World News

Hunting Taliban and Islamic State Fighters, From 20,000 Feet

Posted December 11, 2017 4:13 p.m. EST

ABOARD A B-52, over Eastern Afghanistan — Flying at more than 20,000 feet, the hulking long-range bomber circled ominously above a militant-infested swath of Afghan territory near the rugged border with Pakistan, hunting for Taliban or Islamic State fighters who could threaten friendly troops nearby.

A ride in the cockpit on a recent 13-hour combat mission provided a rare bird’s-eye view of the Trump administration’s newly revamped Afghanistan policy of sending thousands of additional U.S. troops closer to the front lines — and more warplanes like this one to protect them. That includes striking Taliban drug depots to cripple the group’s financial lifeline, as the Pentagon did in Iraq and Syria in hitting the Islamic State’s oil tankers and cash-storage sites.

During the Obama administration, U.S. commanders were barred from carrying out offensive airstrikes against the Taliban. Attacks had to be defensive, aimed at protecting Afghan forces on the ground, conditions that commanders complained tied their hands and led to a stalemate. Now the gloves are off, and U.S. warplanes have dropped more than 3,900 bombs and missiles against targets in Afghanistan this year, three times as many as last year.

“These new authorities give me the ability to go after the enemy in ways that I couldn’t before,” Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said last month after ordering the new operation, code-named Jagged Knife. “We’re hitting the Taliban where it hurts, which is their finances.”

U.S. airstrikes and Afghan ground raids over the past month have destroyed 25 drug labs in southern Afghanistan, wiping out $16 million in Taliban proceeds and throwing the group’s regional narcotics operations into financial disarray, according to military officials and Drug Enforcement Administration estimates.

Nicholson said the campaign would last for months, as the Taliban operates 400 to 500 labs across the country to sustain the group’s $200 million-a-year opium trade. The drug money accounts for at least 60 percent of the Taliban’s income, and goes to buy weapons, recruit and pay fighters and conduct operations.

With the war in Afghanistan in its 17th year, President Donald Trump’s strategy aims to drive the Taliban to a negotiated settlement. It seeks not only to squeeze the group’s opium revenues, but also to increase Afghan army offensives backed by U.S. air power and to hold elections to enhance the Afghan government’s legitimacy.

“The Taliban have three choices: reconcile, face irrelevance or die,” Nicholson said.

Afghanistan specialists say they have heard such boasts before, and the war is still being fought. They also voiced doubts about the hit-them-in-the-pocketbook plan.

“It’s useful to impact the Taliban financially, but it may just drive production into neighboring Pakistan or Iran,” said David W. Barno, a retired Army lieutenant general who led the war effort in Afghanistan for almost two years.

Other critics said the sharp increase in airstrikes will backfire, inevitably causing more civilian casualties and the accompanying political blowback, despite the military’s best efforts to mitigate that risk.

“If you increase the number of strikes without allocating the time, personnel and resources to preventing, investigating and acknowledging each one, you get more civilian casualties,” said Daniel R. Mahanty, U.S. program director at the Center for Civilians in Conflict, an advocacy group. “It’s basic math.”

Targeting specialists at the military’s air command center in Qatar say they assembled the list of drug facilities that directly finance Taliban insurgents battling the government by examining hundreds of hours of aerial surveillance and poring over intelligence reports. Airstrikes have been carried out at night when fewer people are near the targets.

“It was a very deliberate process,” said Capt. Ryan Pretty, an Army artillery officer who is deputy chief of the team overseeing the bombing campaign’s effects.

Watching and eavesdropping on the scurrying around by drug lab operators whose depots were not hit in the first wave offered important insights for planners drawing up the next set of strikes, helping them map out local Taliban networks.

“These strikes and the aftermath taught us a lot about the complexity of the Taliban’s narcotics operations,” said Navy Lt. William Conway, a former prosecutor in Chicago who is now a lead intelligence officer for Afghanistan at the command center in Qatar. Central to both the anti-drug and troop-protection operations are the B-52s. They are the latest chapter in the storied bomber’s history over the past six decades, from its carpet-bombing missions in the Vietnam and 1991 Persian Gulf wars, to its strategic role as part of the country’s nuclear deterrent. In January, B-52s will deploy from Louisiana to Guam for duty in the Pacific, including in North Korea.

Of the roughly 750 B-52s originally built, the Air Force is still flying about 75 of the sweptwing, eight-engine H-model planes. The aircraft I flew on, nicknamed Night Train, was built in 1961, making it nearly twice as old as any of its five crew members from the 69th Bomb Squadron out of Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota.

Our mission began before 5 a.m. at the squadron headquarters at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where the crew received a series of intelligence, safety and mission briefings. Following bomber tradition, the crew then sprayed on cologne (a very pungent “Extreme Liberty” for this mission).

In the pre-dawn darkness, a bus ferried the crew to its jet, its engines running, bombs hanging off its massive wings. Crew members clambered up a metal ladder into the fuselage. The two weapons officers — Soar, 30, from Pittsburgh, and Will, 28, from Arcadia, California — sat in front of glowing screens in the cramped, windowless offensive operations compartment.

Up another metal ladder was the cockpit and a separate cramped, windowless space for the electronic warfare officer — Poppa, 28, from San Diego. The mission commander, Rage, 29, from Minden, Nebraska, and his co-pilot, Bravo, 26, from Hillsborough, New Jersey, ducked down an aisle and shoehorned themselves into their seats in the cockpit, while strapped into oxygen masks, flight suits, flight vests and ejection seats with parachutes. I sat in an instructor pilot seat behind Rage.

The crew members asked to be identified only by their call signs or first names for security reasons. It is a young crew, with only one member, Soar, having previously deployed overseas. One of a dozen crews in the squadron, this was their 23rd mission to Afghanistan or Iraq and Syria since arriving in September.

At 5:41 a.m., with the reddish dawn seeping across the horizon, the B-52 lumbered down the runway and roared off on the 3 1/2-hour flight to southern Nangahar province in eastern Afghanistan, where Taliban and Islamic State fighters are battling with Afghan army troops for control.

Once there, with jaw-dropping views of 16,000-foot, snow-capped peaks out the tiny cockpit windows, the crew received instructions from Special Operations forces working with Afghan troops on the ground to use their high-powered camera sensors to spy on several buildings in a village compound, and look for any “nefarious” activity.

In this case, the B-52 was acting as an airborne cavalry, ready to rush to the aid of friendly forces with a formidable arsenal that included about two dozen 2,000-pound and 500-pound laser-guided bombs — more than 10 tons of destruction in all. Inside the B-52, affectionately known as a Buff (as in “Big, Ugly, Fat,” followed by an expletive), the noise was deafening. Crew members wore headphones and talked over microphones. Thirteen hours is a long time in a very confined space, and the crew has tricks to stay alert, including energy drinks and lots of caffeine. An eclectic mix of heavy metal, rock, country and rap music blared through their headphones.

For six hours, the B-52 flew tightly banked routes to give Soar the best view of his potential targets. Black-and-white images flickered across his screen: A man chopping wood. A woman doing laundry. Suddenly, he spotted something suspicious: a man pulling a long cylindrical object out from under a tarp. Was it just a long piece of wood or pipe, or was it a surface-to-air missile?

Taking no chances, Rage and Bravo veered the plane out of missile range, and called for an armed Reaper drone nearby to take a closer look. After nearly an hour and some delays, the B-52 needed to turn back to base without resolving the minor mystery.

No bombs were dropped that day, as has been the case on about a quarter of the crew’s overwatch missions to protect Afghan troops. “But the good guys got home safely,” Rage said.