US Strikes in Afghanistan Have Increased on Trump’s Orders: Mark Esper

On the orders of US President Donald Trump, the U.S. military has ramped up the number of air and ground attacks against the Taliban, US Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said.

“We did step up our attacks on the Taliban since the [peace] talks broke down,” Esper told reporters while returning from visits to Wright Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. “The president spoke about this publicly. We did pick up the pace considerably.”

As per Politico report, the remarks constitute the Pentagon’s first public confirmation of Trump’s recent pronouncements that U.S. military operations have picked up in recent weeks.

“We did pick up the pace considerably,” Esper added.

The Trump administration last month suspended negotiations with the Taliban that were designed to wind down the 18-year-old conflict after Trump tweeted he was canceling a secretly planned visit by Taliban negotiators to the presidential retreat at Camp David in rural Maryland.

In a Sept. 7 tweet announcing the cancellation of the visit, Trump blamed a Taliban suicide attack in Kabul that had killed a U.S. soldier and 11 other people two days earlier.

Esper declined to provide details of the stepped-up U.S. operations but said they include both “air and ground” attacks. He also stressed that “Afghans lead these operations on the ground” with U.S. troops present in an advisory role.

Since the suspension of talks, Trump has asserted repeatedly that U.
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S. forces were striking the Taliban harder.

“The last four days, we’ve hit our enemy harder than they have ever been hit before, and that will continue,” Trump said during a ceremony at the Pentagon marking the 18th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Trump repeated the claim the following week.

But the U.S. military headquarters responsible for operations in Afghanistan has not acknowledged any new instructions from Trump to launch more strikes and raids.

Esper also said the Pentagon is still considering cutting its troop levels in Afghanistan.

“My ambition would be to get the troop level down to a level by which we know we can contain and do the core mission,” he explained.

The Pentagon describes counterterrorism operations against terrorist groups al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate as its core mission in the country. That’s as opposed to the broader mission of helping the Afghan government fend off the Taliban insurgency.

“If a commander feels confident that he can reduce forces, I will look at the right timing to do that, whether it’s there, whether it’s Africa, you name it, to make sure I can get down to a more manageable level,” he added.

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