Obama’s Afghan Dilemma: To Bomb or Not to Bomb
As Kabul’s fragile army struggles to hold the line, will Washington’s warplanes come to the rescue?
The Taliban released a propaganda video in August that showed more than 100 fighters, clutching AK-47 rifles and sitting astride motorcycles, gathered in broad daylight outside the Afghan city of Kunduz to pledge allegiance to the group’s new leader. The scene would have been impossible two years ago, when any crowd of Taliban fighters would have been decimated from the air by U.S. warplanes.
Times have changed. The United States withdrew most of its troops in 2014 and dramatically reduced the number of airstrikes against Taliban targets throughout the country. The footage from Kunduz illustrated how the Taliban has been taking advantage of their new freedom: by conquering the city. The insurgents held Kunduz for two weeks before being pushed out by Afghan and U.S. personnel in October. Still, many officials believe it’s only a matter of time before the Taliban targets the city again.
The Taliban’s growing military might is posing a thorny strategic question for President Barack Obama, who took office promising to end what is now America’s longest war. The U.S. has spent tens of billions of dollars training Afghan security personnel, who have suffered enormous casualties while trying — and failing — to repel the Taliban’s advances in the country’s south, east, and north. That leaves the White House with an unpalatable choice: Keep the stringent rules limiting the numbers of strikes in place and risk seeing the militants continue to gain ground, or allow American pilots to bomb a broader array of targets at the risk of deepening Washington’s combat role in Afghanistan.
The rules of engagement were sharply curtailed with the formal end of NATO’s combat mission in January 2015. U.S. commanders can call in airstrikes only to protect NATO troops, target al Qaeda militants, or come to the aid of Afghan forces in danger of being overrun by the Taliban or suffering a clear defeat on the ground.
In practice, that meant the U.S. was rarely directly targeting the militants from the air. After U.S. Green Berets and their Afghan allies were ambushed near the town of Marja in Helmand province in January, the Americans called in 12 airstrikes to ward off Taliban attackers to buy time for a rescue force to arrive. And last October, U.S. commandos directed an AC-130 gunship to pound Taliban positions in Kunduz city during intense house-to-house fighting. The crew targeted the wrong building, killing 42 patients and staff at a Doctors Without Borders hospital.
With the Taliban on the march and the Islamic State expanding its presence in Afghanistan, senior Pentagon officials believe it’s time for those rules to change. They’re pushing for revising the rules of engagement so they would be free to fire on Taliban forces massing to seize territory and directly target their leadership.
That could mean a dramatic increase in the number of U.S. strikes against the Taliban, a group Washington has spent years trying to coax to the negotiating table.
It would also represent a sharp reversal of recent battleground dynamics in Afghanistan. Since the new airstrike rules were adopted in 2015, the U.S. air war has been drastically curtailed, according to U.S. Central Command. In 2014, while the NATO combat mission was still going, American warplanes dropped 2,365 bombs. In 2015, by contrast, U.S. aircraft dropped just 947.
The upshot is that while the political debate in Washington has long been focused on how many U.S. troops should remain in Afghanistan, the future of the war in Afghanistan could hinge not on the number of boots on the ground but on the role of American air power there.
Gen. John Campbell, until recently the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, spent nearly a year asking the White House to permit the U.S. military to bomb Islamic State targets. The administration didn’t sign off on the change until January. Defense officials have refused to detail airstrikes on ISIS targets.
The expanded air raids have helped roll back ISIS in the past two months, current and former Pentagon officials said.
Nicholas Haysom, the U.N. secretary general’s special representative for Afghanistan, told the Security Council on Tuesday that U.S. bombing raids have helped confine ISIS to a small corner of the country along its border with Pakistan.
But while Islamic State militants are under pressure from the air, the Taliban has been able to move fighters and equipment across the Pakistan border with impunity while launching conventional operations on a frequency and scale not seen since the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.
In the southern province of Helmand, where U.S. and NATO allies suffered serious casualties over the past decade, the ferocity with which the Taliban has surged into the area has knocked Afghan forces on their heels, forcing the army to pull out of key districts like Musa Qala and Now Zad. Overall, the Taliban controls five of the province’s 14 districts and is fighting to gain the upper hand in most of the remaining ones.
