Pubdate: Sun, 18 Jun 2006
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Section: Page A01
Copyright: 2006 The Washington Post Company
Author: Thomas E. Ricks, Washington Post Staff Writer
Bookmark: (Heroin)


In Response to More Aggressive Taliban, Attacks Are Double Those in Iraq War

As fighting in Afghanistan has intensified over the past three 
months, the U.S. military has conducted 340 airstrikes there, more 
than twice the 160 carried out in the much higher-profile war in 
Iraq, according to data from the Central Command, the U.S. military 
headquarters for the Middle East.

The airstrikes appear to have increased in recent days as the United 
States and its allies have launched counteroffensives against the 
Taliban in the south and southeast, strafing and bombing a stronghold 
in Uruzgan province and pounding an area near Khost with 500-pound 
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U.S. officials say the activity is a response to an increasingly 
aggressive Taliban, whose leaders realize that long-term trends are 
against them as the power of the Afghan central government grows.

"I think the Taliban realize they have a window to act," Army Maj. 
Gen. Benjamin Freakley, commander of the 22,000 U.S. troops in the 
country, said in a recent interview. "The enemy is working against a 
window that he knows is closing."

But some experts believe that the Taliban, the fundamentalist Muslim 
rulers ousted by the U.S. invasion in 2001, have sensed an opening in 
the south as the central government in Kabul has failed to gain much 
influence there and as the United States prepares to transfer command to NATO.

"I think it is an attempt by the Taliban to preempt the changeover 
from coalition to NATO command," said Barnett R. Rubin, a political 
scientist at New York University. "They are trying to show that there 
is a war in the south and that the British, Dutch, Canadian or any 
other forces will have to take casualties and fight, not just patrol 
and build schools. They hope that this will have an impact on 
internal politics in these countries."

The arrival of late spring, historically the beginning of 
Afghanistan's fighting season, usually brings an increase in combat. 
Since early May, a resurgent Taliban militia has launched numerous 
attacks in southern Afghanistan in which more than 300 insurgents, 
soldiers and civilians have died. It has attacked in larger numbers 
and more frequently, burning 200 schools in the south and driving out 
foreign aid groups. Suicide bombings, a tactic relatively new to 
Afghanistan, have also increased.

Commanders say the combat is more intense than in the past three 
springs, both on the ground and from the air. The offensive has 
coincided with an effort to wipe out opium poppy crops in the south, 
resulting in an alliance between wealthy drug traders and 
anti-government Taliban forces. Anti-government fighters are moving 
in where the government has left a vacuum, especially where there is 
money to be made from drug trafficking and extortion.

"The Taliban are opportunists," said John Stuart Blackton, a retired 
U.S. diplomat who consults on Afghan issues with the National 
Intelligence Council, which produces government intelligence 
forecasts. "They have no deep ideology and no deep theory that 
informs what they are doing. . . . In other words, they are better 
understood as being like a crime family in New Jersey."

The airstrikes between early March and late May concentrated on two 
areas -- the provinces of the south-central mountains that are the 
Taliban's major redoubt and eastern Afghanistan near the border with 
Pakistan, where al-Qaeda and its allies operate. But U.S. warplanes 
have also hit targets near the capital of Kabul, near the main U.S. 
base at Bagram, and near other major cities such as Jalalabad and Ghazni.

The attacks have been executed by aircraft ranging from large B-52 
bombers to small Predator drones, and have employed attacks including 
2,000-pound bombs and strafing.

The U.S. military and its allies have started "going into areas that 
haven't been gone into with a lot of forces," most notably, Freakley 
said, in Konar province, north of Jalalabad.

"In general, I think our forces have been aggressive, and the 
Taliban's been more aggressive this spring than in the past," Air 
Force Maj. Gen. Allen Peck, deputy commander of the Central Command's 
air component, said in a separate interview. Peck helps oversee a 
two-war force that can fly from bases in the Persian Gulf region to 
hit targets in either Afghanistan or Iraq.

Some of the U.S. airstrikes near the southeastern border have been 
"hammer-and-anvil" operations carried out in coordination with 
Pakistani ground forces, the new Pakistani ambassador to the United 
States, retired Maj. Gen. Mahmud Ali Durrani, said in an interview this week.

Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey, who recently returned from a visit 
to Afghanistan, said the Taliban have gone from operating in 
company-size units of about 100 men last year to battalion-size units 
of about 400 men this year. Some recent airstrikes have targeted 
those troop formations, contributing to the sharp rise in the total.

The enemy in Afghanistan is "adaptive" and "very smart," Freakley 
said. One tactic they have used lately to counter U.S. dominance in 
the air is to withdraw, when fighting, into compounds where civilians 
are located, which has resulted in civilian deaths in two sets of 
airstrikes near Kandahar.

The spate of recent civilian deaths caused by the bombing has hurt 
the U.S. image in Afghanistan.

In late May, the Taliban occupied a village 20 miles from Kandahar, 
prompting some of the U.S. airstrikes, including one that killed at 
least 15 civilians. Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for an 
investigation of the incident and asked the top U.S. military 
commander in the country, Army Lt. Gen. Karl W. Eikenberry, for an explanation.

"We go to great pains to limit any kind of casualties among the 
civilian population," Freakley said.

The United States has introduced a variety of innovations that would 
probably surprise the Cold War-era designers of the warplanes flying 
over Afghanistan.

B-1 heavy bombers, designed to carry out nuclear strikes against 
major targets in the Soviet Union, are now supporting ground troops 
fighting guerrillas in the mountains of Afghanistan. "Nobody designed 
the B-1 to be a CAS platform," Peck said, using the military initials 
for "close air support," which helps forces on the ground.

"Our bombers are pretty flexible," he said in an interview. "And they 
can stay up a long time." They usually circle over the battlefield 
for several hours at a time, available to launch attacks as requested 
by ground commanders.

Freakley said he likes the B-1 because it can carry more bombs than a 
B-52 and is able to "loiter" longer over a battlefield. In addition, 
its ability to go supersonic -- it has a maximum speed of Mach 1.25, 
or 825 mph -- means that it can get to anywhere in Afghanistan in 
minutes, he said.

Another innovation has been hitting caves on the near-vertical faces 
of mountains. In recent months, U.S. forces attacked two major cave 
complexes in Konar and Paktika provinces that were used by enemy 
fighters as munitions dumps, Freakley said.

Striking those caves "was a tough problem," Peck said. An F-15 pilot 
himself, Peck said Air Force F-15E fighters delivered a "specially 
designed munition" -- a version of the 2,000-pound GBU-24 Paveway III 
bomb -- that could fly toward its target at a shallow angle and hit 
near the mouth of a mountainside cave.

But the biggest change for the Air Force may be that the service now 
finds itself operating so closely with the Army. "We're basically 
supporting a ground campaign," Peck said. "It's all driven by the 
ground commander."

Researcher Robert Thomason contributed to this report.
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