The United States has deployed a dozen additional warplanes to bolster protection of American and coalition troops making a final withdrawal from the country as Taliban insurgents step up pressure on Afghan government forces, top Pentagon officials have said.
General Mark Milley, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said F-18 attack planes had been added to a previously announced package of air and sea power – including the USS Dwight D Eisenhower aircraft carrier in the North Arabian Sea and six air force B-52 bombers based in Qatar – that can be called upon as protection for withdrawing troops. Also part of that previously announced package are several hundred Army Rangers.
US officials said before the withdrawal began that they expected the Taliban to attempt to interfere, even as the insurgents continued pressuring government forces, especially in Helmand and Kandahar provinces in southern Afghanistan.
“There continue to be sustained levels of violent attacks” by the Taliban against Afghan security forces, Milley said, speaking alongside the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, at a Pentagon news conference. He said there had been no attacks against US or coalition forces since they began pulling out of the country at the start of the month, and he described the Afghan forces as “cohesive”, even as speculation swirled around Kabul’s ability to hold off the Taliban in the months ahead.
“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. “There’s a significant military capability in the Afghan government. We have to see how this plays out.”
Milley said the Pentagon was considering options for continued support of Afghan government forces after the troop withdrawal was complete, including possibly training Afghan security forces in another country. That would be in addition to urging the Congress to authorise continued financial assistance to the Afghan forces, which has been in the range of $4bn a year for many years, and possibly providing aircraft maintenance support remotely from another country.
“We haven’t figured that out 100% yet,” Milley said.
Milley said Afghanistan’s air force was central to the strategy for holding off the Taliban, but the durability of those planes is in some doubt. The US special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction said in a 30 April report that without continued foreign contractor support, none of the Afghan air force’s airframes could be sustained as combat effective for more than a few months.
Austin acknowledged that holding off the Taliban without American support on the ground “will be a challenge” for the Afghans.
“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. He asserted that government forces launched a counterattack this week against the Taliban in Lashkar Gah, the capital of Helmand province, and that they were “performing fairly well”.
US president Joe Biden announced last month that all American troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by 11 September. Nato allies have said they would do the same, and troops have already begun leaving. Austin said the “drawdown is going according to plan”.
The Pentagon has said there were about 2,500 US troops there in recent months, and Milley said in an interview last weekend that the total rises to 3,300 if special operations forces were counted. Military commanders have said that additional forces would flow in temporarily to help with security and logistics for the drawdown.