The Afghan government has lobbied Washington to delay a planned drawdown of the current 9,800-strong U.S. force and to keep up its assistance with air power and logistical support. About 3,000 of those troops are special operations forces, some of whom accompany Afghan commandos on missions, while the rest are trainers and advisors clustered mainly in Kabul.
James Cunningham, the former U.S. ambassador to Kabul, said Washington should allow the military to bomb a wider array of targets. “The administration should expand our commanders’ authorities to enable more flexible use of our military, especially air power, in support of both the Afghan security forces and the counterterrorism mission,” Cunningham told Foreign Policy.
The White House has been getting a similar message from Campbell. Throughout his tenure, he warned of the resiliency of the Taliban, making the case for slowing troop drawdown plans and expanding the role of U.S. advisers on the ground.
At congressional hearings last month, Campbell told lawmakers: “One of the things [Afghan forces] ask for every day is close air support.”
He said he viewed the Taliban as an enemy of the United States, because it had “killed many of my soldiers,” and that the scaling back of U.S. forces and air power had given the insurgency a boost.
The four-star general suggested Obama’s plan to reduce the number of U.S. troops to about 5,500 later this year might have to be discarded if local forces continue to struggle. “If the Afghans cannot improve, we’re going to have to make some adjustments. And that means that number will most likely go up.”
The blunt talk has landed Campbell in hot water at the Pentagon, where unnamed officials accused him of submitting his request for expanded airstrikes against the Taliban directly to the White House, bypassing Defense Secretary Ash Carter, according to The Washington Post.
At a news conference Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook declined to discuss the content of conversations between the general and Carter, though he stopped short of rebutting the report that Campbell had gone around the defense secretary. U.S. Central Command spokesman Col. Pat Ryder said Campbell went through the proper chain of command. In an email to The Washington Post, meanwhile, Campbell adamantly denied he had in any way tried to circumvent Carter’s authority.
The Pentagon said no decision has been made to broaden the air campaign in Afghanistan and that Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, who recently succeeded Campbell as commander, is carrying out a review of the mission. The review will examine air power as well as the Obama administration’s tentative plan to reduce U.S. forces from 9,800 to 5,500 troops this year.
Obama and U.S. military leaders in Kabul have long grappled over the best use of America’s formidable air power in the war in Afghanistan. U.S. air raids helped topple the Taliban regime quickly in 2001. But former Afghan President Hamid Karzai frequently denounced Washington over airstrikes that killed and injured civilians. The U.S. approach has varied with different commanders. Gen. Stanley McChrystal scaled back the bombing to avoid alienating the Afghan population, while his successor, Gen. David Petraeus, ramped up the air raids in a bid to push the Taliban to the negotiating table.
The call for more air raids underscores the chronic weakness of Afghanistan’s security forces, despite $64 billion in American arms and training since 2002. Several provinces are now under threat of falling to the Taliban, and the Afghan forces remain plagued by desertion and shoddy leadership. When insurgents seized Kunduz city in September, Afghan police failed to put up much resistance and fled en masse. The Afghan army, meanwhile, initially refused to deploy beyond its base at the local airport, former Pentagon officials told FP.
Although the disorganized Afghan forces have struggled against the Taliban, NATO military officers have praised rank-and-file army troops for their willingness to enter into combat. Since the bulk of the NATO force departed, casualties have spiked among the Afghan army and police. About 16,000 Afghan troops were killed or wounded in 2015, up 28 percent from the previous year.
The Afghans are slowly building their own air force but it won’t be fully ready to fight until about 2020, according to Pentagon officials. The Afghan military already flies over a dozen Russian-made Mi-17 helicopter gunships, one Mi-35 attack helicopter, and 10 light-attack helicopters. Kabul’s punch from the air received a boost in January when the first four A-29 Super Tucano fighter aircraft arrived, along with eight pilots who were trained in the United States.
Photo credit: U.S. Air Force
Dan De Luce is Foreign Policy’s chief national security correspondent. @dandeluce