US ramps up bombing in Afghanistan as Trump mulls troop surge

US ramps up bombing in Afghanistan as Trump mulls troop surge
As the Pentagon lobbies President Donald Trump to send up to 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan, US jets have stepped up bombing operations to levels last seen in 2012, in an effort to crush an Islamic State affiliate before it establishes a foothold.

The latest airpower report released by the US Central Command (CENTCOM) shows 460 bombs, missiles and other weapons released over Afghanistan in April. This is more than the ordnance used in the previous two months combined, a sevenfold increase over the 62 weapons used in April of last year, and the most bombs dropped since August 2012, when 589 weapons were used.

“The two main reasons are this is the first spring fighting season since the expanded authorities were granted,” US Navy Captain Bill Salvin, spokesman for the US forces in Afghanistan, told Reuters. “And General Nicholson has stated the goal to eliminate ISIS-K in Afghanistan in 2017, which has required more offensive operations and strategic effects support.”

President Barack Obama gave military commanders greater latitude to provide air support to Afghan security forces last June, Salvin explained. The current US commander in the country, General John Nicholson, is gunning for the Khorasan branch of Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) before it can solidify a presence in Afghanistan.

By the end of April, US bombers had used 917 weapons, nearly as many as during the entire 2015. One of the bombs used was the Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB), also known as the “Mother of All Bombs,” which was dropped in mid-April on an IS stronghold in Nangarhar province, near the border with Pakistan.

The use of MOAB was reportedly a surprise even to Defense Secretary James Mattis, according to a recent profile in The New Yorker. Nicholson was apparently following through on orders by the Trump administration that delegated even more authority to local commanders, and instructed them to “annihilate” IS, rather than simply push it out of territories the terrorist group has occupied.

Nicholson has also asked for more troops, with the Pentagon recommending up to 5,000 American soldiers to reinforce the 8,400 currently deployed in Afghanistan, alongside 6,500 NATO and coalition troops. The US combat mission in Afghanistan officially ended in 2014, with the remaining troops staying in the country to “advise and assist” the Afghan government forces.

Since then, however, the government in Kabul has struggled to deal with a resurgent Taliban and the Khorasan branch of IS, which emerged in 2015. Afghan troops relying on US air support has also led to civilian casualties, most notably the October 2015 strike on the Doctors Without Borders (MSF) hospital in Kunduz.

Between the Air Force and the US Army’s helicopters, US forces had conducted 898 “kinetic strikes” in the first four months of 2017, Salvin told Reuters. There were fewer than 300 strikes during the same period in 2016.

US forces in Afghanistan are authorized to use airstrikes in counter-terrorism operations, to protect coalition forces, and help Afghan forces achieve “strategic effect” against insurgents such as the Taliban, Salvin explained.

Strikes in all three categories have increased dramatically, he added. The number of counterterrorism strikes nearly doubled from 55 in March to 92 in April. “Strategic effects” strikes nearly tripled, from 115 in March to 296 the following month. Calls for force protection increased tenfold, from six times in March to 62 strikes in April, Salvin told Reuters.