Airstrikes in Afghanistan ramp up as ISIS fight in Iraq and Syria winds down

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  • US aircraft dropped 653 bombs, missiles and other munitions in Afghanistan during the month of October
  • That is the highest number of munitions dropped since the Air Force began publishing data in 2012

(CNN)The US military has substantially increased the number of airstrikes it has conducted in Afghanistan even as the number of strikes against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has begun to decrease as the terror group loses more and more territory, thereby reducing the number of available targets.

US aircraft dropped 653 bombs, missiles and other munitions on Taliban and local ISIS targets in Afghanistan during the month of October, compared to 203 in the same month last year, according to the US Air Forces Central Command which oversees US aircraft in the region.
That is the highest number of munitions dropped since the Air Force began publishing data in 2012. At that time, the US maintained over 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, many in direct combat roles, compared to 14,000 today.
    US airstrikes dropped dramatically during the final years of the Obama administration as more restrictive rules governing which enemy forces could be targeted were enacted. The US military was allowed to strike ISIS and al Qaeda, but could only target the Taliban under certain specific circumstances.
    President Donald Trump removed these restrictions as part of his new strategy for Afghanistan and the wider region, allowing the US military to target Taliban forces anywhere they were found.
    But the number of strikes conducted in Afghanistan during 2017 was still less than 10 percent the number of strikes conducted in Syria and Iraq as part of the campaign against ISIS.
    The US-led coalition dropped some 1,642 bombs, missiles and other munitions on ISIS targets in April. This marked a dramatic decrease as ISIS has lost territory and all of its major urban centers amid simultaneous offensives by the Syrian Regime, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, and Iraqi security forces.
    The amount of weapons dropped in October was the smallest number since November 2014, and a strike on November 8 "marked fewest strikes/munitions dropped in the 3-year campaign" according to the US-led coalition, Operation Inherent Resolve.
    Military officials have said that the success against ISIS in Iraq and Syria has freed up air assets to be deployed to other theaters, including Afghanistan.
    "Things have gone well in Iraq and Syria. So we're beginning to see the effects of a shift of resources, which will increase over the course of the winter, going into the spring, as the situation continues to improve there,' Gen. John Nicholson, the commander of US troops in Afghanistan, told reporters Monday.
    Nicholson said that such resources included surveillance drones and an F-22 Raptor fighter jet that were used to help carry out a series of airstrikes against Taliban-linked opium production facilities. It was the first time commanders used their newly granted authorities to target Taliban revenue sources.
    "Our priority's been in Iraq and Syria and, as we continue to see success there, we hope to see more assets coming over to enable us to do more of these kinds of operations," Nicholson said following the strikes on the drug facilities.
    The US added six F-16s to Afghanistan in August, bringing the number of fighter jets there to 18. In addition, the Afghan Air Force has conducted an increasing number of airstrikes using their US-supplied A-29 light attack turbo-prop aircraft.
    The shift in resources could lead to an even greater number of airstrikes against the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan as US military advisers begin embedding with more frontline Afghan Army units, a key component of Trump's new strategy for Afghanistan that will allow those advisers to call in airstrikes in support of Afghan battalions directly engaged in the fight.
    But the US military has also said that it will not be too quick to drawdown in Iraq and Syria, citing the continued threat posed by the remnants of ISIS.
    "We are cognizant of the fact that we still need air support over both Iraq and Syria, and not be too quick to start reducing that support before it's proven that we can," Brig. Gen. Andrew Croft, who helps oversees the coalition air campaign against ISIS, told reporters via a phone call from Irbil earlier this month.
    Croft emphasized the flexibility of US aircraft, saying it was possible for strike aircraft to conduct operations in both theaters.
    "So we can take an air asset and push it to Afghanistan on one day, and the next day, it can fly over Iraq or Syria," he said.