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Afghan conflict to intensify in 2018 'game changer'

AFP  |  Kabul 

Fighting in has escalated with US and Afghan officials tipping 2018 to be a "game- changer" as relentless airstrikes pummel Islamist militant groups -- but others warn the 16-year war has simply become a more violent stalemate. A traditional easing in fighting during the freezing winter months has been absent this year as the and Islamic State group respond to intensifying US and Afghan air assaults. Since US announced his new strategy for in August, giving the more leeway to go after militants, American pilots have been bombarding and IS fighters, their training camps and drug-making laboratories. "The gloves are off," Lance Bunch, who directs future air operations in Afghanistan, told reporters recently. The new policy has "definitely been a game-changer and the is definitely feeling it", he added. The US is deploying more troops and aircraft to Afghanistan, which has become the main theatre of operations for the following a drawdown in and At the same time it is beefing up Afghanistan's fledgling air capabilities. US aircraft dropped 4,361 munitions across the country in 2017 -- including more than 2,300 since August, which exceeded the combined total for 2015 and 2016. With the help of huge bombers, the US has expanded its campaign to far northeastern near the China and borders where it is also targeting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which neighbouring China blames for launching attacks on its soil. "The days of old where you had fighting seasons are gone," James Hecker, of NATO's Air Command in Afghanistan, told AFP in last week. Militants have reacted violently to the increased airstrikes, launching a wave of deadly attacks across the war-torn country, including in Kabul, in a devastating display of defiance. The Taliban, by far Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks last month alone, the Washington, DC-based group said, describing the number as "unprecedented" for January. Combined with increased activity by relative newcomers IS, which has been expanding beyond its eastern stronghold, the country appeared to be "at a flashpoint almost to the point of no return", warned in a new report. The escalation of the conflict foreshadows a "particularly bloody year", of the Wilson Center in Washington, told AFP, forecasting more Afghan and US casualties. Afghanistan's so-called "fighting season" traditionally starts in the spring before easing over the winter when freezing temperatures and heavy snow make combat more difficult. But in recent years militants have continued to carry out attacks throughout the colder months. This winter has been worse than ever, Borhan Osman, a with the International Crisis Group, said in a report. "is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter... since 2001," Osman said, highlighting last month's attacks in the Afghan capital that killed more than 130 people in less than 10 days. Among the worst of the attacks was an assault on Kabul's luxury on January 20, a terrifying hours-long ordeal which saw insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests charge from room to room searching for foreigners. That was followed a week later by a devastating bombing involving an explosives-packed ambulance in a crowded street that killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians, and also claimed by the "This looks like a mutually escalating stalemate" as both sides adapt to the new tactics of the other, Analysts Network told AFP. The fighting this winter has been fuelled by more fighters remaining on the frozen battlefield instead of regrouping in Pakistan, which has long been accused of providing safe havens to the militants -- charges denies.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Sun, February 11 2018. 18:30 IST
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