The 591 weapons released over Afghanistan in May were the most in a month so far this year, according to new statistics released by the Air Force.
Those 591 topped the previous high this year, which was 562 in April — a count that includes bombs, missiles, and ground attacks. The record for a month is the 653 weapons released in October 2017 — that month, August 2017, and April and May this year are the only months to exceed 500 weapons released.
Overall, the U.S, aircraft conducted 726 sorties as part of Operation Freedom's Sentinel in May, 73 of which included the release of at least one weapon.
The total weapons deployed by manned and remotely piloted aircraft through May this year is 2,339, more than were dropped in both 2016 and 2015 and close to the 12-month totals for 2013 and 2014 — 2,758 and 2,365, respectively.
The 2,339 weapons used through May puts the U.S. on pace to release 5,613 weapons this year, which would well exceed the 4,361 used in 2017.
President Donald Trump said last year that the United States would increase its troop presence in Afghanistan to combat the resurgent Taliban as well as the growing presence of a local offshoot of ISIS called Islamic State-Khorasan, or ISIS-K.
Since then, a squadron of A-10 Thunderbolt ground-attack aircraft have been stationed in Afghanistan, as have MQ-9 Reapers used for intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance. F-16 Falcon fighter jets and EC-130H Compass Call electronic-warfare aircraft, among others, are also in the country.
Trump also delegated more authority to the Pentagon and commanders on the ground.
“We have given them total authorization, and that's what they're doing,” Trump said in April 2017, after the GBU-43 Massive Ordnance Air Blast (MOAB) weapon was dropped on an ISIS-K target in northwest Afghanistan — the first battlefield use of that weapon.
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In recent months, the US has stepped up its targeting of the Taliban's drug labs and other revenue-generating infrastructure, using advanced aircraft like the F-22 Raptor stealth fighter to bomb rudimentary buildings around Afghanistan.
The Taliban has deepened its involvement in the drug trade, and many of its labs are easily rebuilt.
“U.S. air operations in May put tremendous pressure on every branch of the Taliban's network,” Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, combined force air component commander, said in a release. “We struck Taliban leadership with precision strikes, and consistently pummeled their revenue-producing facilities, weapons caches, and staging facilities.”
The May airstrike data was released as Army Lt. Gen. Austin Scott Miller went before lawmakers as the nominee to be the commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. He would be the ninth U.S. general to take command since the invasion in late 2001 and the first appointed by Trump.
Miller acknowledged that the 17 years the U.S. has spent in Afghanistan “is a very long time” but said he “cannot guarantee you a timeline or an end date” for the deployment of the 16,000 US troops now in the country.
ISIS-K fighting positions targeted by airstrikes in Momand Valley, Achin District, Nangahar Province, Afghanistan, October 19, 2017.
The Pentagon believes that the Taliban controls or is contesting control of about one-third of Afghanistan, while the Afghan government controls the rest.
“I've learned a lot in the last 17 years,” Miller, who currently oversees Joint Special Operations Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I've learned there are groups that want nothing more than to harm Americans.”
“I've learned these groups thrive in ungoverned spaces,” he added. “I've also learned that when we maintain pressure on them abroad, they struggle to organize and build the necessary means to attack us.”
When pressed by senators, Miller admitted the Pentagon needed to be considering pulling out of Afghanistan in the coming years but stressed that a “precipitous and disorderly withdrawal” would lead to “negative effects on U.S. national security.”
Miller, who deployed to Afghanistan as a lieutenant colonel in 2001, underscored the generational nature of the war by gesturing to his son, a second lieutenant in the Army, during the hearing.
“This young guy sitting behind me,” Miller said. “I never anticipated that his cohort would be in a position to deploy as I sat there in 2001 and looked at this.”
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