The U.S. military in Afghanistan says it has killed more than 70 senior Taliban leaders this month in a series of "precision" strikes, dealing a major blow to the insurgency.
An official announcement Wednesday listed details of the strikes conducted over a 10-day period starting from May 17 and hitting targets mostly around the southern Afghan province of Helmand.
"The strikes represent one of the largest blows to Taliban leadership in the last year. The cumulative effects of which will be felt nationwide for quite some time," said U.S. Gen. John Nicholson, who commands American troops and NATO's non-combatant Resolute Support mission in the country.
According to the U.S. statement, the deadliest of theses strikes came on May 24, destroying a known Taliban command and control center in the contested Musa Qala district where a high-level meeting of insurgent commanders was underway at the time.
Among the more than 50 people killed were a deputy shadow governor of Helmand, multiple Taliban district governors, intelligence commanders, and key provincial-level leadership from several other provinces, including Kandahar, Kunduz, Herat, Farah and Uruzgan, the statement said.
The U.S. military statement came shortly after Nicholson spoke to Pentagon reporters via video link from Afghanistan and said the high-profile insurgent meeting in Musa Qala had been convened to discuss recent Taliban attack on the western city of Farah.
"It looks like it was a group of commanders meeting in part to discuss the operation Farah that many of them had just participated in, and they obviously thought they were meeting in relative safety in Musa Qala but our intelligence was able to identify the group," Nicholson said.
Other anti-Taliban strikes conducted in Helmand focused on districts such as Sangin and Nahr-e-Saraj. They killed the provincial head of the so-called Taliban Red Unit commando force along with his associate, a shadow district governor and a senior improvised explosive device (IED) facilitator, who has been coordinating attacks against Afghan and international forces.
A Taliban spokesman, Qari Yousaf Ahmadi, however, rejected as propaganda U.S. military claims the May 24 strike hit an insurgent meeting center in Musa Qala. The attack, he asserted, targeted two civilian houses near the main district market, killing five civilians.
Ahmadi went on to claim the buildings in question had nothing to do with the Taliban and none of the insurgent members were hurt in the attack. The Taliban has not offered any immediate comment on strikes the U.S. military conducted in other districts of Helmand during the 10-day period.
The Taliban controls or contests a majority of the districts in Helmand, the largest Afghan province and a major poppy producing region in the world.
Nicholson said the U.S. military is focusing on Helmand because it has been serving as "the financial engine" of the Taliban, with insurgents drawing 60 percent of their revenue from narcotics.
The Taliban for its part also has intensified battlefield attacks across many Afghan provinces since launching its annual spring offensive more than month ago.
Multiple sources, including Afghan officials, have confirmed insurgent attacks killed more than 400 Afghan soldiers and police personnel since the beginning of May. The war is expected to intensify in the coming months as there are no signs the Taliban is ready to come to the negotiating table to discuss peace with the Afghan government.
"As we continue the season of fighting and talking, we will continue to increase pressure on the Taliban and remain vigilant to opportunities for negotiated peace," said Nicholson.
Nicholson said that some mid- and senior-level Taliban leaders are also engaging with Afghan officials to discuss reconciliation, but he said that a lot of the contacts were taking place "off the stage."