US heightens attacks on Taliban to gain leverage in peace talks: NYT


NEW YORK: The United States (US) military has stepped up its airstrikes and special operation raids on Taliban leaders and fighters in Afghanistan to give American negotiators leverage in peace talks with the militant group, The New York Times reported Saturday.

Citing unnamed Defence Department officials, the newspaper said the US attacks had reached the highest level since 2014, with the surge having started during the fall,

The peace talks followed President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would begin withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan and wind down the nearly 18-year war.

The Times said the Taliban had complained about the increase in airstrikes and raids.

“They (Taliban) say they have learned from their mistakes of the past,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the American special envoy who is leading the talks, said in a speech on Friday in Washington. He said the Taliban did not want to be “a pariah state” and had told him that they did not see a military solution to the conflict.

The military strategy, devised by General Austin Miller, the current commander of the American-led mission in Afghanistan, is similar to past attempts to bleed the militant group, the report said.

But it is tied to a more specific ambition, coming as the United States is negotiating directly with the Taliban. Last year, the United States dropped more than 7,000 bombs, missiles and other munitions on extremists in Afghanistan — up from 2,365 in 2014, the Times said, citing military data. Since September alone, the United States has launched about 2,100 air and artillery strikes in Afghanistan.

Additionally, according to the report, American and Afghan commandos more than doubled the number of joint raids conducted from September to early February, compared with the same five-month period a year earlier, the military data shows. Generally, the joint forces conduct dozens of raids each month.

On Friday, there were reports of attacks on the Taliban by Afghan and American units from Kandahar, Helmand and Nangarhar — including one that killed two low-level Taliban commanders and another that killed a Taliban intelligence chief.

At the same time, the Times said the increase in lethal operations is not without cost to both American and Afghan forces. In January, two American commandos were killed, and about two dozens have been wounded since General Miller took command in September — about as many as during the same period the year before, the newspaper said citing two Defence Department officials.

According to the Times, the increased assaults have helped keep the Taliban engaged in peace talks in the colder months while giving the beleaguered Afghan military time to regroup.

Citing one senior Defence Department official, the report said the Afghan military’s performance during each summertime fighting season since 2014 was worrying; if they continue, staggering casualties might point to a possible fracturing among the Afghan security forces.

Last month, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said 45,000 members of the security forces had died since he took office in 2014 — a much higher total than his government had previously acknowledged.