Fact-Checking Trump’s Statements on Increased Military Strikes in Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — Since the Afghan peace talks collapsed last weekend, President Trump has repeatedly said that the American military was striking the Taliban harder than it has for a decade, or even since the start of the war in 2001.

“We have been hitting our Enemy harder than at any time in the last ten years!” the president tweeted on Monday. He said it again, and even more forcefully, on Wednesday as he commemorated the Sept. 11 attacks at the Pentagon. “The last four days, we have hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before, and that will continue,” Mr. Trump said.

But the president, the military’s Central Command and the American-led mission in Kabul have offered no statistics to back up the statements. A survey of the scope of military operations over the course of the 18-year war seems to indicate that, at best, the president is exaggerating the pace of current operations, even if they have indeed increased in recent weeks to counter the uptick in Taliban attacks across Afghanistan.

The American military has not specifically disputed the statements by the commander-in-chief. For example, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the Marine four-star in charge of the military command that oversees operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, seemingly propped up Mr. Trump’s comments earlier this week. General McKenzie told Reuters that the military likely was increasing attacks on the Taliban following the collapse Saturday of what was nearly a peace agreement between the United States and the insurgent group.

So what does the president mean when he says the United States is striking the Taliban harder than ever before?

So far this year, the number of American airdropped missiles and bombs in Afghanistan is set to meet or possibly outpace the 7,362 munitions launched in 2018. The most ordnance dropped before 2018, according to Air Force data compiled since 2006, was in 2011 at the height of American military presence in the country, with 5,411 munitions,

Although the statistics support Mr. Trump’s overall thesis that the American military has significantly increased attacks from the air in Afghanistan, the reality on the ground, where the explosives land, is more complicated.

“The actual number of bombs dropped describes very little,” said David Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the war effort in Afghanistan from 2003 to 2005. “It’s also only a number that doesn’t actually show if they’re hitting the right targets.”

In 2011, there were more than 100,000 American troops spread across Afghanistan, backed by artillery and attacking the Taliban daily. In 2019, with roughly 14,000 troops in the country, more air support is compensating for the lack of American ground presence, Mr. Barno noted.

For comparison, in the earlier months of the war — specifically during Operation Anaconda in March 2002 — American aircraft dropped more than 3,500 munitions in roughly two weeks on Taliban and Al Qaeda fighters in the Shah-i-Kot Valley of Paktia Province. The number of bombs, which included cluster munitions, was more than three times the amount dropped in the country in all of 2015.

ImageAfghan security forces patrolling a district largely controlled by the Taliban in 2017.
CreditJim Huylebroek for The New York Times

The recent uptick in air support is not without cost to civilians on the ground. In the first six months of 2019, American and Afghan airstrikes killed and injured 519 people, according to a United Nations report, amounting to a 39 percent increase from the same time period last year, the report said. Tens of thousands of civilians have been killed throughout the war from attacks by both sides.

While the president pointed to the recent violence in Kabul as a reason for abandoning negotiations with the Taliban, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo used his appearances on morning talk shows this past Sunday to highlight that American and Afghan forces had killed more than 1,000 Taliban fighters in the 10 prior days.

Mr. Pompeo’ s choice to offer a Taliban body count and Mr. Trump’s recent language on increasing strikes are almost an embodiment of the current military strategy in Afghanistan, some officials said.

With 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, the commander of the American-led mission there, has pursued a strategy that entails marshaling what American resources are in the country, and aggressively killing the Taliban. While the American military made a point to stop publicly publishing body counts in September 2018, the metric — a discredited holdover from the Vietnam War — is still very much a part of the military campaign.

Afghan news outlets regularly publish body counts from daily firefights across the country and the Afghan ministry of defense publishes a tally nearly daily. But with a limited presence of American troops on the ground, verifying Taliban and Islamic State dead is difficult and often done with drones and overhead surveillance. T o complicate matters further, Afghan troops and Afghan officials are known to often inflate their claims.

And despite years of unrelenting attacks, Defense Department officials continue to put the number of Taliban fighters at somewhere between 40,000 and 80,000 fighters, a range that has not changed for several years.

The American military has long waged a series of off-again-on-again military campaigns in Afghanistan since the start of the war nearly two decades ago. More than 2,400 American troops have died, and 16 have been killed in combat this year — the most since 2014. NATO and other allied countries have lost roughly 1,000 troops since 2001.

But in the last five years, Afghan forces have felt the brunt of the fighting. More than 45,000 Afghan security forces have been killed, with several often dying a day.

In the months after the Sept. 11 attacks, American troops, alongside Afghan fighters and backed by air support, drove the Taliban from control of the country and routed Al Qaeda fighters in the eastern mountains of Tora Bora. In 2010 and 2011, the Pentagon deployed more than 100,000 troops to small outposts across the country to stem the Taliban’s return. That mission was often praised, but never completely successful, and was the high-water mark of American counterinsurgency tactics. And in 2014, the Pentagon euphemistically ended American combat operations and shifted to supporting the fledgling Afghan military with advisers and airstrikes.

In the two years before General Miller took command in September 2018, the American military supported Afghan forces predominantly with airstrikes while attempting to eradicate the Islamic State’s offshoot that appeared in the country’s east in 2015 by focusing on aggressive offensives spearheaded by Special Operations forces.

Under General Miller, that strategy, in many ways, was flipped by tasking the American commandos, alongside their Afghan counterparts, to specifically go after the Taliban in provinces such as Farah, Badghis, Kunduz and Uruzgan — in an attempt drive them to the negotiating table — while the campaign against the Islamic State became a second priority.

Last fall General Miller increased the number of Green Beret teams and supporting forces, around 100 troops, as part of the strategy, and by the start of the year, American commandos were conducting nearly 100 operations a week, more than double than the year prior, according to Defense Department officials.

Source: NYT

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