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United States considers possibility of airstrikes if Afghan forces face crisis

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

Mr Biden and his senior national security aides had previously suggested that once US troops left Afghanistan, air support would also end, except for strikes targeting terrorist groups that could harm interests. Americans.

But military officials are actively discussing how they might react if the early withdrawal produces consequences with substantial national security implications.

No decision has yet been made, officials said. But they added that one option being considered would be to recommend that US warplanes or armed drones intervene in an extraordinary crisis, such as the potential fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, or a siege that endangers embassies and US citizens and allies.

Any additional airstrikes would require the president’s approval. Even then, officials indicated that such air support would be difficult to sustain over a long period of time due to the enormous logistical effort that would be required given the US withdrawal. The United States will be leaving all of its air bases in Afghanistan by next month, and any air strikes will most likely have to be launched from bases in the Persian Gulf.

A potential fall in Kabul is the crisis most likely to lead to military intervention after US troops leave, officials said. Intervening to protect Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, would be much less safe, an official said. The invading Taliban forces 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 over the ability of the Afghan military to push back the Taliban and maintain control of Kabul and other population centers.

And this is the latest indication of the US rush to address the ramifications of Mr Biden’s April decision to order a complete withdrawal – a goal that had eluded his two immediate predecessors, in part because of opposition from the army.

Whether to provide air support to Afghan security forces following the withdrawal of US troops is one of the major Afghan policy questions the administration grapples with as Biden prepares for meet with NATO allies in Europe next week.

How US troops will conduct counterterrorism missions to prevent Al Qaeda and other militants from rebuilding their presence in Afghanistan, and how to enable Western entrepreneurs to continue supporting the Afghan army, is not yet resolved. At the same time, the CIA is under intense pressure to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country.

As the Pentagon prepares to conclude the withdrawal of American troops by the beginning of July, the Afghan army – created, trained and supplied in the image of the American army – is supposed to start defending the country by itself – even.

Senior US officials say the immediate collapse of the Afghan army is not a given. But there is little doubt that Afghan forces are being battered and at risk of being overwhelmed, especially if their commandos and air forces fail.

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, which are already under siege, are unlikely to receive much military aid from US warplanes, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid speaking publicly about the internal administration’s discussions.

When Mr. Biden announced the withdrawal in April, he pledged to support the Afghan government, including its security forces; but he seemed to indicate that the Afghans would be alone militarily after the departure of US troops and NATO this summer. “Although we do not remain involved militarily in Afghanistan, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” he said at the time.

Officials then said the United States would launch strikes in Afghanistan purely for counterterrorism reasons, in case there was any intelligence on efforts to attack American interests.

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

But officials say there appears to be new flexibility in interpreting the fight against terrorism. They say a debate has erupted within the administration over what exactly is the threshold of unrest in Afghanistan that could lead to US airstrikes.

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

Senior officials have said that by now this threshold looks like an imminent fall of Kabul, a situation that would most likely require Presidential approval before US warplanes – most likely armed MQ-9 Reaper drones. but perhaps fighter jets – provide air support. to Afghan forces.

Afghan officials said their American counterparts told them the United States would also stop any takeovers of major cities, a vague statement without any clear backing.

This support would be difficult to maintain over an extended period.

“It is a very difficult thing to do,” said General Joseph L. Votel, the former commander of the United States Central Command. “It’s an operation to bring planes to Afghanistan, especially if you have to come from the Gulf or from an aircraft carrier. They have little time left to do anything. “

There are already signs of the difficulties the United States would face in sending manned planes to carry out strikes after the withdrawal. As US bases in Afghanistan close, pilots pose a conundrum: What if something goes wrong thousands of feet above Afghanistan?

Forward Operating Base Dwyer – a sprawling complex in the south with a major airstrip – will close in weeks, if not days. At this point, US planes will have only one viable US military base, Bagram, to divert to if they encounter a mechanical or other problem in flight. Bagram will stop once the withdrawal is complete.

With restrictive rules of engagement that require hours of air surveillance before a US airstrike is authorized, Afghan forces have attempted to compensate by launching 10 to 20 airstrikes per day. U.S. surveillance drones provide a plethora of coordinates to the Afghan Air Force, but Afghan pilots and aircraft face burnout and maintenance issues that are increasing day by day as sub- foreign contractors withdraw.

“Our policy should be to do all we can, without having troops on the ground, to allow the legitimate Afghan government and security forces to hold on,” said Rep. Tom Malinowksi, Democrat of New Jersey and former official. of the State Department.

Last month, Mr. Malinowski joined more than a half-dozen other House Democrats and Republicans in urging Mr. Biden to support the Afghan government after the departure of U.S. troops, including any information on imminent Taliban attacks detected by US surveillance planes and a satellite spy.

Senior US generals have acknowledged that Afghan security forces could collapse within a year or two, if not a few months, after Western military support has left.

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

When asked if he thought Afghan forces could hold out, General Milley was elusive.

“Your question: Does the Afghan army remain united and does it remain a cohesive fighting force, or is it falling apart? I think there is a range of scenarios here, a range of outcomes, a range of possibilities, ”he said. “On the one hand, you get some really dramatic and bad possible outcomes. On the other hand, you get an army that stays together and a government that stays together.

“Which of these options gets and comes true at the end of the day?” ” he said. “Frankly, we don’t know that yet.

When asked at a Pentagon press conference last month whether Afghan cities were at risk of Taliban invasion after US forces left, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declined to comment. say whether the United States would provide air support, saying it was a hypothetical situation.

Zalmay Khalilzad, America’s top diplomat leading peace efforts with the Taliban, released what appeared to be a definitive statement on the matter last month.

“We will do what we can during our presence until the forces withdraw, to help the Afghan forces, including coming to their defense when they are attacked,” he told the Foreign Affairs Committee of bedroom. “But once we are out of Afghanistan, direct military support from Afghan forces, such as strikes in support of their forces, is not being considered at this time.”

But three other US officials said the issue had not been resolved at high-level administrative meetings on Afghanistan.

Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan.

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