taliban is definitely feeling it.”
The cornerstone of the new strategy is what Bunch called a “dedicated air interdiction campaign” that is designed to deny the Taliban the huge profits it has reaped for years from Afghanistan’s illicit opium trade.
In just three weeks, U.S. and Afghan airstrikes, coupled with Afghan special operations raids on the ground, have eliminated 25 Taliban narcotics processing labs, destroying an estimated $80 million in drugs, and denied the Taliban more than $16 million in direct revenue that is passed on from local drug kingpins, the U.S. military said.
“The Taliban have never had to face a sustained targeting campaign focused on disrupting their illicit revenue activities,” Bunch said. “The Taliban narcotics leadership was absolutely caught off-guard.”
The U.S. plans a relentless campaign over the next few months to keep up the pressure, in the same way the U.S. coalition targeted Islamic State oil production and distribution to cripple the terror group in Iraq and Syria.
Bunch said the Taliban have already responded with a change in tactics, avoiding direct combat and switching to more of a guerrilla-style of warfare.
“The Taliban strategy is moving backwards. As they are unable to conduct offensive combat operations, they have transitioned back to high-profile attacks, assassinations and kidnapping for ransom, all of which indiscriminately target the Afghan people,” Bunch said.
The other major change is that U.S. military advisers are now embedding with Afghan forces who are closest to combat, at the “kandak” level, the equivalent of a U.S. military brigade.
This proved especially effective in Syria where U.S. special operations forces advised Syrian fighters, provided intelligence and logical support, and brought in combat firepower when needed.