US General Is Refusing to Commit to Ending Airstrikes Against the Taliban.
With militants advancing across Afghanistan, the top American general there indicated that airstrikes may continue, despite the fact that the US troop withdrawal is nearly complete.
The top American general in charge of operations in Afghanistan refused to say Sunday night whether US airstrikes against the Taliban would cease on Aug. 31, the date previously set by officials.
General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the United States Central Command, refused to commit to ending the US’s last military leverage over the Taliban: airstrikes.
Recent insurgent advances across Afghanistan have resulted in the capture of more than half of the country’s districts, posing a threat to the country’s major cities.
Afghan forces have been unable to contain the Taliban since the group escalated its military campaign on May 1, with the country’s military ceding large swaths of territory without resistance at times.
However, a series of American airstrikes last week demonstrated to insurgents that the US military remained a potent threat on the battlefield, despite the nearly complete troop withdrawal.
The Taliban reacted angrily to the strikes, claiming they violated the militant group’s 2020 agreement with the US.
The focus on the Taliban reflected a new sense of urgency in Washington regarding the Afghan government’s peril.
“I simply will not be able to comment on the future of US airstrikes after Aug. 31,” General McKenzie told reporters following a meeting earlier in the day with Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani and his aides.
“I’m concentrating on the here and now,” General McKenzie stated, but added that “logistical support” would continue beyond this month.
“In the days and weeks ahead, we will continue to conduct airstrikes in support of our Afghan partners, and that is all I can say,” he said at the headquarters of the US-led advisory mission Resolute Support. The headquarters has been incorporated into the United States Embassy.
Recent American airstrikes on Taliban positions near the southern provincial capital of Kandahar appear to have slowed the insurgents’ advance and allowed beleaguered Afghan forces to regroup and rearm.
However, several areas of the city remain under Taliban control, and little progress has been made on the ground in reclaiming neighborhoods captured in recent weeks.
General McKenzie acknowledged Sunday that “the United States has increased airstrikes” and that the military would maintain a “heightened level of support” in the coming weeks if the Taliban continued their attacks.
“We are conducting airstrikes as necessary,” he stated. “We are still executing them. I believe we are having a positive effect in assisting Afghan forces engaged in close combat with the Taliban,” he said.
General McKenzie’s remarks appeared to go beyond what other senior Pentagon officials have said in response to questions about airstrikes against the Taliban following Aug. 31.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters last week that the military’s focus after August would be on counterterrorism operations against Al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. “That is where we are at the moment,” Mr. Austin stated. “That has not changed.”
While the American airstrikes may have boosted Afghan forces’ morale and yielded tactical gains, they also increased the risk of civilian casualties, particularly in urban areas where the Taliban have been entrenched.
The general acknowledged that without combat aircraft based in Afghanistan, providing air support to the country would be “far more difficult than it was.” The US maintains sizable air assets in the Persian Gulf and Middle East, from which current missions are flown.
“Our resources are limited,” the general stated.
The Afghan Air Force has attempted to compensate for the American air force’s diminishing reach by conducting dozens of strikes per day. However, the force is beset by mounting maintenance problems, as foreign contractors responsible for maintaining the force’s combat aircraft have all but abandoned the country. And its pilots are depleted by the never-ending requests from besieged Afghan ground forces.
Additionally, local officials have reported that civilians have been killed in Afghan Air Force strikes.
Regardless of how dominant the Taliban are on the battlefield at the moment, General McKenzie rebutted predictions that the militants will likely defeat government forces sooner rather than later. Indeed, according to some American intelligence estimates, Kabul, the capital, could fall within six months.
“The Taliban are attempting to instill a sense of impending doom,” General McKenzie explained. However, he added, “it is not a given that they will be able to take these urban areas.” It’s difficult to know precisely what the Taliban plan is.” With the withdrawal of American troops nearly complete, the US is maintaining a small force of about 650 troops, primarily to protect the embassy here, officials say.