Earlier this week, U.S. forces in Afghanistan carried out airstrikes on Taliban and East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) targets in Afghanistan’s northeastern province, Badakhshan. The region, mountainous and remote, is often characterized as difficult to cement control over. It is also the rumored site of a future military base, to be built for the Afghan army with Chinese assistance — a plan which some Afghan officials confirm and Chinese officials deny.
On February 6, NATO’s Resolute Support said in a press release that U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) had carried out a series of airstrikes in the previous 96 hours, hitting “Taliban training facilities in Badakhshan province, preventing the planning and rehearsal of terrorist acts near the border with China and Tajikistan by such organizations as the East Turkistan [sic] Islamic Movement and others.”
In a press release Thursday, U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) said, “The U.S. strikes support Afghanistan in reassuring its neighbors that it is not a safe sanctuary for terrorists who want to carry out cross border operations.”
ETIM terrorists, the statement said, “pose a threat to China and enjoy support from the Taliban in Badakhshan and throughout the border region.”
According to the release, a B-52 Stratofortress dropped 24 precision guided munitions, “setting a record of the most guided munitions ever dropped from a B-52.” The Washington Post reported that the B-52s are not based in Afghanistan, “but carry out operations there from Al Udeid air base in Qatar.”
The airstrikes in Badakhshan are notable for a few reasons.
First, the location of the strike is indicative of the region’s rise as a battleground between the central Afghan government and militants. The district in which the strikes occurred, Warduj, has changed hands several times in the past few years, with Taliban and Afghan forces trading control. In neighboring Jurm district 18 Afghan soldiers were killed in April 2015 when their outpost was attacked by the Taliban. As Bill Roggio wrote for the Long War Journal, “The presence of camps in the district is further evidence that the Taliban controls the district.”
Second, the location is also of great interest to China and Tajikistan. As Joshua Kucera reported for Eurasianet earlier this week, China and Afghanistan appear to differ, publicly, on whether the former is planning to help the latter build a new military base in Badakhshan. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian called reports about such a base “groundless.” Meanwhile General Davlat Waziri, an Afghan Ministry of Defense spokesman, told Fergana News on the record that an agreement has been reached, although a construction timeline has yet to be settled. As Kucera points out, Tajikistan would have to be involved in some fashion as a transit route.
It’s also notable that CENTCOM’s press release about the airstrikes specifically mentioned the threat ETIM poses to China, something Beijing is sure to be pleased to read. China has gone to extreme lengths in its westernmost province, Xinjiang, to combat terrorist groups it says are embedded among the Uyghur population. Some Western analysts believe that ETIM is now largely defunct, and Chinese references to it are mostly a pretext for harsh actions against the Uyghur minority. Most attacks carried out in recent years by Uyghur-linked groups, such as the 2013 car attack at Tiananmen Square, have been claimed by a newer organization, the Turkestan Islamic Party.
Third, the latest airstrikes underscore both the increasing tempo of U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan in general and air power’s prominence in U.S. President Donald Trump’s South Asia strategy. They are also indicative of a shift in American focus from Iraq and Syria back to Afghanistan. On February 7, U.S. Air Force Major General James Hecker said in a video teleconference from Kabul that CENTCOM had officially designated Afghanistan its “main effort.” Success in Iraq and Syria, Hecker said, “has allowed CENTCOM to shift more assets [Afghanistan’s] way.”
There’s a distinct degree of deja vu when it comes to the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan. While the Trump administration has heralded its South Asia strategy as “new,” there’s plenty of past strategies packaged into it.
In late 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama announced he would surge 30,000 troops into Afghanistan, a replay in a new theater of the 2007 surge in Iraq. He set a timeline: 18 months. By 2012, after the surge “ended” it was graded a failure. The Trump administration has staunchly refused to set a timetable for a drawdown. Administration supporters cast this as a strategic move — not telling the enemy when the U.S. forces will leave — but detractors just see a blank check, written in blood and treasure, for an endless war.
The Trump administration has pushed an increase in airstrikes — the U.S. Air Force, for example, reportedly dropped more than 4,300 bombs in 2017, up from just over 1,300 in 2016 — a trend which is set to continue.