The United States has started shifting combat and intelligence-gathering air assets to Afghanistan as the battle against the Islamic State (IS) extremist group is winding down in Iraq and Syria, a top commander in Afghanistan says.
U.S. Air Force Major General James Hecker, speaking to reporters in a video teleconference from Kabul, said on February 7 that U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) at the start of this month officially designated Afghanistan and the fight against the Taliban as its "main effort."
Afghanistan "has become CENTCOM's main effort thanks to the recent successes in Iraq and Syria," Hecker said.
"This has allowed CENTCOM to shift more assets our way."
He said one main benefit to coalition forces in Afghanistan was the increased support from U.S. intelligence agencies, which will allow the military to better identify targets to strike in the country.
"This behind-the-scenes legwork allows us to hit the Taliban where it hurts most, whether it's command-and-control...or their pocketbooks," Hecker said.
The general said that, compared with a year ago, the United States had 50 percent more MQ-9 Reaper drones providing intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance in Afghanistan.
In addition, he said, U.S. forces had added A-10 attack planes and will soon be adding more search-and-rescue aircraft.
Hecker said Afghan air forces are now also more capable of carrying out sorties against the Taliban and are conducting more missions than U.S. forces.
He said the goal for the NATO Air Command, which he leads, was to almost triple the size of the Afghan Air Force over the next few years.
"Right now, the Afghan Air Force has 12 A-29s, but that's going up to 25," Hecker said. "Three A-29 pilots are now trained to drop laser-guided munitions."
"We are putting unrelenting pressure on the enemy these days," Hecker said, adding that the goal was to compel the Taliban to come to the negotiating table with the Kabul government.
He said, though, that air power alone was unlikely to accomplish the task. "You're not just going to bomb them into submission," he said. "But it is another pressure point that we can put on them."
"While U.S. air power is destroying Taliban support elements in the deep fight, Afghan A-29 [Super Tucanos] and MD-530 helicopters provide quick, lethal support to Afghan ground forces in the close fight," Hecker said.
"This growth has already started but is going to continue."
The United States has been in Afghanistan since 2001, when it led an invasion to drive the Taliban from power after it said the group's leaders were sheltering Al-Qaeda militants responsible for the September 11, 2001, terror attacks in the United States.
U.S. forces have remained as part of a NATO-led coalition ever since, although active combat operations were turned over to Afghan forces in 2014, and international troop levels have fallen from a peak of more than 100,000 to about 16,000.