As the Taliban step up their attacks and call for help from the Afghan forces, American commanders must decide where the support will be distributed. This is a particularly difficult decision as the Afghan security forces have been shown to call for air support at the first sign of danger.
General Miller, the commander of the US-led mission in Afghanistan, remains in contact with Afghan corps commanders spread across the country, often via WhatsApp, for assistance or to keep him informed of the situation.
According to a U.S. official, the U.S. Air Force’s rules of engagement are extremely restrictive, which means that in some cases, approving a strike can take longer than some jets can stay in the air. Many targets have to be pre-planned and monitored for hours or days by drones and other surveillance aircraft, which means that providing immediate support to the beleaguered Afghan forces is becoming increasingly difficult.
US officials have taken note of the Afghan Air Force’s gains in recent years. Their fleet of small helicopters and armed propeller-driven planes, more at home in a WWII movie, has become increasingly powerful, even though the civilian casualties caused by their attacks have increased.
With around 17,000 military contractors also leaving with US and NATO troops, the Afghan government panics about how to continue servicing their planes. Almost the entire Air Force, minus a few aging Soviet-era helicopters, is almost entirely dependent on contractor support for maintenance. The contractors even control the supply of fuel, said an Afghan pilot, because it was sucked off and sold by Afghan troops in the past.
General Milley addressed the contractor’s problem, saying that much would depend on the security conditions on site. “The intention,” he said, “is to continue to support them.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt from Washington. The coverage was provided by Fahim Abed and Najim Rahim in Kabul, Taimoor Shah in Kandahar, Zabihullah Ghazi in Nangarhar and Farooq Jan Mangal in Khost.