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Airstrikes Still a Possibility After Afghan Pullout

June 10, 2021 by Dan McCue
Afghan security personnel leave the scene of a roadside bomb explosion in Kabul, Afghanistan. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is more than half done, and U.S. officials say that while it could be completed by July 4, the final exit of equipment and troops more likely will be later in the summer. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department may seek authorization to carry out airstrikes if the capital of Kabul or any other major city in Afghanistan is in danger of falling to the Taliban after the U.S. completes the withdrawal of its troops from the country in early July.

The request would represent a potential change in U.S. policy in the region as President Biden and his top national security aides had previously suggested withdrawal from Afghanistan meant complete withdrawal.

The only exception in the previously announced policies were air and drone strikes on terrorist groups who could harm U.S. interests.

The option is one of a range of military options that the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, is expected to give Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin next week.

According to The New York Times, which first reported on the possibility of additional airstrikes, any decision to carry them out would require the president’s approval.

However, even then, the policy would be difficult to sustain over a lengthy period because of the enormous logistical effort that would be necessary given the American withdrawal. 

With the United States leaving all its air bases in Afghanistan by next month, any airstrikes would most likely have to be launched from distant bases in the Persian Gulf.

Other questions also remain, including the number of American troops who will remain in Afghanistan to protect the U.S. Embassy and carry out future security missions. Estimates have the number ranging from just a few hundred to over a 1,000.

McKenzie’s deliberations are a reminder that much about U.S. postwar support for Afghanistan remains uncertain, including how to protect Afghans who worked with the U.S. government from reprisals and how to avoid an intelligence void that could hamper U.S. early warning of extremist threats inside Afghanistan.

At stake is not just a political verdict on President Joe Biden’s judgment about the risk posed by renewed instability in Afghanistan, but also the legacy of an American war that was launched 20 years ago in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and that imperceptibly morphed into what Biden calls “this forever war.”

McKenzie is expected to provide options on the amount of aerial surveillance and drones needed to keep an eye on any potential resurgence of al-Qaida, Islamic State or other militant groups. Those options will involve U.S. aircraft from ships at sea and air bases in the Gulf region, such as Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. And they could range from persistent U.S. overwatch to a more minimal presence.

The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss planning details, said there are no options yet for basing U.S. troops or aircraft in nations neighboring Afghanistan, because those possibilities require diplomatic negotiations. 

Any agreements with countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan would be difficult because there would be Russian opposition.

McKenzie told reporters Monday that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is on pace and “continuing very smoothly.” He said it was “about halfway finished,” but provided no details. 

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