Afghan conflict to intensify in 2018 'game changer'
Kabul: Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated with US and Afghan officials tipping 2018 to be a "game-changer" as relentless airstrikes pummel Islamist militant groups –but others warn the 16-year war has simply become a more violent stalemate. A traditional easing in fighting during the freezing winter months has been absent this year as the Taliban and Islamic State group respond to intensifying US and Afghan air assaults.
Since US President Donald Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan in August, giving the US Air Force more leeway to go after militants, American pilots have been bombarding Taliban and IS fighters, their training camps and drug-making laboratories.
"The gloves are off," Brigadier General Lance Bunch, who directs future air operations in Afghanistan, told reporters recently. The new policy has "definitely been a game-changer and the Taliban is definitely feeling it", he added.
The US is deploying more troops and aircraft to Afghanistan, which has become the main theatre of operations for the US Air Force following a drawdown in Syria and Iraq.
At the same time it is beefing up Afghanistan's fledgling air capabilities. US aircraft dropped 4,361 munitions across the country in 2017 –including more than 2,300 since August, which exceeded the combined total for 2015 and 2016. With the help of huge B-52 bombers, the US has expanded its campaign to far northeastern Afghanistan near the China and Tajikistan borders where it is also targeting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which neighbouring China blames for launching attacks on its soil.
"The days of old where you had fighting seasons are gone," Major General James Hecker, head of NATO's Air Command in Afghanistan, told AFP in Kabul last week. Militants have reacted violently to the increased airstrikes, launching a wave of deadly attacks across the war-torn country, including in Kabul, in a devastating display of defiance.
The Taliban, by far Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks last month alone, the Washington, DC-based terrorism research group TRAC said, describing the number as "unprecedented" for January. Combined with increased activity by relative newcomers IS, which has been expanding beyond its eastern stronghold, the country appeared to be "at a flashpoint almost to the point of no return", TRAC warned in a new report. The escalation of the conflict foreshadows a "particularly bloody year", Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC told AFP, forecasting more Afghan and US casualties.