- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 27, 2018

U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan have not carried out a single airstrike against Taliban targets for over two weeks, as local leaders continue to observe the cease-fire set by Kabul earlier this month.

American and NATO air commanders continue to monitor Taliban activity in the country through intelligence and surveillance operations, and retain the right to execute airstrikes against the insurgents in self defense, Air Force Brig. Gen. Lance Bunch, the top U.S. air commander in country, said Wednesday.

The unprecedented cease-fire between Taliban and Afghan government forces, which began on June 11 and coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, was extended by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani late last week.

While Taliban leaders have vehemently objected to the 10-day extension, U.S. and coalition forces continue to abide by Kabul’s orders, making the cease-fire the longest of its kind in the 17 years of the Afghan conflict, Gen. Bunch told reporters at the Pentagon during a teleconference from the Afghan capital.

“The opportunity for the Taliban to come to the table and look to reconcile is now,” he said. “They cannot hold ground, and they are taking lots of casualties. And they’ve resorted all the way back to just hitting disparate checkpoints or remote district centers, all of which is not a winning strategy.”

While the unilateral cease fire remains in effect, American and allied warplanes have continued to bombard targets tied to the Islamic State’s Afghan cell, which is not part of the Kabul government’s peace outreach.

U.S. and NATO jets carried out over 80 strikes over the last several weeks against the group’s strongholds in eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, which have been the focus of a ongoing counterterrorism campaign led by Kabul.

American and coalition forces had carried out a massive air campaign against the Taliban just before the cease-fire went into effect, targeting in part the narcotics production facilities that helped fund the insurgency.

Reportedly among the Taliban dead in those strikes was Mullah Fazlullah, the head of the Pakistani Taliban who was responsible for the of the 2014 massacre of Pakistani schoolchildren at a military-run school in Peshawar.

Gen. Bunch declined to comment as to whether the Taliban leader was among those killed. U.S. officials thought he had been killed in a July 2016 drone strike, only to find out he survived that attack. In all, 154 Taliban targets were eliminated, he said.

But since the end of that operation, no U.S. or NATO aircraft have targeted Taliban positions.

Afghan attack helicopters and warplanes, however, have carried out 38 “self-defense” airstrikes against Taliban targets who have attacked local forces, Gen. Bunch said, reiterating that American and allied bombers retained the right to do the same if attacked by Taliban elements.

The Trump administration has relaxed rules of engagement in Afghanistan in response to growing threats from the Taliban and other insurgent groups, coupled with a surge of 3,000 new U.S. troops and additional American firepower into the country, was the linchpin of the White House’s new South Asia strategy unveiled last August.

But in spite the shift in U.S. military tactics, the Trump administration has not given up hopes that the Taliban, with a strong base of support among Afghanistan’s Pashtun population, will agree to a negotiated peace deal. Gen. Bunch said Wednesday the increased U.S. military commitment is bearing fruit.

“We are seeing that the South Asia Strategy’s new authorities have enabled our increased military pressure, and that military pressure 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.

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