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The United States weighs the possibility of air strikes if Afghan forces face a crisis

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

Mr. Biden and his leading National Security Assistants had previously suggested that when U.S. troops left Afghanistan, air support would also end, with the exception of strikes targeting terrorist groups that could harm U.S. interests.

But military officials are actively discussing how they can react if the rapid withdrawal has consequences with significant national security implications.

No decisions have been made yet, officials said. But they added that one option under consideration would be to recommend US warplanes or armed drones to intervene in an extraordinary crisis, such as the possible fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital or a siege that endangers US and allied embassies and citizens. .

Any further airstrikes will require the President’s approval. Nevertheless, officials indicated that such air support would be difficult to maintain over an extended period of time due to the enormous logistical efforts that would be necessary given the US withdrawal. The United States will leave all of its air bases in Afghanistan next month, and any air strikes are likely to be launched from bases in the Persian Gulf.

A potential drop in Kabul is the crisis that is most likely to lead to military intervention after U.S. troops leave, officials said. Intervening to protect Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, would be far less secure, an official said. Intervening Taliban forces have increasingly threatened several other urban hubs in almost every corner of the country in recent months.

The discussion suggests the level of concern in Washington over the Afghan military’s ability to hold the Taliban and maintain control over Kabul and other population centers.

And that’s the latest indication of U.S. confusion to tackle the consequences of Mr. Biden’s decision in April to order a full withdrawal – a goal that had escaped his two immediate predecessors, partly due to opposition from the military.

Whether air support should be provided to Afghan security forces after U.S. troops withdraw is one of several major questions about Afghanistan policy that the administration is struggling with as Mr. Biden is preparing to meet NATO allies in Europe next week.

Also unresolved is how U.S. troops will carry out counter-terrorism missions to prevent Al Qaeda and other militants from rebuilding their presence in Afghanistan, and how to allow Western entrepreneurs to continue supporting the Afghan military. At the same time, the CIA is under intense pressure to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counter-terrorism attacks in the country.

As the Pentagon prepares to complete the withdrawal of US troops in early July, the Afghan military – created, trained and delivered in the image of the US military – will begin defending the country alone.

Senior US officials say the immediate disintegration of the Afghan military is not a matter of course. But there is no doubt that the Afghan forces are battered and at risk of being overwhelmed, especially if their commands and air forces falter.

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 around the country, which have already been besieged, are unlikely to receive much military assistance from U.S. warplanes, officials said. They spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid talking publicly about internal administration discussions.

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

Officials said at the time that the United States would only launch strikes in Afghanistan for the sake of terrorism if there were intelligence efforts to attack US interests.

A spokesman for the White House National Security Council declined to comment on the options being discussed, saying the administration did not publicly discuss engagement rules.

But officials say there seems to be some new flexibility in the interpretation of counter-terrorism. They say there has been a growing debate in the administration about what exactly is the threshold for unrest in Afghanistan that could lead to US airstrikes.

The discussion reflects the experience of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, which forced the Obama administration in 2014 to provide troops and air cover again to defend Iraqi cities as the group attacked Baghdad.

Senior officials said that threshold currently resembled a looming fall in Kabul, a situation that would likely require the resignation of the president before US warplanes – likely armed MQ-9 Reaper drones, but possibly fighter jets – provided air support to Afghan forces.

Afghan officials said they had been told by their US counterparts that the United States would also stop any takeover of major cities, a vague statement without any clear support.

This support would be difficult to maintain over a long period of time.

“It’s a very difficult thing to do,” said General Joseph L. Votel, the former commander of the United States Central Command. “It is an operation to get a plane 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 signs of the difficulties that the United States would have in sending manned aircraft to carry out strikes after the withdrawal. As U.S. bases in Afghanistan close, it has left pilots with a riddle: What if something goes wrong thousands of feet across Afghanistan?

Forward Operating Base Dwyer – a scattered complex in the south with a significant runway – closes in weeks, if not days. At that time, U.S. aircraft will only have a viable U.S. military base, Bagram, to redirect to if they face a mechanical or other problem during flight. Bagram shuts down when the withdrawal is complete.

With restrictive engagement rules requiring hours of overhead surveillance before a U.S. air strike is allowed, Afghan forces have sought to compensate and launched 10 to 20 air strikes a day. U.S. surveillance drones provide a wealth of coordinates to the Afghan Air Force, but Afghan pilots and aircraft face burnout and maintenance problems that grow day by day as foreign contractors retire.

“Our policy should be to do everything possible, in line with not having troops on the ground, to enable the legitimate Afghan government and security forces to hold on,” said Representative Tom Malinowksi, a New Jersey Democrat and former Secretary of State .

Sir. Malinowski last month joined more than half a dozen other House Democrats and Republicans in urging Mr Biden to provide a range of support to the Afghan government after US troops leave, including all information on impending Taliban attacks discovered by US surveillance aircraft and spy satellites.

Top American generals have recognized that the Afghan security forces could collapse in a year or two or even a few months after Western military support.

General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered journalists who traveled with him last month a lukewarm statement on the capabilities of the Afghan forces. After 20 years of war, thousands of losses and huge sums spent on the Afghan military and police, he characterized them as “reasonably well-equipped, reasonably well-educated, reasonably well-led.”

When asked if he thought the Afghan forces could stop, General Milley was not obligated.

“Your question: The Afghan army, do they stay together and remain a cohesive force, or do they collapse? I think there are a number of scenarios here, a number of results, 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 stays together and a government that stays together.

“Which of these possibilities achieves and becomes 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 were in danger of being overrun by the Taliban after US forces left, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III declined to say whether the United States would provide air support and said it was hypothetical. situation.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the top US diplomat leading the peacekeeping operation with the Taliban, issued last month what appeared to be a final statement on the matter.

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

But three other U.S. officials said the issue was not resolved in high-level administration meetings on Afghanistan.

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

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