WASHINGTON – The White House’s clearance of yet another bombing campaign in Afghanistan, just weeks before the end of the US military mission, has a stated modest objective – to give Afghan security forces time to organize some sort of defense around major cities that are under siege by the burgeoning Taliban.
But the dozens of airstrikes, which began two weeks ago when the Taliban pushed their front lines deep into urban areas, have also exposed the big question now facing President Biden and the Pentagon as the United States seeks to end its longest war. Will the US air campaign continue after August 31, when the president said it would end combat engagement in Afghanistan?
The White House and the Pentagon insist these are truly the last days of US combat support, after most troops withdrew this summer after 20 years of war. From next month, the president said, the United States will only engage militarily in Afghanistan for counterterrorism reasons, to prevent the country from becoming a launching pad for attacks against the West. This would only give the Afghan security forces a few weeks to repair years of poor leadership and institutional failures, and rally their forces to defend the territory they still control.
Pentagon and White House officials say the current air campaign can dampen the Taliban’s momentum by destroying some of their artillery and other equipment, and boost the morale of the Afghan security forces.
But administration officials say the Pentagon will most likely seek permission from the president for another air campaign in the coming months if Kandahar or the capital Kabul appear on the verge of falling. Mr Biden appeared to rule out the possibility last month when he said the United States had “developed a horizon-wide capability that can be added” if Kabul was at serious risk, saying the military Often used to suggest possible Airstrikes.
Such a move would foreshadow progress towards a longer campaign that could leave Mr Biden a gap between his decision to withdraw US troops and a possible fall of Kabul, and the possible specter of evacuations from US and Western embassies, such as the scene that preceded the fall of Saigon in 1975, when Americans were evacuated from a rooftop by helicopter.
Biden’s aides say he is aware of the risks, but remains skeptical of any Pentagon effort that appears to extend the US military engagement. Still, officials say they expect Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and General Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to address Mr. Biden at the end. August about the possibility of continuing airstrikes into September if the Taliban appear poised to invade key population centers.
Already, the Taliban have made progress, sweeping the Afghan countryside and moving closer to central Kandahar. Taliban fighters launched rockets over the weekend at Kandahar airport, and heavy fighting near Herat closed the airport there.
For now, the official line from the White House and the Pentagon is that these are truly the last days of US combat support.
“My personal belief is that the closer the Taliban gets to urban areas, I think the fighting becomes more intense and they cannot take advantage of it as they could in rural areas,” Gen. Joseph L. Votel said. , the former commander of the United States Central Command. “As they arrive in the built-up areas, where there are rulers in place who will fight for their lives, I think those fights will become more difficult.”
But that has not been the case in recent days and weeks, as Taliban fighters have entered several provincial capitals such as Kunduz in the north, Kandahar and Lashkar Gah in the south and Herat in the west.
Even with US B-52 bombers and AC-130 gunships helping where they could, the Taliban pushed all the way to Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province.
An Afghan city officer called the situation last week “hell”. Even now, with reinforcements and continued US airstrikes – there were at least two on Monday morning – fighting still continued in almost every part of the city.
But helping Afghan partners fight for their lives is the purpose of the intensified bombing campaign, military officials said.
Mohammad Sadiq Essa, spokesman for the Afghan army corps fighting in Kandahar, said the US strikes had been helpful in “breaking the momentum of the Taliban.” But continued strikes by US and Afghan planes, especially around urban areas, risk causing large numbers of civilian casualties.
Since the U.S. military began its official withdrawal in May, thousands of civilians have been killed or injured – the highest number recorded for the May-June period since the United Nations began monitoring these casualties in 2009 .
Mr. Biden, in announcing the withdrawal of American troops, had initially given September 11 as the end date of the American combat mission. Then last month he said it would end on August 31. This gave the Pentagon – and Afghan forces – little more than a month to slow the rise of the Taliban.
“We stand ready to continue this increased level of support in the weeks to come if the Taliban continue their attacks,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top US general overseeing operations in Afghanistan, said last week in explaining the intensification of airstrikes. .
What is happening now echoes the past. After the end of the US combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, the Obama administration had to back down and allow more airstrikes for the Afghan security forces, as they lost the bases and outposts than the forces. international organizations had transferred to them.
In the past, air power was only sufficient if accompanied by a competent force on the ground. At present, these forces are still lacking, with the Afghan army relying on an exhausted commando corps to replace many police officers who have fled or surrendered and army troops who refuse to fight or even to venture out of their bases.
The administration and military officials have expressed conflicting views on whether the United States will continue airstrikes after August 31 to prevent the fall of Afghan cities and the Afghan government, led by President Ashraf Ghani. General McKenzie declined last week to say that the US airstrikes would end at the end of the month.
Mr Biden made it clear in meetings with his key aides and advisers that continued US bombing from the skies of Afghanistan after the pullout was not what he wanted, administration officials said. But his hand could be forced if Taliban forces are about to invade Kandahar or even Kabul, where the United States maintains an embassy, ââwith some 4,000 people.
The Afghan military is trying to hold back key cities and roads, a strategy US military officers have pushed for years as Afghan security forces, backed by US air power, cling to remote, isolated neighborhoods. and indefensible after the end of the American combat mission. in 2014. Afghan officials have largely ignored the suggestions so far, unwilling to cede any territory – despite its strategic insignificance – to the insurgents.
So, for now, the United States is trying to make the fight as difficult as possible for the Taliban. “It’s about saving time,” General Votel said in an interview. âIt’s about blunting and slowing down the Taliban and helping the Afghans organize a little more.
Defense Ministry officials said they expected the strikes, up to five a day, to continue until at least August. The attacks, carried out by armed Reaper drones and AC-130 aerial combat helicopters, target specific Taliban equipment, including heavy artillery, which could be used to threaten population centers, foreign embassies, buildings. or Afghan government complexes, or airports, officials said.
A Taliban official ignored the presence of huge B-52 bombers that appeared in the Afghan skies, although the group officially denounced the bombings as a violation of the 2020 peace agreement with the United States. United and promised consequences.
The US airstrikes have highlighted the shortcomings of the Afghan air force, which US officials say is overwhelmed and broken down.
“All Afghan Air Force air platforms are overloaded due to increased demands for close air support, intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance missions and aerial refueling now that the ANDSF is severely short of US air support, “the Special Inspector General for the Reconstruction of Afghanistan said in a statement. report released last week, referring to Afghan security forces.
The departure of all but a few hundred U.S. aircraft maintenance contractors has seen readiness rates drop sharply for five of the seven planes in the Afghan air fleet, according to the report. But even with the litany of problems, including the loss of planes to increasing Taliban fire, Afghan pilots tried to support the forces.
Helen Cooper and Eric schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan. Taimoor Shah contributed reporting from Kandahar, Afghanistan.