U.S. military likely to ramp up operations against Taliban – U.S. general
BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan (Reuters) – The U.S. military is likely to accelerate the pace of its operations in Afghanistan to counter an increase in Taliban attacks, a senior U.S. general said on Monday following Washington’s suspension of peace talks with the insurgents.
The Taliban, which controls more territory than at any time since 2001 when it governed the country, said on Sunday that more American lives would be lost.
Air strikes by U.S-led international forces and Afghanistan’s small air force already are at a high level – a Sept. 3 United Nations report said there had been 506 between May 10 and Aug. 8, a 57 percent increase from the same period in 2018.
“And, again, whatever targets are available, whatever targets can be lawfully and ethically struck, I think we’re going to pursue those targets,” he said.
Any increase in U.S. military action would correspond to an acceleration of Taliban attacks, McKenzie said.
The insurgents’ determination to step up both attacks on provincial centres and suicide bombings even as discussions were taking place was a major factor in pushing U.S. President Donald Trump to announce on Saturday that he was cancelling peace talks aimed at ending America’s longest war of 18 years.
The halt to the negotiations has fuelled fears of even more violence across Afghanistan, with heightened security warnings in the capital Kabul and other centres ahead of a presidential election scheduled for Sept. 28.
Trump on Monday said talks with Taliban leaders are “dead” but that he was still considering a U.S. troop drawdown.
Reuters has reported on growing misgivings that had been building within Trump’s administration about the peace deal negotiated by a special U.S. envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad.
McKenzie said he believed the Taliban underestimated the delicate nature of the talks with Washington, even in their later stages.
The United States has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan, a figure that Trump has said he would like to reduce to about 8,600.
A further intensification in air strikes poses a grave risk of increasing civilian casualties – and fuelling support for the Taliban – which were 39 percent higher for the first half of 2019 from the same period in 2018, a July U.N. report said.
A spokesman for U.S. forces in Afghanistan disputed the methods and findings, but declined to provide civilian casualty figures.
“We just have to hold the line right now,” McKenzie said.
“We’re going to make some decisions, I think, back in our nation’s capital over the next few days and that will give us increased guidance going ahead,” he added, without elaborating.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Additional reporting by Steve Holland and Jonathan Landay in Washington;Editing by Mary Milliken and Grant McCool)