Some U.S. combat forces will need to remain in Afghanistan after NATO’s mission ends in 2014, top commanders in the war-ravaged country say as they await guidance from the president on how many U.S. troops will remain as part of a training and advising operation.
Air ForceMaj. Gen. Kenneth S. Wilsbach, deputy commander for U.S. and coalition air operations in Afghanistan, said that some U.S. air combat forces would remain after 2014 even as Operation Enduring Freedom becomes Operation Resolute Support.
“Our plan right now is to have those forces in country, for sure, and we’ll be able to support the coalition forces with close air support,” Gen. Wilsbach said in a phone interview from Kabul.
Gen. Wilsbach said it’s still being worked out whether U.S. air combat forces can support both Afghan troops and American fighters who will remain as part of Operation Resolute Support.
“I think that it would be the appropriate thing to do,” he said. “But obviously, that’s not my decision to make. We’re still awaiting guidance.”
Most international troops are scheduled to leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014. U.S. and Afghan officials have been negotiating how many American troops will remain after the deadline, with several officials suggesting that a few thousand will stay behind to train and advise Afghan security forces.
Navy Adm. James Stavridis, who retired in May as NATO’s supreme commander, said in Foreign Policy magazine last month that he thinks 9,000 U.S. and 6,000 allied troops would be sufficient to teach and mentor Afghanistan’s 350,000-man security force.
Marine Gen. Joseph F. Dunford, Jr., commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, said in an interview Sept. 2 with Britain’s The Guardian newspaper that providing combat support to Afghans as part of the Resolute Support mission is being considered.
“There are three words in the mission: train, advise and assist. In a NATO context, ‘assist’ would include things like providing combat support, which is specifically the aviation piece, and a policy decision would have to be made about that,” Gen. Dunford told the British paper.
A former top defense official and a former commander of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan in May floated the idea of a remnant “bridging force” to provide air power, medical evacuations and other services, seemingly paving the way for U.S. troops staying a few more years in direct support and not merely an advisory role.
“[For] two to three years after 2014, the United States may need an additional force package of several thousand personnel to help the Afghans finish building their air force, their special operations forces and certain other enablers in medical realms, in counter-IED capability and in intelligence collection,” said Michele Flournoy, former defense undersecretary for policy, and retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen in a Center for a New American Security report.
In the country’s mountainous terrain, Afghans rely heavily on coalition air support to track targets, resupply forces, conduct search-and-rescue operations, evacuate injured troops, and carry out intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions.
Coalition forces have been decreasing support to allow Afghans to take the lead, but the fledgling Afghan air force is not expected to be fully operational before 2017.
The air force’s most critical capability in combating Taliban fighters will be close-air support — the ability aid ground troops by attacking enemy targets from above.
Afghan pilots recently conducted their first independent close-air support missions with a small fleet of Mi-35 helicopter gunships. Gen. Wilsbach said they conducted an operation in eastern Afghanistan and hit targets.
“There was no coalition effort toward that at all. They were flying the missions, they found the targets and they struck the targets all by themselves,” Gen. Wilsbach said of the operation, which took place between July 21 and Aug. 16.
“We believe it is possibly the largest Afghan air force effort in more than 30 years that was 100 percent planned and executed by the Afghans. There was no coalition train, advise and assist at all,” he said, adding that the two-week operation included resupply, casualty evacuation and aerial escort missions. “They did that all by themselves, so we were quite impressed with their professionalism.”
The Afghan air force has five Mi-35s, and is expected to receive 20 new A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft beginning next fall. Coalition air forces will begin training about 30 Afghan pilots next spring.
Gen. Wilsbach said it will take about 10 months for all 20 aircraft to arrive. Then, if half are in maintenance or training, the remaining 10 would be able to fly 150 missions a month — more support than is needed for this year’s fighting season, he said.
“It takes time to grow an air force they’re doing really well,” said Gen. Wilsbach.