The number of bombs the U.S. and its coalition partners have dropped on Islamic State targets in Iraq and Syria has dropped by more than 60 percent, as the amount of territory controlled by the terrorist group continues to shrink, the senior U.S. Air Force general in Iraq said Tuesday.
The U.S.-led coalition has been dropping an average of 1,800 to 2,600 bombs a month for the first nine months of the year. In October, the total was approximately 850, according to Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, who briefed reporters at the Pentagon by phone from Irbil, Iraq, where U.S. ground troops are based.
“That’s indicative of the fact that ISIS is collapsing, not only as a physical caliphate but also in ownership of land,” Croft said. “They only now control about 4 or 5 percent of the original area they covered, so the number of targets has dropped dramatically in the last month.”
The lessening demand for air support for Iraqi and Syrian ground troops will free up some attack planes for use over Afghanistan, where President Trump’s new strategy includes new rules of engagement to provide more air support for Afghan government troops battling the Taliban.
“Obviously we are trying to increase our presence in Afghanistan,” Croft said. “The CAOC [Combined Air Operation Center in Qatar] essentially controls our air forces in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and other areas, can easily flex our air power day by day to areas as required, and Afghanistan is an example of that.”
U.S. planes based in Qatar, the United Arab Emirates or on aircraft carriers can be sent to either theater of battle, depending on the need.
“We can take an air asset and push it to Afghanistan one day, and the next day it can fly over Iraq and Syria,” Croft said. “That ebb and flow is something we look at every day.”
But Croft cautioned that the battle against ISIS in Iraq and Syria is not over, and that even when the group is defeated there will still be a need for surveillance drones and manned aircraft to hunt down pockets of fighters hiding in the desert.
“We need to ensure we don’t take our eye off of that ball,” Croft said. “It’s sort like a newly plowed field. If you don’t tend it, you know the weeds grow. And I would equate ISIS and everybody else, AQ, AQI, as just a bunch of weeds.”
A recent report to Congress from Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction noted the U.S. has already taken on a greater combat role in Afghanistan, dropping the most munitions against the Taliban and Islamic State since 2012 (751 in September) and conducting 2,400 airstrikes from January to September (the most since 2014).