The Cable

U.S. Bombs Falling in Record Numbers In Three Countries

Trump’s looser authorities for airstrikes have unleashed huge increases in ordnance in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.

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U.S. planes are dropping more bombs in Afghanistan than at any point since Aug. 2012 — when there were 90,000 U.S. combat troops there — and are hitting more targets in Iraq and Syria than at any point in the three-year campaign, fruit of the Trump administration’s looser guidelines for authorizing strikes on Islamic State fighters in all three countries.

New airstrike totals issued by the Pentagon show that American aircraft have dropped over 2,400 bombs in Afghanistan this year, far above the 1,337 dropped in 2016, as U.S. warplanes seek to roll back gains by the Taliban and incursions by the Islamic State in the country’s East.

Those numbers might increase now that approximately 3,000 U.S. troops prepare to surge into Afghanistan to advise embattled Afghan security forces, who have taken heavy losses this year fighting the Taliban. Some of those American troops will accompany Afghan forces in the field, and will have the ability to call in air and artillery strikes.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters at the Pentagon Monday that he has already signed some of the orders for the upcoming deployments.

In Iraq and Syria, U.S. planes dropped a total of 5,075 bombs in August, more ordnance than had been dropped in any month prior since the campaign against the Islamic State kicked off in August 2014. That pace has been kept up all year: Through the first eight months, 32,800 bombs have hit ISIS targets, more than the 30,743 dropped in all of 2016.

In an often overlooked battlefield, the Trump administration’s more aggressive approach is also on display in Yemen, which has seen over 100 U.S. strikes against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) this year, up from just 38 strikes launched in 2016.

In Iraq and Syria, the air campaign seems to be paying dividends, as the territory claimed by the so-called Islamic State has shrunk to a fraction of what it held after rampaging through those two countries in 2014 and 2015. It’s less clear that the Afghan campaign has proven as effective; the Taliban continue to take district centers and ISIS has established a stronghold in Nangarhar province in the country’s mountainous East.  

Civilian policymakers and military planners in Washington have been unable to outline an endstate in any of the countries where U.S. troops are currently on the ground, relying instead on more immediate successes in pushing back ISIS and building the Afghan security forces.

The Trump administration’s delegation of command authority to military leaders extends all the way down to the cockpit, especially in the crowded battlespace over Syria, where U.S., Russian, and Syrian jets all jostle in close proximity.

Russian and American officers maintain a hotline to advise one another about air operations to ensure they don’t bump into one another, but pilots from the U.S.-led coalition remain wary, and have been given the power to make critical decisions about protecting themselves, U.S. troops, and their Syrian allies on the ground, without having to run it up the chain of command.

The pilots are allowed to “take more responsibility” for interpreting the guidance they’ve been given, Gen. James Holmes of the Air Force’s Air Combat Command said earlier in the day at the service’s annual conference in Washington, DC. “You can’t always talk to somebody,” he said.

During a hectic three-week span in June, American pilots shot down a Syrian Su-22 fighter and two Iranian drones that threatened U.S allies on the ground. Things have been quiet since then, but “it can happen tomorrow. If we need to protect our force, we’ll protect our force,” said Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, the commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Middle East.

Despite recent efforts by the Americans and Russians to increase their coordination in Syria, the potential for an accident in the skies became more likely on Monday, when Syrian troops crossed the Euphrates RIver in Deir Ezzur, in eastern Syria, and began moving toward U.S.-backed rebel fighters just a few miles away.

The Syrian Democratic Forces, which operate under a blanket of American air power, have said they would attack any Syrian forces who approached their positions. The Syrians, conversely, are operating with Russian aircover, and Russian planes bombed a group of U.S.-backed fighters in Deir Ezzur on Saturday, injuring six. U.S. Special Operations Forces were at the site of the bombing Pentagon officials have said, but none of them were injured.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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