KABUL, Afghanistan—The surge in U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan since U.S. President Donald Trump announced a new strategy for South Asia over a year ago has made fighting more difficult for insurgents, forcing them to change tactics.
The U.S. Air Force dropped 746 weapons over Afghanistan in July, the highest monthly total since November 2010—at the height of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, when around 100,000 troops were deployed there, almost 10 times more than now.
These latest numbers from July also show a significant spike from the average 500 weapons released per month during the first half of 2018. Although no exact figures are available, the Afghan Air Force has likewise intensified airstrikes against insurgents.
The insurgents belong mainly to the Taliban, but also to some smaller groups, such as a local chapter of the ISIS terrorist group.
“Before [the increase in airstrikes], fighters could go freely anywhere—even in convoys with many vehicles. But now, fighters are not able to move [so easily] anymore,” an insurgent operating in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar wrote to The Epoch Times via WhatsApp.
“Larger gatherings are not conducted anymore. The [insurgent] training centers in the area have been closed. All due to the bombardments. Also group attacks are not possible anymore, because of the fear of drone strikes.”
This account was corroborated by local journalists speaking about the situation in the southern province of Helmand, a Taliban stronghold.
“Due to the airstrikes, the Taliban [in Helmand] do not mass anymore and also don’t operate as openly as before. For example, they now often hide their guns when moving around,” a local journalist in Helmand told The Epoch Times in July.
“In early autumn 2017, I easily met and interviewed a local Taliban in Yakhchol [an area of Helmand’s Gereshk district], but when I wanted to follow up later in 2017, it was impossible,” Nawab Mumand, another Afghan journalist, said.
This change in attitude reportedly happened around October 2017, when the increase in U.S. airstrikes was first launched.
“The reason for this is the Taliban’s concern of being tracked and targeted, if they meet with outsiders. Taliban commanders in Helmand don’t even carry cell phones anymore out of fear of being tracked,” Mumand said.
Reports from the western part of the country paint a similar picture. “Due to the increased airstrikes, the Taliban [in the western province of Farah] don’t gather anymore, as they used to do before,” an officer of the Afghan National Army’s Commando unit deployed to Farah, who asked for anonymity, told The Epoch Times.
According to the officer, the Taliban’s fears are justified, as he asserted that a recent airstrike hit a Taliban meeting in Farah’s Bolo Bluk district, killing about 40 insurgents. Media reports confirmed the killing of insurgents by air and ground operations in the district in mid-August. The same reports cited local residents saying that 16 civilians were killed as well.
Hard to Assess Impact
While the increased airstrikes have forced the insurgents to adapt tactics, it is hard to assess the impact of this change. For example, even though fighting has become more difficult for the insurgents, they haven’t abandoned their group attacks.
This was illustrated when the Taliban launched a brazen assault on the capital of Ghazni province in mid-August that reportedly involved 1,000 insurgents. They also have conducted other group attacks in different parts of the country, although on a considerably smaller scale.
By conducting such attacks, however, it seems that the Taliban willingly take the risk of suffering significant casualties among their troops. In the case of the attack on Ghazni, U.S. Forces–Afghanistan claimed that 220 Taliban were killed over four days by U.S. airstrikes alone.
Contesting this, some analysts cite videos that show insurgents calmly occupying overrun government positions as alleged proof of the Taliban’s lack of concern of being targeted by airstrikes.
However, this has to be seen in the context of the videos being almost exclusively released by Taliban propaganda channels that aim to display a successful campaign against Afghan and U.S. government forces. These channels deliberately select videos of apparently successful campaigns, while arguably trying to hide existing footage of insurgents getting hit by airstrikes, thereby making such videos an unreliable indicator of the reality on the ground.
Furthermore, even from the selected propaganda videos, it is usually not clear how long the insurgents actually stay in the occupied outposts, and several reports suggest that insurgents often only briefly occupy government positions before retreating to evade possible airstrikes, among other reasons.
While it may be difficult to evaluate the exact impact of increased airstrikes on insurgent tactics and how this may have changed the dynamics on the battlefield, still the insurgent contacted by The Epoch Times reported that his group was paranoid about getting hit.
“Even in our mountain hideouts, we have to move around frequently to avoid being struck from the air.”