During the first five months of 2016 American warplanes used 451 missiles and smart bombs against ground targets in Afghanistan. That’s nearly twice as many as during the same period in 2015. That is still less than a quarter of the activity during 2011 and less than half the monthly missiles and smart bombs used per month in 2014 (the last year American combat troops were in Afghanistan). The change in 2016 came after the Afghans finally convinced the American political leaders that more air support for Afghan forces would make a major difference.
In early 2016 the United States agreed to allow American forces in Afghanistan to work more closely with Afghan forces against the Taliban and other Islamic terror groups. That change included more American air support and relaxed ROE (Rules of Engagement). Now local American commanders could decide when to use American air power or ground forces to assist Afghan forces rather than having to try and convince lawyers and politicians back in the U.S. that it was a matter of life or death. That approach left a lot of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians dead and other Afghans have noticed. Afghan political and military leaders have been increasingly critical, often publically, about the earlier, more restrictive, American policy. The U.S. has not yet agreed increase U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan but has agreed to smaller reductions. Currently there are 9,800 U.S. troops there and that was supposed to be cut 44 percent by the end of 2016. The Afghans made a case for keeping more American troops in Afghanistan and now the reduction will only be 14 percent. Meanwhile more air support will be provided.
Afghan political and security officials insist they can defeat the drug gangs and Taliban if they again have the responsive U.S. air support that was available before 2015. Many American politicians have long refused to believe what was really going on in Afghanistan. The reality is tribal politics amped up by radical Islam and lots of drug money drives the corruption and violence. That is a lot more obvious in 2016 because the Taliban and drug gangs have concentrated their violence in a few areas most important to drug production and movement (to foreign markets). Thus fighting has been heaviest in the south where the Taliban are trying to regain control of Helmand province. At this point over a third of Helmand is under Taliban control and the government wants more American air power (bombers and surveillance) to enable the reinforced Afghan forces to push the Taliban out. It’s the drug gangs that finance all the mayhem in Helmand, as well they might because Helmand is where most of the opium poppies are grown and where the portable labs use chemicals smuggled in from bordering Pakistan to convert the sap of the poppies into heroin. The drug gangs would prefer to bribe the army and police to stay away but that has not worked because the heroin (and much cheaper opium) is hated in most of the country. That’s because over five percent of the population has become addicted to the stuff. So the troops and police from other parts of the country face disgrace back home if they do not attack the drug operations when they have a chance.