Now that the fight against the largely defeated Islamic State is winding down, the U.S. Air Force is turning its efforts toward the Taliban and moving aircraft and crews to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan.
Crews and a KC-135 Stratotanker aerial refueling jet from MacDill Air Force Base are part of that effort, Air Force officials say.
"There are presently several MacDill crew deployed here and within the past month, there were MacDill KC-135s operating from Kandahar airfield in support of operations across Afghanistan," said Air Force Lt. Col. Damien Pickart, spokesman for U.S. Air Forces Central Command, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
AFCent, the Qatar-based forward flying operation of MacDill-based U.S. Central Command, on Tuesday announced the shifting priorities. AFCent has realigned aircraft and airmen to Kandahar to provide the air power required by Afghan and U.S. forces in Afghanistan.
The new strategy is part of the Operation Freedom’s Sentinel and Resolute Support missions to help Afghans defend themselves and to continue ongoing counterterrorism efforts.
The strategy also coincides with the arrival of the first Army Security Force Assistance Brigade, a new unit that will help take the load off U.S. Special Operations Forces by providing training to Afghan partners that usually is conducted by Green Berets and other commandos. The brigade will join 14.000 U.S. troops already in Afghanistan.
U.S. military leaders have signaled that unlike in the past, they are not waiting until Afghanistan’s harsh winter recedes to attack the Taliban, the insurgent group that ruled Afghanistan under a brutal form of Islamic law until it was toppled from power in 2001 during a United States-led invasion.
The winter strategy will require the Air Force to conduct more close air-support operations for troops on the battlefield, more personnel recovery for the wounded and killed, and more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to determine enemy movements.
"As we’ve applied increased pressure on the Taliban and their revenue sources with precision airpower, we’ve gained considerable momentum in our effort to force them to reconcile or face defeat," Lt. Gen. Jeffrey Harrigian, AFCent commander, said in a news release.
The tanker crews from MacDill, along with those from other bases, will play a key role in those missions by providing fuel to combat and cargo aircraft.
A detachment of KC-135 Stratotankers have operated from Kandahar since September. In addition, the Air Force has shifted to Afghanistan A-10 Thunderbolt II close-support fighter jets, like those training now at MacDill and the Avon Park Air Force Range near Sebring.
The A-10s will soon conduct their first strike against the Taliban, carrying on efforts to destroy narcotics production. Since Nov. 30, strikes against these targets have had an impact on Taliban revenue valued at more than $20 million, according to AFCent.
The strikes were made possible by increased authority President Donald Trump gave to local U.S. commanders and are designed to strangle Taliban finances, which rely heavily on the sale of heroin from poppy harvests.
Contact Howard Altman at [email protected]tampabay.com or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman.