[The Taliban figures killed by Afghan Special Forces recently include shadow governors in Helmand and Ghazni provinces, a deputy shadow governor in Farah province, and a Taliban judge, also in Ghazni, the statistics show. Nearly two dozen Taliban leaders have also been killed in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, where Afghan forces have been focused on avoiding a repeat of the Taliban offensive last fall that briefly allowed it to capture the city.]
By Tim Craig
An Afghan soldier stands guard at a military checkpoint on
the outskirts of Tarin Kot,
the capital of Uruzgan province. (Rateb Noori/AFP/Getty Images
KABUL —U.S. and Afghan forces are
accelerating plans to decapitate the Taliban insurgency, expanding a new
offensive strategy that appears to be stumping the group’s efforts to make
dramatic gains on the battlefield.
After 15 years of war and
several failed attempts to reach a negotiated peace deal, the dynamics of the
conflict changed in the spring, when President Obama for the first time ordered
a U.S. airstrike aimed to kill the
Taliban leader in Pakistan. Over the past four months, Afghan
Special Forces have also killed more than three dozen senior and mid-level
Taliban commanders in targeted airstrikes or raids, according to an Afghan
security document obtained by The Washington Post.
The operations are part of a
broader effort by Afghan forces, backed by increasing U.S airstrikes, to treat
the Taliban more as a foreign enemy than as a domestic insurgent group worthy
of some military restraint, according to Afghan officials and analysts. As a
result, they say, there are signs the Taliban is under strain this summer while
Afghan security forces, at least the elite ones, are finally becoming a battle-ready
“Last year, we did not have the
same achievements, and we did not do this,” said Sediq Sediqqi, chief spokesman
for the Afghan Interior Ministry, referring to Afghan commandos and Special
Operations forces in action against Taliban targets. “This year, they had a
mission, they had intelligence, they were trained, and [Taliban leaders] were
“It’s not that they were killed
by accident,” Sediqqi added. “They were targets.”
The raids were carried out by
both Afghan police and army Special Forces units relying on a target list
developed by the country’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate of
Security (NDS), Sediqqi said.
Brig. Gen. Besmellah Waziri, commander
of the Afghan Army’s Special Operations Division, referred to the operations as
an “outright change in strategy” aimed at “ringleaders” regardless of where
they are located.
“We usually pick our targets
based on their peculiarities,” Waziri said, adding that Taliban commanders and
those who oversee weapons depots or explosives factories are more “important
this year compared to last.”
The Afghan military’s more
muscular approach was first flagged by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in late
April after a Taliban truck bomb killed more than 60 people in Kabul. Ghani, who had staked his
political reputation on peace talks with the Taliban, declared in a speech to
parliament that it was time to “execute” enemies of the state and undertake
preparations for an extended war. Over the past two years, both Afghan civilian
and military casualties had continued to climb, and officials worried that the
Taliban had become increasingly brutal.
Ghani’s comments marked a
significant departure from the policy of his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. During
his final years in office, Karzai halted night raids on Taliban targets and
frequently accused the United States of killing civilians in
airstrikes, leading to considerable friction in the U.S.-Afghan relationship.
But Ghani is once again leaning
heavily on the U.S.-led coalition for support, and he received another boost
last week when Obama abandoned his plan to withdraw most of the remaining 9,800
American troops stationed in Afghanistan by January. Instead, Obama
will keep 8,400 troops there into 2017, allowing most of the existing NATO
bases to remain operational.
Troop levels, however, tell
just a small part of the unfolding story here about continued U.S. engagement in the war.
In early June, Obama also
expanded the circumstances in which commanders can order airstrikes against
Previously, those strikes were
supposed to be confined to instances where the Taliban posed a direct threat to
coalition or Afghan forces or when Afghan forces faced “a strategic defeat” on
the battlefield, Nicholson said. Now, however, the U.S. military can also help Afghan
forces achieve a “strategic effect” including support in purely offensive
Even before that policy went
into effect, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan had been increasing.
According to the U.S. Air
Force’s Central Command Air and SpaceOperationsCenter, American warplanes and drones
released 451 weapons (as the Air Force terms them) in Afghanistan from January through May, compared
to 189 during the first four months of last year.
Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland,
chief spokesman for the NATO coalition, expects the pace of strikes to increase
in the coming days now that the Islamic holy month of Ramadan has ended.
“We will gear up more and more
as we move through July,” said Cleveland, noting that coalition
commanders have been urging Afghan security forces “to get more offensive
across the board.”
The Taliban figures killed by
Afghan Special Forces recently include shadow governors in Helmand and Ghazni provinces, a deputy
shadow governor in Farah province, and a Taliban judge, also in Ghazni, the
statistics show. Nearly two dozen Taliban leaders have also been killed in
Kunduz in northern Afghanistan, where Afghan forces have been
focused on avoiding a repeat of the Taliban offensive last fall that briefly
allowed it to capture the city.
For much of the winter, after
that humiliating setback for the Afghan military, many analysts predicted
widespread Taliban gains on the battlefield this year. Some suggested the
Taliban could gain control of entire provinces.
But so far, the killing in
Pakistan of Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, together with
ongoing Afghan security operations, have kept Taliban gains far short of
expectations, according to interviews with more than a dozen provincial and
Though the Taliban launched a
major assault in Uruzgan province in late May, U.S. airstrikes and Afghan
commandos now control far more territory there than they did last year, local
officials said. In Helmand province, a full-scale Taliban assault on Lashkargah that had
been predicted for months has yet to materialize, and attacks overall in the
province are down 15 percent compared with last year.
In Kunar province in eastern
Afghanistan, an estimated 7,000 fighters affiliated with 11 different militant
groups remain, but faced with airstrikes no longer control even one of the
province’s 15 major roads, said Habib Sayedkhaili, the police chief.
“The unprecedented show of
coordination has proved to be very effective in crushing the Taliban’s momentum,”
said Jailani Farahi, deputy police chief of Zabul province in southern Afghanistan. “We can easily send supplies
and other necessary goods by road to the districts.”
Sediqqi said the Taliban
remains a serious threat to about 40 Afghan districts, compared with 70 at this
time last year.
Still, he and other security
officials caution, there remains considerable concern that the Taliban will
still mount a major offensive in the coming weeks or months.
If the Taliban continues to be
squeezed by airstrikes in rural areas of the country, Sediqqi said, the group
might turn to soft targets in Kabul and other cities. Taliban hit-and-run
attacks are also expected to continue to inflict high casualties on Afghan
But at least for now, there has
been “a killing of the Taliban’s momentum,” said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based
Sayed Salahuddin and Mohammad
Sharif in Kabul and Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.