President Donald Trump’s decision to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan has paved the way for a major expansion of the U.S. air war against the Taliban and will involve more American forces working directly with Afghan troops in combat to call in airstrikes.
Hundreds of American troops will accompany Afghan forces on combat missions, where they will be able to directly request bombing raids and artillery fire for their Afghan partners, current and former Pentagon officials told Foreign Policy.
The tactic will allow commanders to widen an already intensifying air campaign that has seen more strikes taken this year than at any point since 2012. Senior military officers say the approach of embedding American forces with Afghan units in the field is modeled on the U.S.-led air war in Iraq and Syria, where American commandos dialed in heavy firepower while local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought the Islamic State on the ground.
As in Iraq and Syria, however, U.S. troops are being told to stop short of engaging in direct combat, letting Afghans do the fighting while the Americans hold nearby, two military officials told FP, providing tactical advice and calling in air and artillery fire.
While U.S. special operations troops will continue to take on this mission in Afghanistan, newly arrived U.S. soldiers will also spread out with with small Afghan units in the field. The combat advising mission represents a sea change in the American approach to the war since the end of combat operations in 2015, after which American forces were largely confined to their bases, training Afghan forces and advising military leaders.
In August, Trump announced a new Afghan strategy that paved the way for expanded operations in the country. After months of back-and-forth between the Pentagon and White House, an agreement was reached to send an additional 3,000 U.S. troops on top of the 11,000 already on the ground.
The expanded mission carries the risk of more American casualties in a war that has already claimed 2,400 American lives, but U.S. commanders insist the only way to break the stalemate with the Taliban is to push Americans closer to the fight, and give them air and artillery support to slice through Taliban and Islamic State opposition.
There have already been over 2,400 U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan this year, the highest number since 2012, when there were 90,000 American combat troops in the country. About 14,000 U.S. troops are on the ground now.
American airpower in Afghanistan has ebbed and flowed over the 16-year war. Until the Obama administration came into office in 2009, Afghanistan was seen as secondary to Iraq, and resources were regularly diverted to what was seen as the main effort against al Qaeda there.
The Obama surge brought over 100,000 troops to the fight and saw a major uptick in airstrikes until then-commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal scaled back bombing raids to avoid alienating the local population. When he was replaced by Gen. David Petraeus in 2010, strikes spiked to about 5,000 a year, before gradually falling off again to around 1,000 in 2015 and 2016 until this year.
As part of the Trump surge, about 700 soldiers from a specially trained and equipped U.S. Army unit are slated to arrive early next year in Afghanistan, where they’ll partner with Afghan forces and call in air power to back up their operations.
While the new forces are regular Army troops, they’ll in many ways mimic the role Special Forces soldiers have traditionally played on the battlefield. Known as the Security Force Assistance Brigade, the unit is currently wrapping up its training at Fort Benning, Georgia.
The soldiers are receiving instruction on specialized equipment, like the Nett Warrior system, a small, smartphone-like device that allows soldiers to pinpoint and share intelligence with friendly forces. Many of them are also receiving training as joint fires observers, which will allow them to call in airstrikes during combat operations, a job normally reserved for a small number of specialized troops.
Lightly equipped, and in the field with Afghan units, the soldiers will need to be able to “pick up a hand mic and call for indirect fire support,” said Brig. Gen. Brian Mennes, director of the Army’s Force Management School. The soldiers will also “get the best current communications equipment similar to what you see with Special Forces and Rangers.”
The move will enable the expanded use of American air power to back up Afghan forces on the ground, said David Sedney, a former senior Pentagon official and diplomat who oversaw policy on Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Similar concepts were proposed by the Pentagon and rejected by the Obama White House, he said, as officials at the time wanted to curtail the U.S. military role.
Sedney acknowledged the plan is “not guaranteed” to work, and its success hinges on Afghan forces performing effectively. The Afghan army and police have had an erratic track record and have been plagued by desertions and debilitating combat casualties.
“The biggest risk to that is the overall leadership to the [Afghan] government and the military,” he said. In order for the military to work, the government has to work. “It’s still a fractured and fragile government.”
Nonetheless, it’s “an excellent approach,” said Sedney, who is critical of the decision to pull back most U.S. ground forces several years ago. “It’s what we should have done in 2014.”