United States military doubling down on the Taliban with a “tidal wave of air power” and more aggressive rules of engagement

Sixteen years after the United States first sent troops to fight the Taliban in 2001, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the current senior US military commander in Afghanistan, pledged that “a tidal wave of air power is on the horizon” in the war against Taliban insurgents and that “this is the beginning of the end for the Taliban”. He joins a growing list of US generals who promised to defeat the Taliban, yet according to a recent study, the Taliban now controls or contests 45% of Afghanistan.

The delivery of dozens of UH-60 black hawk helicopters to the Afghan Security Forces is expected to be part of this latest game-changing US strategy.

Earlier last week, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told members of two Congressional panels that US pilots are changing how they target Taliban and Islamic State militants in Afghanistan. Former President Barack Obama restricted US strikes to targeting Taliban insurgents only when they were attacking US or Afghan Security Forces. Instead, under the changes, US aircraft are permitted to seek out and attack ‘militants’ based simply on their affiliation to the group. The changes are similar to the rules of engagement governing the fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq as well as in eastern Afghanistan, and is the latest move in a series of military decisions by the Trump administration to give more decision-making authority to troops at lower levels. The emphasis on air power by the Trump administration has resulted in an unprecedented 20,650 bombs being dropped on seven countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Somalia and Syria) during his first six months in office and a large increase in the numbers of civilians being killed.

President Trump pledged in an August to leave US troops in Afghanistan until conditions on the ground justified a reduction and allowed Mattis to deploy an additional 3,000 troops to the country. This deployment is being made under the guise of a broader US strategy Mattis called ‘R4+S (regionalize, realign, reinforce, reconcile, and sustain’).

Secretary Mattis also testified that the Pentagon will no longer disclose the numbers or destinations of troops headed to Afghanistan, because he said detailing specific numbers would help the Taliban. In late August, the US Defense Department had admitted that there are 11,000 US troops in Afghanistan as part of NATO’s Resolute Support mission. The tally is far higher than the Pentagon’s previously reported count of 8,400 troops—the maximum permitted under a troop level cap introduced by the Obama administration in 2016—and accounts for covert and temporary units. It is not clear if this U-turn in the Pentagon’s transparency around numbers of US forces stationed in Afghanistan has been discussed within NATO. However, the new US ambassador to NATO was very precise about the additional numbers of NATO troops that were expected, stating that a benchmark of 1,000 additional troops with specific skills had been discussed.

At the end of July, the US watchdog on Afghanistan released its latest report on the stagnating reconstruction of the country. Among the depressing statistics to be found in the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Quarterly Report to the United States Congress, 30 July 2017: a 21% increase in security incidents from the first quarter of the year; 2,531 Afghan service members killed and 4,238 wounded in the first five months of 2017; more than 12,000 Afghan Ministry of Defence Personnel “unaccounted for”; a 25% decline in the country's domestic revenues in the first six months of the year; and an increase in opiate production from $1.56 billion to $3.02 billion between 2015 and 2016.