Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated with US and Afghan officials tipping 2018 to be a "game- changer" as relentless airstrikes pummel Islamist militant groups — but others warn the 16-year war has simply become a more violent stalemate.
Since US President Donald Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan in August, giving the US Air Force more leeway to go after militants, American pilots have been bombarding Taliban and IS fighters, their training camps and drug-making laboratories. "The gloves are off," Brigadier General Lance Bunch, who directs future air operations in Afghanistan, told reporters recently.
US aircraft dropped 4,361 munitions across the country in 2017 — including more than 2,300 since August, which exceeded the combined total for 2015 and 2016. The Taliban, by far Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks last month alone, the Washington, DC-based terrorism research group TRAC said, describing the number as "unprecedented" for January.
Combined with increased activity by relative newcomers IS, which has been expanding beyond its eastern stronghold, the country appeared to be "at a flashpoint almost to the point of no return", TRAC warned in a new report.
The escalation of the conflict foreshadows a "particularly bloody year", Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC told AFP, forecasting more Afghan and US casualties. This winter has been worse than ever, Borhan Osman, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said in a report.
"Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter… Since 2001," Osman said, highlighting last month's attacks in the Afghan capital that killed more than 130 people in less than 10 days. "This looks like a mutually escalating stalemate" as both sides adapt to the new tactics of the other, Afghanistan Analysts Network senior analyst Kate Clark told AFP.