WASHINGTON – The Pentagon is considering seeking clearance to air strikes in support of the Afghan security forces if Kabul or any other major city is at risk of falling to the Taliban, potentially adding flexibility to President Biden’s plan to end the United States military presence in the conflict . senior officials said.
Mr Biden and his senior national security advisers had previously suggested that once US forces leave Afghanistan, air support will end as well, with the exception of attacks on terrorist groups that could harm American interests.
But the military is actively discussing how to react if the rapid withdrawal has consequences with significant national security implications.
No decisions have been made yet, officials said. However, they added that one option being considered would be to recommend U.S. fighter jets or armed drones to intervene in an extraordinary crisis such as the possible fall of the Afghan capital, Kabul, or a siege of American and allied embassies and citizens.
All further air strikes require the approval of the President. Even then, officials indicated that such air support would be difficult to maintain over a long period of time because of the enormous logistical effort that would be required in view of the American withdrawal. The United States will be leaving all of its air bases in Afghanistan by next month, and all air strikes would most likely have to be launched from bases in the Persian Gulf.
One possible case of Kabul is the crisis that is most likely to lead to military intervention after the withdrawal of US troops, officials said. Intervening to protect Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, is far less secure, an official said. Advancing Taliban troops have increasingly threatened several other urban centers in almost every corner of the country in recent months.
The discussion suggests the level of concern in Washington about the ability of the Afghan military to stop the Taliban and maintain control of Kabul and other population centers.
And it is the most recent reference to the US scramble to address the ramifications of Mr Biden’s decision in April to order a full withdrawal – a goal that his two immediate predecessors escaped in part due to opposition from the military.
Whether to assist Afghan security forces after US troops withdraw from the air is one of several major Afghanistan policy issues that the government is grappling with as Mr Biden prepares to become NATO allies in Europe next week hold true.
Also unresolved is how US forces will conduct counterterrorism missions to prevent al-Qaeda and other militants from reestablishing their presence in Afghanistan and how Western contractors can be enabled to continue to support the Afghan military. At the same time, the C.I.A. is under intense pressure to find new ways to gather information and carry out anti-terrorist attacks in the country.
Since the Pentagon wants to complete the withdrawal of US troops by the beginning of July, the Afghan military – created, trained and equipped on the model of the American military – should begin to defend the country on its own.
Senior American officials say the immediate collapse of the Afghan military cannot be taken for granted. But there is no doubt that the Afghan armed forces are battered and in danger of being overwhelmed, especially if their commandos and air forces stall.
The United States is unlikely to provide additional air support to Afghan forces in rural areas, many of which are already under Taliban control, officials said. And even government enclaves across the country that are already besieged are unlikely to receive much military aid from American fighter jets, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to speak publicly about internal administrative discussions.
When Mr Biden announced his withdrawal in April, he promised to support the Afghan government, including its security forces; but it seemed to imply that the Afghans would be on their own militarily after the withdrawal of American and NATO troops that summer. “Although we are not militarily involved in Afghanistan, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” he said at the time.
Officials at the time said that if there was information about attempts to attack American interests, the United States would launch attacks in Afghanistan only for counter-terrorism reasons.
A White House National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on the options discussed, saying the government had not publicly discussed the rules of engagement.
However, officials say there seems to be new flexibility in interpreting counter-terrorism. You say a debate has broken out in the government about what exactly is the threshold for unrest in Afghanistan that could lead to American air strikes.
The discussion reflects the lessons learned from the rise of Islamic State in Iraq, which forced the Obama administration to re-deploy troops and air raids to defend Iraqi cities in 2014 when the group advanced into Baghdad.
Senior officials said that threshold at the moment looked like an impending case of Kabul, a situation that would most likely require presidential approval before American fighter jets – most likely armed MQ-9 Reaper drones, but possibly fighter jets – would provide air support to Afghan troops.
Afghan officials said their American counterparts told them the United States would also stop any takeover of major cities, a vague statement with no clear support.
This support would be difficult to maintain over a long period of time.
“It’s a very difficult thing,” said General Joseph L. Votel, the former commandant of the United States Central Command. “It’s an operation to get planes into Afghanistan, especially if you have to come from the Gulf or from an aircraft carrier. You have limited time to loiter around to do anything. “
There are already indications that the United States would have difficulty sending manned planes on strikes after the withdrawal. The closure of the US bases in Afghanistan puzzles the pilots: what if something goes wrong thousands of meters above Afghanistan?
Forward Operating Base Dwyer – a sprawling complex in the south with a sizeable runway – closes in weeks, if not days. At this point, U.S. planes only have one viable American military base, Bagram, to which they can divert if they encounter a mechanical or other problem while in flight. Bagram will close when the withdrawal is complete.
With restrictive rules of engagement that require hours of surveillance from above before a US air strike is approved, the Afghan forces have tried to compensate for this by launching 10 to 20 air strikes a day. US surveillance drones provide the Afghan Air Force with a wealth of coordinates, but Afghan pilots and planes are facing burnout and maintenance problems that increase every day as foreign contractors withdraw.
“Our policy should be to do everything possible to enable the legitimate Afghan government and security forces to hold out,” said Tom Malinowksi, Democrat from New Jersey and former State Department official.
Mr. Malinowski last month joined more than half a dozen other Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives calling on Mr Biden to provide full support to the Afghan government following the withdrawal of American troops, including any information on impending Taliban attacks detected by US surveillance planes and spy satellites.
Senior American generals have admitted that Afghan security forces could collapse in a year or two, or even months, after Western military support is withdrawn.
General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a lukewarm statement with reporters traveling with him last month about the capabilities of the Afghan armed forces. After 20 years of war, thousands of casualties and enormous sums of money spent on the Afghan military and police, he described them as “reasonably well equipped, reasonably well trained, reasonably well managed”.
When asked whether he thought the Afghan forces could keep up, General Milley was noncommittal.
“Your question: The Afghan army, will it stay together and remain a single armed force or will it disintegrate? I think there are a number of scenarios here, a number of outcomes, a number of possibilities, ”he said. “On the one hand, you get some really dramatic, bad possible results. On the other hand, you get a military that sticks together and a government that sticks together.
“Which of these options is given and becoming a reality at the end of the day?” He said. “We honestly don’t know yet.”
When asked at a Pentagon press conference last month whether Afghan cities could be overrun by the Taliban after the withdrawal of American forces, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declined the situation.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the leading US diplomat in charge of peace efforts with the Taliban, made what appears to be a definitive statement on the matter last month.
“We will do everything we can during our presence until the armed forces have withdrawn to aid the Afghan armed forces, including defending them if they are attacked,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But once we are out of Afghanistan, direct military support for the Afghan armed forces, such as strikes in support of their armed forces, is currently not being considered.”
But three other American officials said the problem was not resolved in high-level government meetings on Afghanistan.
Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan.