KABUL, Afghanistan. This week, US warplanes attacked a number of Taliban positions in support of Afghanistan’s weakened government forces, in one of the first significant US responses to the rapid rebel offensive across Afghanistan following the US withdrawal.
At least one of the strikes targeted Taliban positions in the key southern city of Kandahar, slowing the offensive that threatened to take over the city. Others were in neighboring Helmand province, according to a harsh Taliban statement.
The tough language of the Taliban – he called the strikes “disobedience” to last year’s troop withdrawal agreement with the Americans and warned of unspecified “consequences” – was a sign that the airstrikes had had an impact on the rebel group.
The scale and pace of the Taliban’s advance in recent days has raised alarm among senior US military and civilian officials. The Taliban are now threatening most of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and even Kabul, the country’s capital. The group has captured more than half of the country’s 400-plus districts, in many cases capturing them without a fight since it launched a serious offensive in May.
This week’s airstrikes, which took place on Wednesday and Thursday, appear to reflect this US concern and continued US intervention in the country despite the nearly complete US withdrawal after nearly 20 years of war. The United States and other major powers are pushing for a peace deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government, but Taliban think they are winning war, leaving little incentive for negotiation.
“We are truly deeply concerned about the Taliban’s actions, which indicate they may try to take over the country by force,” US Secretary of State Anthony J. Blinken told MSNBC Friday. “But if that happened, Afghanistan would become a rogue state.”
On Wednesday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark A. Milli, warned of the possibility of a “complete takeover of power by the Taliban,” saying the rebels now have “strategic momentum” against Afghan government forces.
Pentagon officials have confirmed the recent American strikes, but did not disclose details. For several weeks, they have also been ambivalent about the scale and scope of the ongoing US military involvement in the war in Afghanistan, although earlier this month they indicated that it could continue until at least the conclusion of the withdrawal in late August.
Defense Minister Lloyd J. Austin III said this week that US forces set up a base in Qatar “to be able to launch over-the-horizon strikes” in Afghanistan.
As the US withdrawal accelerated and Bagram airbase was handed over to the Afghans, US officials suggested that US aircraft would be used against the Taliban in limited circumstances until at least August 31st.
But they did not specify what these circumstances would be. The strikes this week are a sign that the near-collapse of Afghan forces last month has caught the attention of official Washington.
The United States no longer has aircraft in Afghanistan. The planes, deployed this week, were to be based in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere in the Middle East.
“We have carried out airstrikes in support of ANDSF in the past few days, but I will not go into the tactical details of these attacks,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a briefing Thursday, referring to Afghan forces by their acronym.
He noted Mr Austin’s claim to be capable of such strikes, adding, “General Mackenzie has this authority,” referring to the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, General Kenneth F. Mackenzie.
A senior Afghan official in Kandahar, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the American strikes “have raised the morale of our security forces.” He added that “we hope these airstrikes will help push the Taliban away from Kandahar city.”
In recent days, for the first time in several years, a long-range B-52 bomber has been seen over Kabul. The plane’s massive size and distinctive silhouette were probably intended to demonstrate strength. Bombers were deployed to Qatar to cover the withdrawal of American and international forces.
Several Pentagon officials have confirmed that additional bombing of Kandahar is likely in the coming days. “We did it there and when it was possible, and we will continue to do it there and when it is possible,” one official said, anonymously describing operational planning.
Despite the fact that their military offensive continues almost unchecked – although government forces claim to have reclaimed several areas – the Taliban are gaining momentum. They left senior Afghan government officials empty-handed after a peaceful rally in Doha, Qatar last weekend, without even agreeing to a traditional Eid ceasefire.
Rockets were fired at the presidential palace in Kabul on Tuesday as officials gathered for Eid al-Adha prayers, although Islamic State officials later announced the attack.
Adam Nositer was reporting from Kabul and Eric Schmitt of Washington DC, Taimur Shah and Thomas Gibbons-Neff were reporting.