Trump ramps up airstrikes as Taliban peace talks remain elusive

The Trump administration has ratcheted up its bombing campaign in Afghanistan in an effort to pressure the Taliban to engage in peace talks, but a deal to end the 17-year war remains elusive.

Manned and unmanned aircraft have dropped more than 10,300 bombs over Afghanistan during President TrumpDonald John TrumpPapadopoulos on AG's new powers: 'Trump is now on the offense' Pelosi uses Trump to her advantage Mike Pence delivers West Point commencement address MORE’s first two years in office, including 4,361 in 2017 and a record 5,982 weapons as of Oct. 31.

That amount of dropped munitions has not been seen since the first years of former President Obama's tenure, around the start of a major surge in the country, according to figures from U.S. Central Command.

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The U.S. military under the Obama administration dropped more than 9,200 bombs on Afghanistan in the same time frame: 4,184 in 2009 and 5,100 in 2010. The number peaked at a 10-year high in 2011, with roughly 5,400 dropped.

The Pentagon tapered off on strikes in Obama’s last few years in office — dropping only 947 munitions in 2015 and 1,337 in 2016 — before ramping back up after Trump entered office last year.

The dramatic surge in new airstrikes under Trump is seen as a tactic to get Taliban leaders to come to the table for peace talks and bring closure to the war 17 years after a U.S.-led invasion ended the group’s rule.

Luke Coffey, a foreign policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, called the strategy a “correction from an Obama administration era policy that many in the military weren’t happy about. And that was putting overly restrictive measures on the use of airstrikes.”

Trump brought a surge of new airstrikes to the battlefield as part of a new strategy in the country that he outlined last August that committed several thousand more troops to the fight as well — a reversal of his campaign call to swiftly withdraw from the country.

The increase in troops came with a change in the rules of engagement — a relaxation of the standards for U.S.-led coalition troops to fire on the enemy. Now, forces no longer need to be in contact with the enemy to launch a strike.

Trump hinted at the change in the August 2017 speech, saying that he would “lift restrictions and expand authorities” for U.S. forces. 

“We will also expand authorities for American armed forces to target the terrorists and criminal networks that sow violence and chaos throughout Afghanistan,” Trump said at the time.

Defense Secretary James MattisJames Norman MattisTrump defense pick expected to face tense confirmation Trump's nastiest break-ups: A look at the president's most fiery feuds Shanahan orders new restrictions on sharing of military operations with Congress: report MORE revealed such changes in October 2017 when he told the House Armed Services Committee, “We are no longer bound by the need for proximity to our forces.”

“It used to be we have to basically be in contact with that enemy,” he told lawmakers.

Loosened restrictions on drone strikes has also played a factor in the increase in munitions dropped.

Trump has made no secret of his heavy-handed stance when it comes to airstrikes. He repeatedly called to "bomb the hell out of" the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) while on the campaign trail and in December 2015 remarked that in order to win the fight against ISIS he would “take out their families.”

And shortly after being elected, Trump reportedly asked a CIA official why the agency didn’t kill a terrorist target's family during a drone strike.

The Washington Post reported that after watching a recorded video of a drone strike in Syria in which officials waited until the target was outside of his family’s home, Trump asked, “Why did you wait?” 

But the increased air campaign points to Trump’s impatience with the pace of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan.

Roughly 15,000 U.S. service members are based in Afghanistan, predominantly to assist Afghan security forces against the Taliban and ISIS-aligned fighters.

Trump’s Afghanistan strategy is faltering, experts say, with the Taliban now controlling nearly half of the country, routinely carrying out attacks on government officials and local security forces.

The violence has been costly for the military, with three U.S. service members killed Tuesday by a roadside bomb becoming the latest casualties in the war.

The Trump administration has moved to push the Taliban to peace talks, but so far no deal has solidified.

Coffey said the airstrike increase is “part of a larger strategy of getting the Taliban to the table,” and expects it will help move the needle in some way.

While he acknowledged he doesn’t know how much of a connection the increase in air strikes can be drawn to new peace talks, “at the end of the day, every counterinsurgency ends with some sort of negotiated settlement.”

Still, such a settlement has remained elusive.

Trump indicated his frustration with the circumstances in a Tuesday interview with The Washington Post, telling the paper he was considering removing troops from the Middle East.

The president said that he was only keeping a military presence in Afghanistan because “experts” told him that American forces were still needed in the region.

“We’re there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here,” Trump said. “And I’ve heard it over and over again.”

Coffey brushed the comments aside, noting that Trump “always says this stuff.”

“He’s always suggesting things and you never know until he makes a final decision,” he said, adding, “I don’t think the U.S. is going to be pulling out completely from Afghanistan anytime soon.”

The administration, hoping to bring about a faster political settlement, has agreed to the Taliban’s demands to hold direct talks. 

U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad has moved quickly to reach out to as many top Taliban figures as possible in an attempt to start such discussions before the president orders a troop pullout without an end to the conflict, NBC News reported last week.

The quick diplomatic speed was due to the assumption that Trump will pull troops out of in Afghanistan before the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

Trump, meanwhile, told the Post that negotiations are ongoing with the Taliban, but did not give additional details such as a timeline for talks.

“They would like to see it after all these years, and we’ll see what happens,” he said. “A little bit too early to say what’s going to happen. But we are talking about things.”