By Hamid Shalizi and James Mackenzie
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan forces, backed by U.S. advisers and air power, are targeting Taliban field commanders seen as a major obstacle to possible peace talks, as they step up military pressure on the insurgents, security officials said.
Abdul Manan, the shadow Taliban governor of the strategic province of Helmand and the insurgents' top military commander in the south, was killed in a joint operation by U.S. and Afghan special forces on Dec. 2.
Two days later, the Taliban shadow governor of Ghor province in central Afghanistan was killed while on a visit to Helmand and on Saturday, the shadow governor of Paktika, on the border with Pakistan, was killed in a raid by Afghan special forces.
"The war-hardened Taliban field commanders are the biggest obstacle to peace efforts because they believe they are winning militarily," said a senior government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he is not authorised to talk to the media.
"The plan was designed to eliminate them and pave the way for future talks," he said.
Najib Danish, interior ministry spokesman, said government forces would use all means to remove hurdles blocking peace and stability.
Senior commanders have been targeted regularly in the past but the current campaign is part of a strategy to apply heavier battlefield pressure on the Taliban even while diplomatic efforts to start peace talks intensify ahead of presidential elections next year.
The Taliban, whose fighters briefly overran the central city of Ghazni in August, have steadily increased territorial gains since NATO forces ended combat missions in 2014, leaving the government in control of no more than two thirds of the country.
But as moves towards a possible start to talks with the Taliban have stepped up following U.S. President Donald Trump's appointment of former ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad as special peace envoy, fighting has intensified.
Air and ground operations have surged in recent weeks as General Scott Miller, who took command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan in September, has pressed government forces to go on the attack to strengthen their hand in any talks.
"We've realigned support and precision lethal assets to precisely target the Taliban more often and more effectively to set conditions for the negotiated settlement," said Colonel David Butler, spokesman for U.S. Forces Afghanistan.
"We don't consider the death of these leaders decisive, unfortunately many more will die until the Taliban decide to stop fighting. The only lasting solution will be a political settlement," he said.
As air strikes have increased, so has the risk of civilian casualties but Afghan security officials say, despite that danger, the local commanders remain high priority targets.
The decision to target regional Taliban commanders reflects a belief that many of them oppose a peaceful settlement that would threaten lucrative tax collection operations and revenues from sources like illegal mining and narcotics.
The officials say that ever since the death of former Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour in a U.S. drone strike in 2016, field commanders have kept increasing control over finances raised in their areas.
Mansour, who ran the movement's finances for Taliban founder Mullah Mohammad Omar, kept a firm grip on revenues, ensuring that commanders passed revenues up the line for later distribution.
Under his successor, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, that system changed, with field commanders given more independence and control over revenues, meaning many have an interest in seeing conflict and lawlessness go on.
"Local commanders were told to earn and fund their own fighting in areas under their command. That helped them get very rich and they by no means wanted any peace," a second security official said.
(Editing by Robert Birsel)