Monday, December 29, 2014

Can Afghan Security Forces Beat Back Taliban Without Support of U.S. Airstrikes?

Notes from Obama's precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan.

At LAT, "U.S. airstrikes remain crucial to Afghan forces in Taliban battles":
For several days, Taliban fighters barricaded on a mountaintop lobbed rockets at the remote town of Sangar in the valley below. Residents fled while police holed up in their outposts and begged superiors for help.

At a sprawling base about 100 miles away, a contingent of Afghan army commandos prepared to board a helicopter to join the fight. But their commanders, worried that the insurgents would shoot down the aircraft, called the American military first.

U.S. Apache attack helicopters swept in and launched missiles at the Taliban posts, said Afghan officials involved in the late September incident. The firepower scattered the insurgents, clearing the way for the Afghan commandos to break the siege in the eastern province of Ghazni.

The U.S.-led coalition officially denies carrying out airstrikes in the battle 125 miles southwest of Kabul, saying international forces provided only aerial surveillance. Under former President Hamid Karzai, coalition airstrikes in populated areas were sharply restricted, although distressed Afghan commanders often requested help anyway.

In this case, several Afghan officials and military commanders say, an American air assault ensured that the district did not slip from government control in one of the largest clashes in months in a volatile province connecting Kabul with southern Afghanistan.

"The American helicopters hit two points high on the mountain where the Taliban were firing at us," said Gen. Haider Niqpai, commander of the Afghan army's 3rd Brigade, based in Ghazni. "That was the turning point."

Even as President Obama prepares to declare an end to U.S. combat in Afghanistan on Dec. 31, the accounts of the battle in Ghazni illustrate how crucial — and politically sensitive — the U.S. role remains in the fight against Taliban-led insurgents.

"In just a few days, our combat mission in Afghanistan will be over," Obama said in a Christmas Day address. "Our longest war will come to a responsible end."

The U.S. force in Afghanistan will shrink to about 10,800 in January under a pared-down mission focused on training and counter-terrorism. But under combat operations rules that Obama approved last month, U.S. commanders will still be authorized to conduct airstrikes to help Afghan troops who are suffering record casualties in ground skirmishes with a resilient Taliban.

Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said recently that U.S. forces would provide "limited combat enabler support" to Afghan troops starting in January.

The airstrikes would allow the smaller U.S. force to support their Afghan allies, who have minimal air capability, while exposing Americans to less danger than in ground fighting.

But airstrikes also carry the risk of additional civilian casualties, which stoke public anger, keeping the United States deeply enmeshed in a conflict that the White House promised to end.

Also, "Afghanistan: U.S.-led coalition formally ends 13-year combat mission."