The United States has said it will provide Afghanistan’s military with “over-the-horizon” air support after completing its troop withdrawal from the country. How it can do so with the significant number of potential constraints that may soon emerge, however, isn’t all that clear.
In mid-July, the U.S. launched several airstrikes in support of Afghan government forces fighting the Taliban. These strikes were reportedly demonstrative of the stated U.S. intention of providing air support, at least until it completes its withdrawal from the country by Aug. 31.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin said at a press conference Wednesday that after Aug. 31, U.S. airstrikes would only target Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in the country, not the Taliban. It’s unclear whether or not this policy will change if the Taliban is on the verge of capturing the capital Kabul, where the U.S. is keeping about 650 troops to provide security for its embassy there.
At the same press conference, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley warned that a “complete Taliban takeover” is a possibility, with the group already having seized roughly half of Afghanistan’s districts, although he said he doesn’t believe “the endgame is yet written.”
The U.S. doesn’t have permission to use any military bases in the six countries bordering Afghanistan. That means that its aircraft have to fly from bases in the Persian Gulf or from aircraft carriers.
“Distance will effectively eliminate any U.S. capability to provide close air support for Afghan forces on the ground,” Rodger Baker, senior VP for strategic analysis at Stratfor, told me. “However, such air assets could still be used for targeting static sites (training camps, arms caches), or used in pre-planned offensive operations, assuming the United States is granted overflight clearance from Pakistan.”
Since neighboring Pakistan isn’t allowing the U.S. to base aircraft on its soil for operations over Afghanistan, Washington has entered discussions with Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Russia, Baker said, reportedly supports the U.S. military carrying out operations from Central Asia, provided there are clear constraints on its mission.
Islamabad’s refusal to allow the U.S. use of its territory as a base of operations could degrade Washington’s ability to carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions over Afghanistan.
“Pakistan would have served as a much better base of operations for U.S. drone flights over Afghanistan, south of the mountain range, but potential operations from Central Asia may offer similar intelligence and surveillance support,” Baker said.
The ultimate location of U.S. operational sites in the region and overflight permission from regional countries will have a significant impact on U.S. decision-making on post-withdrawal airstrikes in Afghanistan.
“Without operational basing in Pakistan, the bar will likely be higher for U.S. active military intervention, even through the use of armed drones,” Baker said. “Any action in support of the Afghan military forces would likely require a specific request from the Afghan government, and likely need to match the overflight or operational agreements with neighboring countries.”
“However, the United States has demonstrated its commitment to carry out unilateral operations should it perceive a direct non-state actor threat against the United States,” he added.
Afghanistan has a modest air force that the U.S. helped it build up over the years. However, maintenance issues and other shortcoming could severely inhibit that air arm’s ability to help fend off Taliban advances and support Afghan soldiers on the battlefield.
The Afghan air force lacks fighter jets, using Cessna AC-208 Caravans and Brazilian-made A-29 Super Tucanos light attack aircraft, and relies heavily on helicopters.
U.S. contractors provide a staggering 100 percent of the maintenance for Afghanistan’s fleet of UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and C-130 Hercules transport planes, according to the New York Times.
Afghanistan had long preferred Russian-built Mi-17 ‘Hip’ utility helicopters since it finds them easier to fly and maintain in light of the fact that it operated such Russian hardware for decades.
The U.S. used to procure the Mi-17s for the Afghan Air Force. That all changed when Congress banned the use of federal funds for the purchase of military hardware from Russia almost a decade ago. Rather than seeking out second-hand Mi-17s from former Soviet states, several of which are even fellow NATO members, the U.S. began supplying Afghanistan with UH-60s, hoping they could replace the Afghan Mi-17s.
However, it could even take until the mid-2030s, according to a U.S. official quoted by the Times, for the Afghan air force to be able to operate their Black Hawks without assistance from contractors. With most of the contractors already having left the country, Afghanistan will undoubtedly struggle to keep its Black Hawks operational in the coming months. Remote technical support via Zoom will not likely prove an adequate substitute for on the ground contractors.
“While the Afghan Air Force has been built up and trained over the past several years, it still has a limited number of trained pilots and a significant lack of experienced maintenance personnel,” Baker said.
“The shift to U.S. Blackhawks from Russian Hips poses a particular challenge for Afghan maintenance crews.”
He added that there are suggestions India may seize this emerging opportunity to gain a foothold in Afghanistan by providing parts and maintenance for the Afghanistan’s older Russian helicopters that remain in service.
The Indian military has long used Russian military hardware. In 2018-19, New Delhi gifted Afghanistan four refurbished Russian-built Mi-24V ‘Hind’ attack helicopters it had purchased from Belarus to help Kabul improve its counterinsurgency capabilities. It might take similar steps that could help keep Afghanistan’s air force in the current fight.
On the ground, as the Taliban overrun Afghan Army outposts and positions, the government agreed to arm militias across the country to help combat the group. Its decision to do so, Baker said, “is in large part a recognition of the realities of Afghanistan’s continued fragmented social and political environment, and the need to reduce permissive areas for Taliban advances, particularly in the provinces around Kabul.”
While arming such groups is risky, many of these militias would most likely have armed themselves if they had concluded that the Afghan government and military were too weak to stop the Taliban.
“It will be important to watch how the security environment evolves along Afghanistan’s borders, particularly along the Tajik border,” Baker said.
“Should the Tajik factions in Afghanistan consider the Kabul government incapable of providing security or remaining secure against the Taliban advances, they may withdraw to their traditional ethnic regions, sliding Afghanistan back toward the pattern of the late 1990s,” he added.