U.S. Heightens Attacks on Taliban in Push Toward Peace in Afghanistan

The Pentagon has stepped up airstrikes and special operations raids in Afghanistan to the highest levels since 2014 in what Defense Department officials described as a coordinated series of attacks on Taliban leaders and fighters.

The surge, which began during the fall, is intended to give American negotiators leverage in peace talks with the Taliban after President Trump said he would begin withdrawing troops and wind down the nearly 18-year war.

The campaign appears to have registered with the militants: During negotiations, the Taliban complained bitterly about the torrent of airstrikes, according to two senior Afghan officials who have spoken to Zalmay Khalilzad, the American special envoy who is leading the talks.

“They say they have learned from their mistakes of the past,” Mr. Khalilzad said in a speech on Friday in Washington. He said the Taliban did not want to be “a pariah state” and had told him that they did not see a military solution to the conflict.

The military strategy, devised by Gen. Austin S. Miller, the current commander of the American-led mission in Afghanistan, is similar to past attempts to bleed the militant group. But it is tied to a more specific ambition, coming as the United States is negotiating directly with the Taliban.

Last year, the United States dropped more than 7,000 bombs, missiles and other munitions on extremists in Afghanistan — up from 2,365 in 2014, military data show. Since September alone, the United States has launched about 2,100 air and artillery strikes in Afghanistan.

Additionally, American and Afghan commandos more than doubled the number of joint raids conducted from September to early February, compared with the same five-month period a year earlier, the military data show. Generally, the joint forces conduct dozens of raids each month.

And on Friday, reports of attacks on Taliban by Afghan and American units surfaced from Kandahar, Helmand and Nangarhar — including one that killed two low-level Taliban commanders and another that killed a Taliban intelligence chief.

The increase in lethal operations is not without cost to both American and Afghan forces.

In January, two American commandos were killed, and about two dozen have been wounded since General Miller took command in September — about as many as during the same period the year before, said two Defense Department officials who described the campaign only on the condition of anonymity.

And Defense Department officials said a steady rise of support in funding and small arms to the Taliban — from Iran and Russia — could complicate not only the American military strategy but also larger peace efforts.

This week, a Taliban delegation and Afghan politicians were among 50 negotiators who met in a Kremlin-owned hotel in Moscow. It was the most significant contact between senior Afghan leaders and the Taliban since the United States toppled the Islamist extremists after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

As the White House pushes to end the war, officials said General Miller has focused the relatively small number of American commandos in Afghanistan on killing the Taliban and its leaders. It is a strategy he has pursued throughout a career in the commando forces, including his last job as head of the shadowy Joint Special Operations Command.

In December, as the peace negotiations were continuing, Mr. Trump told Pentagon officials to plan to halve the 14,000 American forces in Afghanistan. On Wednesday, a Taliban official, Abdul Salam Hanafi, said in Moscow that the American negotiators had promised to withdraw 7,000 troops by April, a timeline that American diplomats and military officials based in Kabul have denied.

Ultimately, military officials said, American counterterrorism forces could remain in Afghanistan even after the withdrawal of other troops, continuing to pursue the Islamic State or the hundreds of Al Qaeda fighters still there. In the current calculations for a peace deal, the Taliban could take part in future Afghan governments but must agree to not let terrorist groups plan and launch attacks from Afghan soil.

Mr. Khalilzad said the United States hoped to complete a peace agreement before Afghan presidential elections scheduled for July. That was a shift from his earlier prediction that a deal could be achieved by April.

“We have a long way to go,” he said. “What we have achieved so far is significant, but these are two or three small steps in a long journey.”

Earlier military strategies to defeat the Taliban have been abandoned, including airstrikes on drug labs that have served as a key part of their financial pipeline, according to current and former military officials who have served in Afghanistan.

Those plans were devised after Mr. Trump announced his new war effort in August 2017. But they lost momentum after two of its main architects — Gen. John Nicholson and Brig. Gen. Lance R. Bunch — left Afghanistan in yet another example of the stop-and-go strategies from Washington throughout the war.

Instead, General Miller is gathering reconnaissance aircraft, artillery, air support and American and Afghan commandos against pockets of Taliban fighters spread across the country. In recent “SecDef weekly” updates to the acting defense secretary, Patrick M. Shanahan, military officials said General Miller had highlighted the increasing number of Taliban fighters killed.

“Everything we do is focused on denying safe haven to terrorists — whether that be setting conditions for a political settlement with the Taliban, raiding alongside our Afghan partners or striking and killing ISIS and Al Qaeda,” said Col. Dave Butler, a spokesman for the American-led military mission in Afghanistan.

Taking place during Afghanistan’s colder months, the increased assaults have helped keep the Taliban engaged in peace talks while giving the beleaguered Afghan military time to regroup.

One senior Defense Department official said the Afghan military’s performance during each summertime fighting season since 2014 was worrying; if they continue, staggering casualties might point to a possible fracturing among the Afghan security forces.

Last month, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan said 45,000 members of the security forces had died since he took office in 2014 — a much higher total than his government had previously acknowledged.

The fighting season in Afghanistan begins in the spring, coinciding with the end of the annual poppy harvest, and runs through the summer. The Taliban briefly seized control of Ghazni Province in August.

Attacking the Taliban through the winter, the senior Defense Department official added, could force the militant group to spend the spring and summer reconstituting its forces instead of attacking towns and cities.

“We want to prolong these operations because it really brings the Taliban momentum down and decreases insurgents’ coordinated attacks against our security forces,” said Dadullah Qani, a member of the Farah provincial council.

But the Taliban have also struck back with attacks against outposts and police checkpoints. In late January, Taliban fighters overran an Afghan intelligence base in Wardak Province, killing dozens in what Afghan officials said was one of the deadliest assaults against the intelligence service of the war.

The ramped-up attacks against the Taliban come as the American military is also trying to fight the Islamic State in Khorasan, as the group’s affiliate in Afghanistan calls itself. Khorasan fighters have been firmly rooted in the country’s mountainous east since 2015 and their forces have steadily grown.

The strategy against the Taliban serves as a reminder of the American military’s attempt to keep the North Vietnamese involved in peace talks in the early 1970s.

In 1972, the military launched an extensive bombing campaign around Hanoi and Haiphong, known as Operation Linebacker II, after North Vietnamese leaders rejected new diplomatic demands from the United States and South Vietnam and refused to set a date for further talks.

Some historians believe that the 11 days of bombing brought the North Vietnamese back to the negotiating table. But the United States also made a series of concessions, which likely helped.

In Afghanistan, “at the last minute, we’re tripling down on all of our worst instincts of the past with hope it turns out differently,” said Jason Dempsey, who served as an Army infantry officer in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security.