U.S. General Won’t Commit to Ending Airstrikes on Taliban
KABUL, Afghanistan – The top U.S. general overseeing operations in Afghanistan declined to say on Sunday evening whether U.S. airstrikes against the Taliban would end on August 31, a date previously given by authorities as the limit for such attacks.
General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the US Central Command, refused to commit to ending the last US military leverage on the Taliban: air strikes.
The recent advance of insurgents through Afghanistan has resulted in the capture of more than half of the country’s districts and now threatens its main cities.
Afghan forces have so far been unable to contain the Taliban since they stepped up their military campaign on May 1, with the country’s military ceding large swathes of territory, sometimes without a fight.
But a series of American airstrikes last week demonstrated to insurgents that the U.S. military is still a powerful threat on the battlefield, despite the almost complete departure of troops.
The Taliban have reacted with fury to the strikes, saying they violate the 2020 agreement negotiated between the militant group and the United States.
The concentration of strikes against the Taliban reflected a new sense of urgency in Washington over the threatened Afghan government.
“I simply will not be able to comment on the future of US airstrikes after August 31,” General McKenzie told reporters after meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his aides earlier today.
General McKenzie said “I am focusing on the here and now” but also said “logistical support” will continue beyond this month.
“For the days and weeks to come, we will continue our air strikes in support of our Afghan partners, and that is all I can give you,” he said. at the headquarters of the now-name-only US-led advisory mission, Resolute Support. The headquarters are now officially part of the United States Embassy.
In recent days, U.S. strikes on Taliban positions around the key southern provincial capital of Kandahar appear to have helped slow the insurgent advance and at least given besieged Afghan forces time to regroup and rearm.
But, several parts of the city remain under Taliban control, and little has changed on the ground in terms of taking back neighborhoods that have been captured in recent weeks.
General McKenzie acknowledged on Sunday that “the United States has stepped up airstrikes” and said the military would continue its “increased level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continued their attacks.”
“We carry out air strikes as and when we need them,” he said. “We are still running them. I think we have good results in supporting the Afghan forces who are engaged in close combat with the Taliban, ”he said.
General McKenzie’s comments appeared to go beyond what other senior Pentagon officials said when asked about the conduct of airstrikes against the Taliban after August 31.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters last week that after August the military will focus on counterterrorism strikes against Al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. “This is where we are right now,” Austin said. “We haven’t changed that.”
The US airstrikes may have boosted the morale of Afghan forces or obtained tactical gains, but they also increased the risk of civilian casualties, especially in urban areas where the Taliban have entrenched themselves.
The general admitted that without more fighter jets based in Afghanistan, “it will be much more difficult than it was” to support the country with airstrikes. The United States has significant air assets in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East, from which current missions depart.
“We are limited,” the general said.
The Afghan Air Force attempted to compensate for the declining range of US air power, carrying out dozens of strikes per day. But the force faces growing maintenance challenges, as foreign contractors responsible for maintaining its fighter jets have all but left the country. And its pilots are exhausted by the relentless demands of besieged Afghan forces on the ground.
Local officials also reported civilians killed in Afghan air force strikes.
Regardless of the Taliban’s dominance on the battlefield today, General McKenzie objected to predictions that militants are likely to defeat government forces sooner rather than later. Indeed, according to some estimates by US intelligence services, Kabul, the capital, could fall in as little as six months.
“The Taliban are trying to create a sense of inevitability,” General McKenzie said. But, he said: “It is not a given that they will be able to take over these urban areas. It is difficult to know exactly what the Taliban’s plan is.
With the U.S. troop withdrawal largely complete, the U.S. maintains a small force of around 650 people, largely to protect the embassy here, officials said.
Fahim abed, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.
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