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Airstrikes Deliver Mixed Results In Frontline Afghan Province

FILE: U.S. Marines walk through the rubble of a house destroyed in an airstrike in Helmand.
FILE: U.S. Marines walk through the rubble of a house destroyed in an airstrike in Helmand.

LASHKAR GAH, Afghanistan -- The roar of fighter jets followed by loud bangs in the southern Afghan province of Helmand is now an everyday occurrence.

But the ramped-up airstrikes by the U.S.-led military coalition and Afghan forces has so far shown mixed results.

While preventing the Taliban from overrunning the provincial capital, Lashkar Gah, the air attacks have not reversed the insurgents’ momentum as they still control large swathes of the province.

Helmand, the largest province in Afghanistan, borders Pakistan and is in close proximity with Iran. Home to most of the world’s opium and heroin production, the region is central to the Taliban’s finances and a key recruiting ground.

Deputy provincial Governor Mujahidullah Sipari is confident the air campaign is successfully targeting the financial lifeline of the insurgency.

“The airstrikes are 100 percent effective. If we are able to disrupt their finances, the insurgents will be defeated,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “These attacks are helping us to choke the insurgent supply lines and targeting their drug labs and hideouts, which are central to their operations.”

But the frontlines around Lashkar Gah, a city of 300,000 people, and across Helmand, tell another story. While the Afghan forces have successfully prevented the Taliban from overrunning Lashkar Gah, the insurgents still control, contest, or dominate 12 of Helmand’s 14 districts.

Advances by the government forces in Nad-e Ali, Garmsir, and Nawa districts have relived but not fully defeated the Taliban’s siege of the provincial capital as insurgents still frequently attack government forces in Lashkar Gah’s suburbs.

The increased air campaign is part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Afghanistan strategy, which aims to increase military pressure on the insurgents.

Lawmaker Attaullah Afghan, the head of Helmand’s provincial council, says airstrikes cause civilian casualties and are not helpful for long-term stability, which is only possible if government forces can hold territory and protect the population.

“Let’s consider the recent example of airstrikes against Taliban strongholds in the northern district of Baghran in Helmand,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “Now, if the Afghan security forces are unable to recapture and hold that territory, it is unlikely to be stabilized.”

Scores of small towns and rural districts across Helmand have seen this story played out repeatedly. Since 2006, Afghan and international forces have used overwhelming force to claim territory from the insurgents. But in the absence of long-term stability operations, the insurgents easily overran them.

Civilian casualties in airstrikes have been a major public grievance that the insurgents often attempt to exploit to their advantage. In a report last month, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted that casualties by airstrikes have increased sharply in recent years.

UNAMA documented 631 civilian casualties, including 295 deaths and 336 injuries in aerial attacks. Amid an overall decrease in civilian casualties, this is the highest since 2009, when more than 140,000 NATO soldiers served in Afghanistan. The number marks a 7 percent increase from 2016.

Helmand police chief Abdul Ghaffar Safi, however, says that to reclaim the territory as big as Switzerland government forces need far more soldiers than the estimated 30,000 operating there.

“We have always succeeded in reclaiming territories whenever locals have supported us and wanted us to liberate them from the insurgents,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “But we have faced problems in retaining those territories because we lack the manpower to build and sustain the necessary posts and security footprint.”

Like most security officials in the Afghan countryside, he is hopeful that regular airstrikes against their enemies will ultimately lead them to crumble.

The Taliban, however, frequently challenge Afghan and coalition claims about their casualties in air attacks. They claim that most airstrikes harm civilians.

Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on Mohammad Ilyas Dayee’s reporting from Lashkar Gah Afghanistan.