WASHINGTON: 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 training and advising operation.
Air Force Maj. 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 with Daily News.
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.”
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.
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.