This story, originally published June 11, 2016, has been updated with additional strike and sortie information from U.S. Air Forces Central Command. 

U.S. generals, who for months have been arguing in favor of employing opining for more air power in Afghanistan to counter curtail the Taliban’s advances, are finally getting their wish. 

On Friday, dDefense officials on Friday announced that it was announced the White House has approved an expansionding military  of U.S. airstrikes against the fundamentalist group, giving more authority to U.S. commanders to call in aerial backup for Afghan and U.S. forces on the ground as needed.

The approval paves the way for aircraft like the Air Force F-16 and MQ-1 Predator to launch more attacks on the Taliban.

The move in Afghanistan mimics the U.S. approach toward the what officials are striving for in the air war against the Islamic State, where commanders have much more latitude to decide which targets to go after. Defense officials in April announced The U.S. also wants to changes are on the way for how in the way the process for approving airstrikes over Iraq and Syria are approved, giving ground commanders direct authorization for a "rapid execution of strikes." defense officials said in April. 

Since 2014, when the initial drawdown of U.S. troops began in Afghanistan began and the U.S.-led Operation Enduring Freedom gave way to a mission changed over to a new, follow-on NATO-led mission called Resolute Support, strikes against the Taliban have been limited. The U.S.-specific mission in Afghanistan, Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, includes two core components: an advise and assist mission, working with allies and partners on Resolute Support; and continuing "counterterrorism operations against the remnants of al-Qaida to ensure Afghanistan is never again used to stage attacks against our homeland," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in late December 2014.

But the Obama administration has The U.S. new were limited as the White House struggled to define the Taliban’s role in Afghanistan, and in 2015  (the new U.S. specific role, officially recognized on Jan. 1, 2015, is dubbed Freedom's Sentinel). The Obama administration in 2015 defined the group as an "armed insurgency," not a terrorist group

While U.S. and NATO forces were free to launch attacks on al-Qaida, Islamic State and several other terrorist groups, they could only attack Taliban forces if they were directly attacking coalition forces, especially Afghan army troops, or could be directly tied to previous attacks instructed only to attack sanctioned targets of the Taliban involved in direct attacks on coalition forces, and or Taliban individuals tied to previous attacks on friendly forces.

Latest developments aside, tThese stringent rules of engagement in place were meant to avoid "unintentional casualties and unwanted damage," said Mark Gunzinger, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Such attacks could ""Which can, frankly, hurt your overall objective," he added, meaning to maintain open channels of communication with the Afghan government and push for diplomatic resolutions.  

"This is not a major air campaign," Gunzinger, a former advisor to the Air Force, told Air Force Times in late May. "It is an air support operation."

Many critics of the policy, including retired Army Gens. David U.S. generals, including such as retired Army generals David Petraeus, former head of U.S. Central command, and John Campbell, who commanded the International Security Assistance Force and United States Forces–Afghanistan, from August 2014 to March 2016,  and urged  have highly encouraged the administration to revisit its policy of limited engagement. their limited scope against the Taliban. Airpower in particular, they say, "represents an asymmetric Western advantage, relatively safe to apply, and very effective against massed (or even individual) enemy forces and assets."

"Simply waging the Afghanistan air-power campaign with the vigor we are employing in Iraq and Syria — even dropping bombs at a fraction of the pace at which we are conducting attacks in those Arab states — will very likely make much of the difference between some version of victory and defeat," Petraeus said in a Wall Street Journal commentary he co-authored last month.

Before he left Kabul on March 2, Campbell, who just stepped down as commander of the NATO International Security Assistance Force and of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, urged the Afghan army to change its tactics before the upcoming summer "fighting season," or an escalation in violence from either militant group. U.S. advisers want the Afghan National Army to spending less time manning checkpoints and more time taking the fight directly to the militants.

"Afghanistan is at an inflection point," Campbell said during testimony before the House Armed Services Committee in Februaryon Feb. 2. "I believe if we do not make deliberate, measured adjustments, 2016 is at risk of being no better, and possibly worse, than 2015."

Airstrikes on upward trend

The start of 2016 showed promise. Just one month into 2016, the U.S. had released almost 130 weapons in Afghanistan, the most since 2013, with almost 130 weapons released, according to U.S. Air Forces Central Command statistics.

In April, there were more than 390 close-air support sorties, Capt. Matthew Chism, a Resolute Support spokesman, recently told Air Force Times. Chism said oOf those sorties, 38 included air-to-ground strikes, with a total of 62 weapons released iun support of U.S. and alliedf forces on the ground.supporting U.S. Forces Afghanistan and Resolute Support missions. 
 
The U.S. Air Force, which has carried out a steady flow of sorties still maintains a steady flow of airstrikes against al-Qaida and ISIS in Afghanistan, has been at the forefront of the air wars in the Central Command area of operations. CENTCOM is home to "more than 750 total aircraft available to take the fight to the enemy" daily from various bases throughout the region, U.S. Air Force Maj. Omar Villarreal, a spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command, told Air Force Times May 28.  

Villarreal said that recent U.S. aircraft flying in Afghanistan include, but are not limited to:

  • F-16Cs, which have flown more than 2,250 close-air support sorties since Jan. 1Resolute Support began;
  • KC-10s and KC-135s, together flying nearly 1,650 air refueling sorties;
  • and the MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers, which have flown flying about 2,150 intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance sorties and are capable of launching precision missile attacks.
  • Command and control/electronic warfare aircraft: about 450 sorties flown.

"In addition to the U.S. assets mentioned above, our coalition partners contribute to the fight with their own aircraft, and Afghan forces have the A-29 and MD-530 [helicopter], which provide close-air support capability," he said in an email.

In April, the Super Tucanos conducted their first close-air support strikes. The Air Force delivered four A-29s to Afghanistan in January, just one month after the first Afghan pilots and maintainers for the close-air support aircraft completed their training in the U.S. at Moody Air Force Base, Georgia. 

Villarreal reiterated that "the Resolute Support mission in  Afghanistan is not a combat mission. Its purpose is to train, advise and assist Afghan security forces."

continues to grow smalleraims to wind down

"The nation that's going to win [the next war] is not the one with the biggest army," outgoing Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh recently said, fiercely defending the benefit of air assets.

"It's not necessarily the one that has the most tanks, or longest range artillery systems. The one that's going to win is the one with the best Air Force," he said on May 26 during a speech at an Air Force Association breakfast.

"It doesn't mean that air power is pre-eminent," he added, "but it does mean it is equally as critical as land and maritime power, and if you don't have it, you will lose."

Oriana Pawlyk covers deployments, cyber, Guard/Reserve, uniforms, physical training, crime and operations in the Middle East and Europe for Air Force Times. She was the Early Bird Brief editor in 2015. Email her at opawlyk@airforcetimes.com.