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Tougher U.S. strategy brings Afghan gains, but peace or victory look remote

From Reuters - February 8, 2018

JALALABAD, Afghanistan (Reuters) - A more aggressive U.S. strategy in Afghanistan has put the Taliban on the back foot, soldiers and police say, but bloody recent attacks in Kabul show the insurgency remains potent and a prolonged stalemate looms.

President Donald Trump in August unveiled a more hawkish military approach, including a surge in air strikes, aimed at forcing the Taliban to the negotiating table.

While Afghan security forces say the impact has been significant, the Taliban still roam huge swathes of the country and, with foreign troop levels at about 15,000 compared with 140,000 in 2014, there appears little hope of outright military victory.

The American air strikes have broken their back, said Nasrullah a soldier in Kunar province on the Pakistani border. They dont dare attack in large numbers because they know theyd all get killed. Without air support wed be struggling.

The Taliban made gains after NATO withdrew most combat troops in late 2014. Two years later, they were threatening several district centers and even two provincial capitals including Kunduz, in the north, which was captured briefly.

Now the militants no longer threaten the city, said Kunduz police chief Abul Hameed Hamidi.

Air strikes had been a game changer, he said, along with a revived campaign of night raids aimed at capturing militant leaders, which previous President Hamid Karzai banned because they were so unpopular.

Soldiers and police in districts outside Kunduz that werecontested a year ago said the war had tilted in their favor.

They cant face us and instead hide among civilians, plant roadside bombs and carry out suicide attacks, said soldier Abdul Karim.

CHANGED THE PICTURE

In Helmand province in the south, the Taliban have been pushed back 30 km (18 miles) from the provincial capital, Lashkar Gar, said governor Hayatullah Hayat, who also credited air strikes.

There were fears last year that the town could fall.

Helmand policeman Baz Gul said the air strikes had changed the picture completely and morale was high.

The number of weapons released in U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan in 2017 shot up to 4,361, according to U.S. data, compared with 1,337 the previous year.

NATOs Resolute Support mission said on Tuesday the air campaign had been expanded in the north with B-52 bombers striking Taliban positions.

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