US stepping up airstrikes this week to support Afghan forces

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, attends at a ceremony where Gen. Scott Miller, who has served as America’s top commander in Afghanistan since 2018, handed over command, at Resolute Support headquarters, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Monday, July 12, 2021. The United States is a step closer to ending a 20-year military presence that became known as its "forever war," as Taliban insurgents continue to gain territory across the country. (AP Photo/Ahmad Seir)
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WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military has launched more than a dozen airstrikes in the past week in support of Afghan government forces in their fight against the Taliban, a sharp spike over the handful that were done in the previous six weeks, according to U.S. officials.

The Pentagon said Tuesday that both conventional warplanes and armed drones were used, but did not provide details. A U.S. official, however, gave some specifics and said there has been a significant increase in strikes since July 20, with the number sometimes reaching almost a handful a day.

The strikes, which include several conducted last week, indicate stepped up U.S. support after weeks of battlefield gains by the Taliban as U.S. troops complete their withdrawal. U.S. officials have said that the aircraft have been flown from bases outside of Afghanistan because the U.S. military pulled its combat planes out of the country.

"A number of strikes have occurred over the last several days from both manned and unmanned strike platforms,” Maj. Robert Lodewick, a Pentagon spokesman, said.

According to officials, the airstrikes have largely been in direct support of Afghan forces under attack by the Taliban, but several also struck military equipment that had been captured by the Taliban. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to provide greater detail on the attacks.

The airstrikes have been launched in a number of regions in the country, but a key focus has been around Kandahar, a provincial center that officials worry could fall to the Taliban. The Taliban now control more than 200 of the 419 district centers and have made progress in cutting off some supply routes. But while they are putting pressure on up to half of the 34 provincial capitals, they have yet to seize control of any.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, who is overseeing the U.S. military withdrawal and making decisions on air support for Afghan troops, said on Sunday that airstrikes had been increasing.

“We’re prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks,” McKenzie said.

McKenzie also said the U.S. was providing “contract logistics support both here in Kabul and over-the-horizon in the region, funding for them, intelligence sharing, and advising and assisting through security consultations at the strategic level.”

Central Command says the U.S. troop withdrawal is more than 95% complete. It is to be finished by Aug. 31. Whether the U.S. will continue to provide airstrikes in support of Afghan government forces after that date is yet to be determined.

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Associated Press writer Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.

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