November 19, 2010 — Coalition forces have increased the pace of military operations in Afghanistan to record levels, achieving battlefield successes against the Taliban as NATO prepares to discuss the future of the war at a summit this weekend in Portugal.
Warplanes dropped a record 1,000 bombs and other munitions in October, up from 660 in October 2009, according to coalition statistics. The number of Special Forces-led raids against insurgent leaders has increased sixfold over last year.
“We’ve had some significant successes in the last six weeks or so,” said Canadian air force Lt. Col. Alex Day, deputy chief of the air operations control center. “We’re going to press home the advantage.”
The operations were planned without regard for the summit date and come at a time when coalition forces are at a peak of around 150,000, which includes 100,000 American troops.
The White House has said it will begin withdrawing forces in July and the upcoming winter months are historically periods when little combat takes place.
“This is our last, best chance,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee. “NATO needs to understand that.”
Commanders have said they plan to press the attack in winter but that will be difficult if militants leave the battlefield.
“They will retreat back to their safe havens to wait out the winter months,” Day said. “We’ll try and keep the pressure on as much as possible.”
The impact on the Taliban may not become clear until the snows melt in spring.
“We’ll know more about their strength when the fighting resumes,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
A key focus of the NATO summit in Lisbon, which President Obama will attend, is a U.S. plan to complete the transition of security to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
“It’s a process that begins in early 2011 with the target of completion at the end of 2014,” said Doug Lute, a special assistant to Obama.
McCain, who has been critical of the withdrawal date for U.S. forces, welcomed the shift in focus to 2014 because it emphasizes how long U.S. forces will be there instead of when they will leave.
“I think it’s a significant shift in recognition of reality and conditions on the ground,” McCain said. Thirty-nine NATO service members have been killed so far this month in Afghanistan, including at least 33 Americans.
The coalition has stepped up raids targeted at insurgent leaders. Special Forces troops have conducted 1,572 operations over the past three months, capturing or killing 368 insurgent leaders, according to coalition statistics.
The raids reflect a better intelligence picture of the enemy — a picture that continues to get better as leaders are captured and intelligence seized. “We’ve broke the code in a way,” said Dave Barno, a retired lieutenant general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan and is now at the Center for a New American Security.
So many veteran Taliban leaders are being killed or captured that the average age of militant leaders has dropped in the past 10 months from 36 to 25, said David Kilcullen, a senior fellow at the center who has advised the U.S. military on counterinsurgency issues.
Still, McCain said the battlefield successes need to be accompanied by progress in governance in order for the changes to be lasting.
“We’ve done a good job on clear and hold,” McCain said. “We have a long, long way to go on the build portion of counterinsurgency.”