- - Wednesday, May 30, 2018

U.S. military forces in Afghanistan conducted major strikes against the Taliban this month, killing up to 70 terrorist leaders, the Pentagon announced Wednesday.

Bombing raids and drone strikes were carried out for 10 days beginning May 17. A major part of the coordinated attacks took place May 24 and included the use of one of the Army’s newest artillery rocket systems, the M-142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, or HIMARS.

“These strikes represent one of the largest blows to Taliban leadership in the last year,” said Army Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and head of the operation known as Resolute Support. “The cumulative effects of which will be felt nationwide for quite some time.”

According to the Pentagon, the precision strike May 24 was carried out in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province against a known command center in Musa Qala during a meeting of high-level Taliban commanders. The attack caused more than 50 Taliban casualties, including the deputy “shadow” governor of Helmand, multiple regional governors, intelligence commanders and key provincial leaders who had traveled from Kandahar, Kunduz, Herat, Farah and Uruzgan provinces, in addition to Helmand.

A separate airstrike carried out by Air Force A-10s May 24 hit a Taliban “Red Unit” commander in Helmand who was in a vehicle traveling in Sangin province. A-10 jets also bombed a Taliban headquarters in Nahr-e-Saraj a day later.

Then on Saturday, an MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone attacked a senior Taliban bomb-maker in charge of coordinating improvised explosive device attacks against Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, and others in the country over the past 13 years. The Gray Eagle is an improved version of the Predator drone.

“National and international leaders have been clear — victory in Afghanistan will be a political reconciliation,” Gen. Nicholson said. “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.”

MATTIS ON CHINA

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis this week defended the Navy’s latest freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea that drew the ire of Beijing.

“FONOPs — they’re freedom of navigation operations, and you’ll notice there’s only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment of them,” Mr. Mattis told reporters en route to Hawaii for a Pacific Command change-of-command ceremony. “But it’s international waters, and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation, so we’ll continue that.”

Mr. Mattis noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping promised in 2015 during a White House meeting with President Obama that Beijing would not militarize disputed islands in the South China Sea.

“We have seen [in] the last month, they have done exactly that, moving weaponry in that was never there before,” he said.

In recent weeks, the Chinese military has deployed surface-to-air missiles and anti-ship missiles on the Spratly Islands. Beijing’s military also flew nuclear-capable bombers to the disputed islands.

The United States seeks to cooperate with Pacific nations, but “we are also going to confront what we believe is out of step with international law, out of step with international tribunals that have spoken on the issue. And part of this is we maintain a very transparent military activity out in the Pacific,” he said.

Asked if the United States would conduct more robust naval and air operations in response to the Chinese military activities in the South China Sea, Mr. Mattis said: “I generally don’t talk about future activities or actions. Our diplomats are robustly engaged on this, and they are remaining so.”

But the retired Marine Corps general also said he has been hearing concerns about Chinese maritime militarization from American government officials as well as foreign nations that he said are “very concerned about this continuing militarization of features in the South China Sea.”

On Sunday, two Navy warships, the guided-missile destroyer USS Higgins and the guided-missile cruiser USS Antietam, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Paracel Islands.

The Chinese Defense Ministry denounced the operation and claimed in a statement that the actions violated Chinese territorial sovereignty. China sent two warships to warn the ships away. A Pentagon official denied that the U.S. warships were driven from the sea.

Mr. Mattis announced on Wednesday in Honolulu that the Pacific Command is being renamed the Indo-Pacfic Command to better reflect the command’s reach into the Pacific and Indian oceans.

BOLTON PICKS FORMER CIA OFFICER TO DIRECT NSC STAFF

White House National Security Adviser John Bolton has picked a former aide from his State Department days to hold the key post of National Security Council executive director, the White House has announced.

Fred Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and former professional staff member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, was appointed deputy assistant to the president, chief of the NSC staff and executive secretary this week. The post makes Mr. Fleitz among the most powerful working-level officials within the White House, responsible for key personnel and policy management issues.

Mr. Fleitz is known in policy and intelligence circles as an experienced official. Since leaving government, he has written frequently on the flaws in the Iran nuclear deal that was jettisoned in early May by President Trump. He also has written a book on how to deal with North Korea that was highly critical of President Obama’s policy toward North Korea known as “strategic patience.”

Mr. Fleitz, a conservative, was vice president of the Center for Security Policy that has taken a hard-line stance on the problem of radical Islamic terrorism.

His work at the Center for Security Policy drew criticism from leftist groups, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, which has come under fire for falsely characterizing Christian and other conservative groups as “extremist.”

Contact Bill Gertz on Twitter at @BillGertz.

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