Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, who assumed responsibility for U.S. operations in Afghanistan this month, told reporters Sunday that the number of airstrikes have increased as the Taliban takes more territory.
“We are prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks, if the Taliban continue their attacks” McKenzie said. “We’re taking airstrikes as we need to take them.”
Some of the strikes came during “close fighting” between Afghan troops and the Taliban, he said. Recent strikes have come at the request of Afghan forces, including to destroy stolen vehicles and artillery, defense officials have said.
McKenzie reiterated that U.S. airstrikes in support of Afghan forces will cease Aug. 31, when President Biden has said the mission will end and the U.S. withdrawal will be complete. The main focus afterward will be logistical support through contractors, such as maintenance for Afghan aircraft. Some of them will be airlifted to another country, repaired and flown back to Afghanistan, McKenzie said.
But McKenzie stopped short of saying he was certain the United States would not strike Taliban targets in support of embattled Afghan troops. There will be a high bar for airstrikes after the deadline, he has said: militants planning terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland or against allies.
“We spent a lot of time training” Afghan forces, McKenzie said. “Now is their moment.”
The U.S. withdrawal is about 95 percent complete, the Pentagon said last week. About 650 U.S. service members will remain in the country to defend the U.S. Embassy and the international airport in Kabul.
As the U.S. presence dwindles, Afghan troops face the specter of vanishing U.S. intelligence and aerial attack capabilities just as the Taliban continues its territorial push, which has included allegations of mass killings in some areas, including Kandahar province, Human Rights Watch said.
McKenzie said he is confident the Afghan Air Force, which has launched numerous airstrikes itself, can help reverse the tide. U.S. officials have bet big that the air force created in its image will be a deciding factor against the Taliban and a key advantage against the militants.
But the significant investment in helicopters, attack planes and cargo aircraft means a long tail of logistical support, maintenance needs and training has become more important as U.S. troops and contractors have departed.
Some training is done via remote video. The United States will rely on spiriting away battered aircraft to other nations with U.S. bases so contractors can rehab them for the long fight to come.
“I’m not going to kid you and say it’s going to be easy. It will be far more difficult than it was in the past,” McKenzie said. “We will do everything in our power to keep that Air Force effective, flying, and in support of their forces.”