KABUL, Afghanistan – The top American general overseeing operations in Afghanistan declined to announce Sunday night whether U.S. air strikes against the Taliban would end on August 31, the date previously stated by officials as the deadline for such attacks.
General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., head of the United States Central Command, refused to end the last remaining US military power against the Taliban: air strikes.
The latest insurgent advance in Afghanistan has taken more than half of the country’s districts and now threatens large cities as well.
The Afghan armed forces have not been able to contain the Taliban since the intensification of their military campaign on May 1st with the partial cession of large areas of the country without a fight.
But a series of American air strikes last week showed insurgents that the US military still posed a serious threat on the battlefield despite the troop withdrawal almost complete.
The Taliban reacted angrily to the strikes, saying they had violated the 2020 agreement negotiated between the militant group and the US.
The concentration of strikes against the Taliban reflected a new sense of urgency in Washington towards the vulnerable Afghan government.
“I just won’t be able to comment on the future of US air strikes after August 31,” General McKenzie told reporters after meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his aides earlier in the day.
General McKenzie said, “I’m focusing on the here and now,” but also said that the “logistical support” would continue beyond this month.
“In 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 US-led advisory mission, which only follows the name, Resolute Support. The headquarters are now officially part of the US embassy.
In recent days, American attacks on Taliban positions around the important southern provincial capital Kandahar seem to have helped slow the advance of the insurgents and at least give the beleaguered Afghan forces time to regroup and arm themselves.
However, several parts of the city remain under the control of the Taliban, and little has changed on the ground in the recapture of the areas conquered in recent weeks.
General McKenzie admitted on Sunday that “the US has stepped up air strikes” and said that the military will continue “increased support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks”.
“We take off air strikes as we need them,” he said. “We’re still doing it. I think we are having a good effect in supporting the Afghan armed forces, which are involved in close fighting with the Taliban, ”he said.
General McKenzie’s comments appeared to go beyond what other senior Pentagon officials said when asked about air strikes against the Taliban after August 31.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III told reporters last week that after August the military’s focus would be on counter-terrorism attacks against al Qaeda and Islamic State fighters. “That’s where we are now,” said Mr. Austin. “We haven’t changed that.”
While the American air strikes have given the Afghan armed forces a moral boost or tactical advantages, they have also increased the risk of civilian casualties, especially in the urban areas where the Taliban are entrenched.
The general admitted that when warplanes are no longer stationed in Afghanistan, “it will be much more difficult than before” to support the country with air strikes. The United States has significant air resources in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East from where the current missions are flown.
“We are limited,” said the general.
The Afghan Air Force has tried to compensate for the dwindling range of the American Air Force by carrying out dozens of attacks every day. But the force is plagued by increasing maintenance problems as foreign contractors responsible for maintaining their warplanes have almost left the country. And its pilots are exhausted from the endless inquiries from the besieged Afghan troops on the ground.
There were also reports by local officials of civilians killed in attacks by the Afghan Air Force.
As dominant as the Taliban are now on the battlefield, General McKenzie defied predictions that the militants are likely to defeat government forces sooner rather than later. In fact, some US intelligence estimates say Kabul, the capital, could fall in just six months.
“The Taliban are trying to create a sense of inevitability,” said General McKenzie. But he said, “It is not a given that they can take these urban areas. It is difficult to know the exact plan of the Taliban. “
With the US withdrawal largely complete, the United States maintains a small force of about 650, mainly to protect the embassy here, officials say.
Fahim Abed, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Eric Schmitt contributed to the reporting.