When Air Force planes conducted an airstrike that killed Taliban commander Mullah Abdul Salam in Kunduz province Feb. 26, a joint operation with Afghan security forces, it marked the first salvo in a renewed strategy by U.S. forces to remove Taliban commanders from the battlefield.
"Mullah Salam and the Taliban fighters under him murdered and terrorized the people of Kunduz for too long," said Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan. "Salam's death is an opportunity for change. The people of Afghanistan want peace and the government of Afghanistan is committed to achieving peace through reconciliation. The Taliban know the only path forward is reconciliation."
But, as noted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies's Long War Journal, any talk of reconciliation was quickly countered by a spokesman for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan on the group's website:
"The Islamic Emirate — as a representative of the Mujahid Afghan nation and martyrdom-loving people of Kunduz — in response to the irrational comments of General Nicholson declares that you do not have the capacity to talk to the Mujahideen because you are invaders and you understand well that the valiant Afghan nation has always treated invaders such that their brains are first put in order then forced them out of their country in humiliation."
The city of Kunduz, home to roughly 400,000 people, has become a microcosm of America's struggle to stabilize Afghanistan.
Twice in the past two years the northern Afghan city has fallen to Taliban militants, in part due to corrupt politics and failed policies. Afghan security forces and their American counterparts have yet to tame the city, casting shadow on Washington's continued claim that government forces can maintain control of the country's urban centers.
Kunduz province has also been the scene of two tragically errant U.S. airstrikes that killed scores of civilians, severely undercutting America's efforts to safeguard innocent lives and build support around the central government in Kabul.
In October 2015, after Taliban militants led by Mullah Salam overran Kunduz, Afghan security forces with embedded U.S. special operators called in multiple airstrikes from an AC-130 gunship on a Doctors Without Borders medical facility, killing nearly 42 civilians.
Then, in November 2016, shortly after the second collapse of the city's defenses, U.S. forces assisting Afghan troops in an operation to capture Taliban commanders in the village of Boz came under heavy fire. They called in airstrikes, which resulted in 33 civilian deaths.
The airstrike that killed Mullah Salam closed one deadly chapter in the war in Afghanistan and opened another under the Trump administration, with a renewed effort by U.S. forces to target Taliban leadership, a dramatic change in strategy from Trump's predecessor.
The Obama administration focused much of its efforts in recent years pushing reconciliation between the Taliban and the central government of Afghanistan. It made a concerted effort to kill high profile al-Qaida and Haqqani terrorists — groups officially designated as terrorist organizations by the U.S. State Department — while attempting to draw down U.S. and NATO forces in the region.
Those efforts have had tangible successes, to include the peace accord signed between Kabul and Hezb-i-Islami, the second largest militant group in Afghanistan, led by the notorious warlord Gullbuddin Hematyar, and the renewal of peace talks between Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's administration and Taliban leadership in Qatar.
However, that progress has come at steep costs in terrain and human life. While U.S. counter-terrorism efforts under Operation Freedom Sentinel have focused on killing ISIS and al-Qaida fighters, Taliban militants have swept through the Afghan countryside, gaining territory and threatening major provincial capitals from Lashkar Gah in Helmand province to Kunduz city. The most recent estimate by the inspector general covering the Afghan war claims government forces control only 57 percent of the districts in the country.
When Nicholson testified before a Senate panel this February, he made no mention of major Taliban figures killed or targeted in the war, making reference only to two individuals killed by U.S. counter-terrorism efforts, Omar Khalifa, a terrorist behind the Peshawar school attack in Pakistan, and Faraq al-Qatari, an al-Qaida operative operating out of Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Nicholson's testimony stood in stark contrast to comments made by Gen. David Petraeus, then head of Central Command, at the Royal United Services Institute in London back in October 2010, at the height of the war. Petraeus boasted of the removal of nearly 300 Talibancommanders by U.S. and British special operators over a three-month period.
The Obama administration's policy regarding air power in Afghanistan attracted the attention of the now-retired Petraeus last spring.
"At present, U.S. and NATO air power in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces," Petraeus said in an op-ed for the Washington Post. He called for the U.S. to unleash its airpower in support of its Afghan partners "in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists."
To turn back the tide of Taliban gains, Obama relaxed the rules of engagement in June 2016, giving U.S. commanders more flexibility to provide airstrikes and ground support to struggling Afghan forces, if those efforts were perceived to provide "strategic effects."
But the press release announcing the death of Mullah Salam, distributed by U.S Forces Afghanistan, marks a change in direction.
"I haven’t seen this type of targeting of this level of Taliban commanders at least in the past year," said Caitlin Forrest, an analyst covering Afghanistan for the Institute for the Study of War.
Michael Kugelman, an expert on Afghanistan for the Wilson Center, a Washington, D.C., think tank, also took note of the change. "The U.S. military wanted to telegraph a strong message that Taliban leaders are not safe in Afghanistan, no matter where they may be, and that they will be targeted so long as they continue to resist reconciliation efforts, he said.
It is likely, Kugelman said, that the March 1 Taliban attacks on police, military and intelligence targets in Kabul, which killed at least 15 people and wounded dozens, "were meant to underscore to U.S. and Afghan forces that targeting Taliban leaders will lead them to intensify, not ease, their fight."