The Afghan air force has grown in capacity and proficiency as it continues to successfully target the Taliban across Afghanistan, the deputy air commander of NATO’s Resolute Support mission said today.
Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance R. Bunch, also the vice commander of the 9th Air and Space Expeditionary Task Force Afghanistan, said during a teleconference for Pentagon reporters from Resolute Support headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan, that the Afghans are fighting their own war.
“The Afghan air force continues to add new capability, from dropping laser-guided bombs to combat air drops to integrating the UH-60 [helicopter] into their operations,” Bunch said. “This is an air force that gets better every day.”
Under the authorities of the president’s South Asia Strategy, he explained, coalition air power has expanded the targeting of Taliban forces, finances and infrastructure using new methods.
Pressuring for Reconciliation
“The entire purpose behind our air campaign is to pressure the Taliban into reconciliation and help them realize that peace talks are their best option,” Bunch said. “We kept the pressure on them through the winter and into this spring. Before the recent cease-fire began, Operation Iron Tempest, … our air campaign, had destroyed 154 Taliban targets.”
The Afghan air force also participated by conducting 19 strikes against Taliban revenue targets with their A-29 Super Tucano attack aircraft, he said. The targets included narcotics production, storage and trafficking locations, weapons and explosive caches, headquarters and staging areas.
The South Asia Strategy’s new authorities have allowed for increased military pressure, which has been “amplified by the diplomatic and social pressure that is manifesting itself across the country in the form of the Afghan people calling for peace,” the general said.
Cease-Fire Still in Effect
And while Operation Iron Tempest is only one element of the military pressure the coalition has been putting on the Taliban, Bunch said he thinks it was a contributing factor to the recent cease-fire, which is still in effect. The cease-fire and more talk of peace are clear indications the South Asia Strategy is working, the general said.
“It was the combination of this military pressure, coupled with diplomatic and social pressure, that has brought us to this point, where for the first time in four decades, the people of Afghanistan were able to celebrate a peaceful end to the holy month of Ramadan,” Bunch said. “Now that the Afghan people have had a taste of that peace, their calls for a lasting peace have multiplied across the country and been heard worldwide, increasing pressure on the Taliban to reconcile.”
Airstrikes and other operations have hit the Taliban where it hurts most: in the wallet, the general said. “By all estimates, these air operations have taken over $45 million in revenue away from the Taliban in the strikes leading up to the cease-fire,” Bunch noted.
And the Afghan National Interdiction Unit's raids, advised by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, have seized or destroyed another $11 million from the Taliban's illicit drug enterprise, he said.
No Evidence of Civilian Casualties
Bunch emphasized that no credible allegations of civilian casualties have arisen from the 154 strikes. “Our airstrikes and raids are targeted very specifically to avoid civilian casualties while putting maximum financial pressure on the insurgents,” the general said.
And unless the Taliban joins Afghanistan’s government in negotiations to extend the cease-fire, Bunch said the coalition will continue to pursue them and their illicit revenue streams at every turn.
“We are not here conducting counter-narcotics operations,” he pointed out. “The South Asia Strategy gave us extended authorities to conduct counterthreat finance operations. There is a difference that I want to emphasize: Whatever sources of revenue the Taliban draws upon, that's where we'll strike them.”
The Afghans leading the fight against the Taliban, Bunch emphasized. “It's been an honor to watch them own this fight and want to own it,” he added. “Every day, they're only getting better and more capable on the battlefield and in the air. They are fighting for the future of their nation and for the rest of the world.”
(Follow Terri Moon Cronk on Twitter: @MoonCronkDoD)