Fearing Taliban attacks on U.S-led coalition forces as they withdraw from Afghanistan, the Pentagon has beefed up its air support for the troops remaining in the country.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Army General Mark Milley, appearing with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at the Pentagon Thursday, said that a dozen aircraft will augment the withdrawal task force. In addition to two more B-52 bombers, now totaling six in Qatar, F-18 aircraft will also join the task force. The force also includes the USS Dwight Eisenhower aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea.
Further, Milley said that the Afghans are capable of standing up to the Taliban without the support of the U.S.-coalition.
“They’re fighting for their own country now, so it’s not a foregone conclusion, in my professional military estimate, that the Taliban automatically win and Kabul falls, or any of those kinds of dire predictions,” Milley said.
“That’s not a foregone conclusion. There’s a significant military capability in the Afghan government. We have to see how this plays out.”
Not Everyone Agrees With General Milley
This contrasts with the not-so-rosy assessment of Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, who told Congress two weeks ago that the Afghan army “will certainly collapse” without coalition support.
“I am concerned about the Afghan military’s ability to hold on after we leave.”
Austin added that holding off the Taliban without the U.S. support “will be a challenge” for the Afghans. Nevertheless, he mentioned that a government counterattack in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the restive Helmand province, is being conducted “fairly well.”
Helmand Province has been the deadliest area for U.S.-led coalition troops during the war. Helmand is also home to most of the country’s poppy production. The opium crop is used to make the majority of the world’s heroin.
“We’re hopeful that the Afghan security forces will play a major role in stopping the Taliban,” Austin said. “What we’re seeing unfold is what we expected to unfold — increased pressure” on the Afghan forces.
With the U.S.-led coalition gone, the Afghan government forces will have to combat the Taliban themselves. And despite the comments of Milley, the Taliban continue to make gains in the fight against what they consider to be a “puppet government” of the U.S. Perhaps portentously, on Thursday, Taliban forces captured a key dam in southern Kandahar province. The dam provides irrigation, power, and drinking water to the province.
Will Afghan Air Force Be Able to Sustain the Operational Tempo Against the Taliban?
United States Central Command (CENTCOM) said that the equivalent of about 60 C-17 aircraft worth of material had been moved out of Afghanistan. Further, more than 1,300 pieces of equipment have either been handed over to the Afghan military or have been destroyed.
The Afghan military is dependent on U.S. airpower to hold off the Taliban. The coalition currently conducts about 80-90 percent of the airstrikes. After the withdrawal, the Afghan government will have to rely on its own neophyte air force. However, with the vast majority of maintenance conducted by foreign contractors, who are also withdrawing, the Afghan Air Force won’t be able to sustain combat operations for more than a few months without foreign contractor support.
Milley said the Pentagon is looking at conducting the maintenance remotely at a foreign location. “We haven’t figured that out 100 percent yet,” Milley added. “The intent is to keep the Afghan Air Force in the air, and to provide them with continuing maintenance.”
Under the initial agreement with the Taliban, the U.S. was slated to withdraw from Afghanistan by May 1. But President Biden has moved back the withdrawal date to September 11, 2021. The date will mark the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the United States by al-Qaeda operatives that were trained in Afghanistan.
The Taliban have not attacked the U.S. since the Trump administration signed the peace deal last February. However, they’ve stepped up attacks on Afghan government troops and facilities. The Taliban have been conducting 80-100 attacks against Afghan troops every day for the past year, Milley said.