WASHINGTON -- As fighting in Afghanistan has intensified over the past three months, the US military has conducted 340 airstrikes there, more than twice the 160 carried out in the higher-profile war in Iraq, according to data from the Central Command, the US military headquarters for the Middle East.
The airstrikes appear to have increased in recent days as the United States and its allies have launched counteroffensives against the Taliban in the south and southeast, strafing and bombing a stronghold in Uruzgan province and pounding an area near Khost with 500-pound bombs.
Military officials said yesterday that Afghan and coalition troops had killed about 45 insurgents in attacks on Taliban camps in southern Afghanistan as US-led forces pressed on with their largest offensive since 2001. About 85 suspected militants have been killed in the past week as some 10,000 US-led troops spread out over four southern provinces in the campaign dubbed Operation Mountain Thrust aimed at quelling a Taliban resurgence.
US officials say the airstrikes are a response to an increasingly aggressive Taliban, whose leaders realize that long-term trends are against them as the power of the Afghan central government grows.
``I think the Taliban realize they have a window to act," Army Major General Benjamin Freakley, commander of the 22,000 US troops in the country, said in a recent interview. ``The enemy is working against a window that he knows is closing."
But some specialists believe that the Taliban has sensed an opening in the south as the central government in Kabul has failed to gain much influence there and as the United States prepares to transfer command to NATO.
``I think it is an attempt by the Taliban to preempt the changeover from coalition to NATO command," said Barnett Rubin, a political scientist at New York University. ``They are trying to show that there is a war in the south and that the British, Dutch, Canadian, or any other forces will have to take casualties and fight, not just patrol and build schools. They hope that this will have an impact on internal politics in these countries."
The arrival of late spring, historically the beginning of Afghanistan's fighting season, usually brings an increase in combat. Since early May, a resurgent Taliban militia has launched numerous attacks in southern Afghanistan in which more than 300 insurgents, soldiers, and civilians have died. It has attacked in larger numbers and more frequently, burning 200 schools in the south and driving out foreign aid groups. Suicide bombings, a tactic relatively new to Afghanistan, have also increased.
Commanders say the combat is more intense than in the past three springs, both on the ground and from the air. The offensive has coincided with an effort to wipe out opium poppy crops in the south, resulting in an alliance between wealthy drug traders and anti government Taliban forces. Anti government fighters are moving in where the government has left a vacuum, especially where there is money to be made from drug trafficking and extortion.
The airstrikes between early March and late May concentrated on two areas -- in the provinces of the south-central mountains that are the Taliban's major redoubt and in eastern Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, where Al Qaeda and its allies operate.
But US warplanes have also hit targets near Kabul, the main US base at Bagram, and near other major cities such as Jalalabad and Ghazni. The attacks have been executed by aircraft ranging from large B-52 bombers to small Predator drones .
Material from the Associated Press was included in this report.