WASHINGTON — The United States bombed a remote corner of Afghanistan Tuesday, part of a 96-hour bombing strike in the country in what the Pentagon says is part of the effort to destroy the Taliban’s training facilities and support networks.
It was the first time the U.S. has struck the faraway northeast location, a spot that happens to be in the same area where China is planning to build its first military base in Afghanistan.
“We are going to build it, but the Chinese government has committed to help the division financially, provide equipment and train the Afghan soldiers,” Afghan Defense Ministry spokesman Mohammed Radmanesh told AFP.
The two nations share a 47-mile border adjacent to Tajikistan; the Wakhjir Pass, a mountain pass in the Hindu Kush or Pamirs at the eastern end of the Wakhan Corridor is the only ground route between the two nations.
The isolated panhandle of land is so remote that many inhabitants are unaware of the Afghan conflict. China’s involvement in the base comes as President Xi Jinping seeks to extend Beijing’s economic and geopolitical clout, pouring billions of dollars into infrastructure in South Asia in the “One Belt, One Road” initiative.
Meanwhile, Russia also is renewing interest in Afghanistan, where it lost a nine-year war and occupationin 1979. Russia’s efforts includes engaging the Taliban as part of a swirl of diplomatic efforts.
The airstrikes took place over 96 hours and included a U.S. Air Force B-52 Stratofortress dropping 24 precision-guided munitions on Taliban fighting positions. That set a record for the most guided munitions ever dropped from a B-52, according to a statement issued by Operation Resolute Support, the name of the Afghan mission.
The bombing also targeted positions of the less known East Turkestan Islamic Movement, the Pentagon confirmed. That is a Muslim separatist group founded by militant Uighurs, members of the Turkic-speaking ethnic majority in northwest China’s Xinjiang province. The U.S. treasury department listed ETIM as a terrorist group in 2002 during a period of increased U.S.-Chinese cooperation on anti-terrorism in the wake of the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“The Taliban have nowhere to hide,” Gen. John Nicholson, the top American commander in Afghanistan, said in a statement. “There will be no safe haven for any terrorist group bent on bringing harm and destruction to this country.”
The war in Afghanistan is in its 16th year, the longest war in U.S. history. It was a topic across Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
The conflict will cost $45 billion this year, Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday. Several senators questioned the rationale behind the spending and the ability of the U.S. to force the Taliban to reach a political settlement.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary James Mattis said the U.S. has no imperial ambitions in Afghanistan and strongly pushed back against the idea that America is the latest nation to lose blood and treasure in the historical “graveyard of empires.”
Mattis defended the U.S. strategy under questioning from Rep. Walter Jones, (R-N.C.), at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. Jones said the Taliban is threatening 70 percent of Afghanistan. He also cited complaints from an internal Pentagon watchdog that the U.S. military was withholding information that would help the American public understand if President Donald Trump’s new strategy was working.
Jones asked Mattis if he agreed with the assessment of retired Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Chuck Krulak, who wrote Jones in an email, “No one has ever conquered Afghanistan and many have tried. We would join the list of nations that have tried and failed.”
Mattis was quick to respond. “Congressman, if we were engaged in conquering Afghanistan, I would agree 100 percent with what you just stated, if that was our sense of empire,” Mattis said. “What we are doing to earn the trust of the American people is to ensure another 9/11 hatched out of there does not happen during our watch.”
Mattis said the new strategy is a departure from all previous efforts because the Afghan forces are doing the fighting, and the U.S. is providing much more support in the form of airstrikes and fire support.
In his latest report to Congress last month, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko said he was told not to release the information, which he called “one of the last remaining publicly available indicators for members of Congress and for the American public of how the 16-year-long U.S. effort to secure Afghanistan is faring.”
The most recent set of air strikes is part of the U.S. campaign to degrade the Taliban’s support network throughout the country, which includes airstrikes against drug labs in Helmand province.
The Defense Department has hailed the airstrikes as part of its successful winter offensive against the Taliban, who are known to tax drug traffickers. The Pentagon said the strikes in Kunduz province helped to prevent Taliban fighters from capturing Kunduz City.
U.S. officials point to the Taliban’s failure to take the city as an indicator of the militants’ inability to meet objectives. In its statement, Resolute Support noted that the Taliban “did not capture a single provincial capital, despite repeated boasts and attempts” to do so in 2017.
“The Taliban cannot win on the battlefield, therefore they inflict harm and suffering on innocent civilians,” Nicholson said. “All they can do is kill innocent people and destroy what other people have built.”