US weighs possibility of air strikes if Afghan forces face crisis


WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is considering seeking permission to carry out airstrikes in support of Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is at risk of falling into the hands of the Taliban, which could provide flexibility in President Biden’s plan to end the US military presence In the conflict, senior officials said.

Biden and his top national security aides had previously suggested that once US forces leave Afghanistan, air support will also end, except for strikes targeting terrorist groups that could harm US interests.

But military officials are actively discussing how they might respond if a rapid withdrawal leads to dire consequences for national security.

Officials said no decisions had been made yet. But they added that one option under consideration would be to recommend that US warplanes or armed drones intervene in an unusual crisis, such as the possible fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, or a blockade that puts embassies, US citizens and allies at risk.

Any additional airstrikes require the president’s approval. Until then, officials indicated that such air support would be difficult to sustain over an extended period due to the massive logistical effort that would be necessary in light of a U.S. withdrawal. The US will leave all of its air bases in Afghanistan by next month, and any airstrikes will likely be launched from bases in the Persian Gulf.

Officials said the potential downfall of Kabul is the crisis most likely to lead to military intervention after the withdrawal of US forces. One official said an intervention to protect Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, would be less certain. The increasingly crowded Taliban forces have threatened many other urban centers in almost every corner of the country in recent months.

The discussion indicates the degree of concern in Washington about the Afghan army’s ability to fend off the Taliban and maintain control of Kabul and other population centers.

It is the latest sign of the United States scrambling to address the fallout Mr Biden’s decision In April he orders a full withdrawal – a goal that eluded his immediate predecessors, in part because opposition from the army.

Whether to provide air support to Afghan security forces after the withdrawal of US forces is one of the many key questions about Afghanistan policy that the administration is wrestling with. Mr. Biden prepares to meet with NATO allies In Europe next week.

Nor has it been resolved how US forces will carry out counterterrorism missions to prevent al-Qaeda and other militants from rebuilding their presence in Afghanistan, and how to allow Western contractors to continue to support the Afghan military. At the same time, the The CIA is under severe pressure To find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counter-terror strikes in the country.

With the Pentagon set to conclude Withdrawal of US forces in early JulyCreated, trained and equipped in the image of the US military, the Afghan army is supposed to start defending the country on its own.

Senior US officials say the immediate collapse of the Afghan army is not a foregone conclusion. But there is no doubt that the Afghan forces are taking a beating and are in danger of being overrun, especially if the commandos and air force are bogged down.

Officials said the United States was unlikely to provide additional air support to Afghan forces in rural areas, many of which are already under Taliban control. Officials said that even government pockets across the country, which are already under siege, are unlikely to receive much military assistance from US warplanes. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid speaking publicly about internal management discussions.

When Mr. Biden announced the withdrawal in April, he promised to support the Afghan government, including its security forces. But he appears to indicate that the Afghans will be on their own militarily after US and NATO forces leave this summer. “While we will not remain militarily involved in Afghanistan, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” he said at the time.

Officials said at the time that the United States would launch strikes in Afghanistan for counterterrorism reasons only if there was intelligence about efforts to attack American interests.

A spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council declined to comment on the options under discussion, saying the administration had not publicly discussed the rules of engagement.

But officials say there appears to be some new flexibility in the interpretation of counterterrorism. They say debate has arisen in the administration about exactly what is the threshold for unrest in Afghanistan that could lead to US airstrikes.

The discussion reflects lessons from the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, which in 2014 forced the Obama administration to recommit forces and air cover to defend Iraqi cities as the group encroached on Baghdad.

For now, senior officials said, that threshold looks like the imminent fall of Kabul, a situation that will likely require approval from the president before US warplanes — most likely armed MQ-9 Reaper drones but possibly fighter jets — provide air support. Afghan forces.

Afghan officials said they were told by their American counterparts that the United States would halt any capture of major cities, a vague statement without any clear support.

It will be difficult to maintain this support over any long period.

General Joseph L. Votel, former commander of US Central Command: “It’s very difficult.” “It’s a process to take planes to Afghanistan, especially if you have to come from the Gulf or an aircraft carrier. There is limited time for them to do anything.”

There are already indications of the difficulties the United States will have in sending manned aircraft to carry out strikes after the withdrawal. With US bases in Afghanistan closed, it left the pilots with a dilemma: What if something went wrong thousands of feet above Afghanistan?

Forward Operating Base Dwyer — a sprawling complex to the south with a large landing strip — shuts down in weeks, if not days. At that point, US aircraft will have one viable US military base, Bagram, to convert to if they encounter a mechanical or other problem in flight. Bagram will be closed when the withdrawal is complete.

With restrictive rules of engagement requiring hours of overhead observation before a US air strike is allowed, Afghan forces have tried to compensate, conducting 10 to 20 airstrikes a day. US reconnaissance drones provide a wealth of coordinates for the Afghan Air Force, but Afghan pilots and planes face issues with attrition and maintenance that are increasing by the day as foreign contractors withdraw.

“Our policy should be to do everything feasible, consistent with no troops on the ground, to enable the legitimate Afghan government and security forces to hold their own,” said Representative Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat and former State Department official.

Mr. Malinowski last month More than half a dozen Democrats and Republicans joined the House مجلس In urging Mr. Biden to provide a range of support to the Afghan government after US forces leave, including any information about impending Taliban attacks detected by US surveillance planes and spy satellites.

Senior US generals have admitted that Afghan security forces may collapse within a year or two, or even months, after Western military support leaves.

General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave reporters traveling with him last month a tepid statement about the capabilities of Afghan forces. After 20 years of war, thousands of casualties and huge sums of money on the Afghan army and police, he described them as “well-equipped, well-trained and reasonably well-led”.

When pressed about whether he believed the Afghan forces could hold out, General Milley was noncommittal.

Your question: the Afghan army, are they holding together and keeping a cohesive fighting force, or are they collapsing? I think there’s a set of scenarios here, a set of outcomes, a set of possibilities. “On the one hand, you get some really bad and exciting potential outcomes. On the other hand, you get an army that stays together and a government that stays together.

“Which of these choices does it come true at the end of the day?” He said. “We honestly don’t know yet.”

When asked at a Pentagon news conference last month if Afghan cities were at risk of being overrun by the Taliban after the departure of U.S. forces, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declined to say whether the United States would provide air support, saying it was hypothetical. continent.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US diplomat who leads peace efforts with the Taliban, last month issued what appeared to be a definitive statement on the matter.

“We will do what we can while we are there, until the withdrawal of troops, to assist the Afghan forces, including defending them when they are under attack,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But once we’re out of Afghanistan, direct military support to Afghan forces like strikes to bolster their forces, is not considered at this time.”

But three other US officials said the issue was not resolved in the administration’s high-level meetings on Afghanistan.

Helen Cooper and Eric Schmidt report from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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