WASHINGTON --- Government forces are developing momentum that will mean a very bad fighting season for the Taliban and other enemies of Afghanistan, Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch told Pentagon reporters today.
Bunch, the chief of the Resolute Support Mission’s future operations division, said the new South Asia strategy President Donald J. Trump announced in August and the new permissions that flow from that fundamentally changed the battlefield in favor of Afghan national security forces.
The new strategy is conditions based -- meaning the coalition will remain in place until conditions improve to the point that Afghan forces can maintain security on their own. This means the Taliban and other terror groups like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, al-Qaida, the Haqqani group and others, cannot wait out the coalition. “As [Army] Gen. [John W.] Nicholson has stated, we will be here until the job is done,” Bunch said. Nicholson is the commander of the Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
Afghan forces and the coalition have already changed tactics and this is having an effect on the Taliban, Bunch said. His shop developed a sustained air interdiction campaign aimed at eliminating the drugs that are at the heart of the Taliban. “Using air power, we have been able to target the Taliban in their so-called safe zones, command-and-control nodes, illicit revenue-generating ventures, and their logistical networks,” he said. “This new air interdiction campaign directly strengthens the Afghan defense forces and their continued battlefield successes.”
Bunch said the Taliban receives about $300 million to $400 million a year with about $200 million of it coming from the production of heroin.
“Since the beginning of this campaign, we have eliminated 25 narcotics processing labs from the Taliban inventory,” the general said. “This equates to almost $80 million of drug money eliminated from the kingpins' pockets, while denying over $16 million of direct revenue to their Taliban partners.”
The strikes come from coalition air forces, the Afghan air force and other coalition fires.
“Additionally, the Afghan National Interdiction Unit conducted two simultaneous raids of Taliban narcotics bazaars, as part of this integrated campaign.” This, he said, resulted in more than 2 tons of heroin and more than 5.5 tons of opium being seized.
The strikes caught Taliban leaders off guard, and that enabled the killing of Taliban “Red Squad” commander Mullah Shah Wali. Bunch called this a severe blow to the Taliban’s criminal network. “Again, the Taliban have never had to face a sustained targeting campaign focused on disrupting their illicit revenue activities,” he said.
The campaign continues and Bunch promised the Taliban will face a long winter “as we will continue to disrupt their revenue sources again and again and again.”
Change is coming to yet another aspect of the fight as Resolute Support advisers and trainers will begin working with Afghan kandaks -- a unit roughly comparable to battalions. “This change allows our forces to train, advise and assist Afghan units and leaders directly controlling the fight and accelerate the transition to increased capability and capacity,” Bunch said.
This aspect of the fight will kick into high gear when a new U.S. Army security force assistance brigade deploys early next year. This will “further enhance our advising of the Afghan defense forces going into the next fighting season,” he said.
Bleak Future for Taliban
The Taliban face a bleak future. “They have been completely unable to achieve any objectives from their declared Operation Mansouri during this fighting season,” Bunch said. “In addition to their unrealistic goals, they have been unable to take a provincial capital or even a single city. This year the Taliban and have fared poorly.”
The terror group was forced to stop combat operations and a return to high-profile attacks, kidnappings for ransom and assassinations, the general said. “These are heinous acts of violence that bring attention to their group and indiscriminately target the Afghan people, resulting in unimaginable suffering,” he said.
Now the momentum is clearly with the Afghan defense forces. “Our coalition is proving the enemy's theory of victory is wrong: They believed they would win because we lacked political will,” Bunch said. “They underestimated us, and they underestimated the will of the majority of the Afghan people. Eighty-seven percent of the Afghans believe the Taliban is bad for Afghanistan.”