KABUL: Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated with US and Afghan officials tipping 2018 to be a "game-changer" as relentless airstrikes pummel militant groups - but others warn the 16-year war has simply become a more violent stalemate.
A traditional easing in fighting during the freezing winter months has been absent this year as the Taliban and Islamic State group respond to intensifying US and Afghan air assaults.
Since US President Donald Trump announced his new strategy for Afghanistan in August, giving the US Air Force more leeway to go after militants, American pilots have been bombarding Taliban and IS fighters, their training camps and drug-making laboratories.
"The gloves are off," Brigadier General Lance Bunch, who directs future air operations in Afghanistan, told reporters recently.
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The new policy has "definitely been a game-changer and the Taliban is definitely feeling it", he added.
The US is deploying more troops and aircraft to Afghanistan, which has become the main theatre of operations for the US Air Force following a drawdown in Syria and Iraq. At the same time it is beefing up Afghanistan's fledgling air capabilities.
US aircraft dropped 4,361 munitions across the country in 2017 - including more than 2,300 since August, which exceeded the combined total for 2015 and 2016.
With the help of huge B-52 bombers, the US has expanded its campaign to far northeastern Afghanistan near the China and Tajikistan borders where it is also targeting the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, which neighbouring China blames for launching attacks on its soil.
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"The days of old where you had fighting seasons are gone," Major General James Hecker, head of NATO's Air Command in Afghanistan, told AFP in Kabul last week.
Militants have reacted violently to the increased airstrikes, launching a wave of deadly attacks across the war-torn country, including in Kabul, in a devastating display of defiance.
The Taliban, by far Afghanistan's biggest militant group, claimed 472 attacks last month alone, the Washington, DC-based terrorism research group TRAC said, describing the number as "unprecedented" for January.
Combined with increased activity by relative newcomers IS, which has been expanding beyond its eastern stronghold, the country appeared to be "at a flashpoint almost to the point of no return", TRAC warned in a new report.
The escalation of the conflict foreshadows a "particularly bloody year", Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington, DC told AFP, forecasting more Afghan and US casualties.
Afghanistan's so-called "fighting season" traditionally starts in the spring before easing over the winter when freezing temperatures and heavy snow make combat more difficult.
But in recent years Taliban militants have continued to carry out attacks throughout the colder months.
This winter has been worse than ever, Borhan Osman, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, said in a report.
"Afghanistan is suffering more intense violence now than during any other winter... since 2001," Osman said, highlighting last month's attacks in the Afghan capital that killed more than 130 people in less than 10 days.
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Among the worst of the attacks was an assault on Kabul's luxury Intercontinental Hotel on January 20, a terrifying hours-long ordeal which saw Taliban insurgents armed with Kalashnikovs and suicide vests charge from room to room searching for foreigners.
That was followed a week later by a devastating bombing involving an explosives-packed ambulance in a crowded street that killed more than 100 people, mostly civilians, and also claimed by the Taliban.
"This looks like a mutually escalating stalemate" as both sides adapt to the new tactics of the other, Afghanistan Analysts Network senior analyst Kate Clark told AFP.
The fighting this winter has been fuelled by more Taliban fighters remaining on the frozen battlefield.
Former general and military analyst Attiqullah Amarkhil told AFP that Taliban fighters had been ordered to "move forward instead of going back and forth" across the border.
The escalation in fighting has all but dashed hopes for peace negotiations with the Taliban anytime soon.
Trump ruled out talks last month after the spate of attacks, an apparent reversal of the position set out in his Afghanistan strategy.
But Washington is still hoping to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said last week following a trip to Kabul.
Sullivan's comments come as the Afghan capital gears up for the Kabul Process meeting at the end of February, where the central government is under pressure to present a framework for peace talks.
But expectations for progress are low.
"There's no way Kabul, or Washington for that matter, would agree to extend an olive branch to an outfit that is placing explosives in ambulances," Kugelman said.
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