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Afghan troops fear loss of air support if U.S. pulls out forces

Read: 668     16:16     14 January 2019    

For hard-pressed Afghan troops, uncertainty over a planned withdrawal of U.S. forces has raised fears that they will lose American air support, one of the few decisive advantages over increasingly confident Taliban fighters.

Afghanistan has been shaken by reports that more than 5,000 U.S. troops may pull out in the coming months in a reversal of a strategy announced in 2017 to step up pressure on the Taliban to accept peace negotiations.

More than 14,000 American troops are serving in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support training and advisory mission and a separate counterterrorism operation mainly fighting Islamic State and Al Qaeda.

While peace talks between U.S. officials and Taliban representatives continue, it is unclear which troops may be withdrawn and whether they will go before a permanent ceasefire.

For frontline Afghan forces, one fear prevails.

“If air support from the Americans is stopped, it will be a disaster for us,” said Shamul Haq, a policeman in Ghazni, a central Afghan city that was overrun by hundreds of Taliban fighters in August who were driven off with the help of U.S. air strikes.

More than 28,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed since NATO ended its combat mission in 2014, and U.S. commanders say the losses are “unsustainable”. Despite peace talks, fierce fighting has continued and dozens of troops are killed and wounded every day.

Poor leadership, low pay and irregular supplies in the face of Taliban fighters armed with sophisticated weaponry, including night vision gear, have demoralized Kabul’s frontline troops.

While unable to take a major city, the Taliban have increased their hold in rural areas, and now control or contest more than a third of the country, according to U.S. estimates, and much more by less conservative reckoning.

“It is not possible to fight with an empty stomach and less weapons and ammunition than the Taliban,” said Ekranuddin, a soldier in Ghazni, who like many Afghans, goes by one name.

No matter how bad things got for their frontline soldiers, Afghan commanders at least knew they could rely on American air power to prevent a stalemate from turning into a rout.

Since 2017, U.S. air strikes have intensified to levels not seen since the height of the NATO combat mission in 2011, when there were more than 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When the Taliban threatened to take the cities of Farah and Ghazni this year, U.S. air strikes were decisive in pushing them back.

Even as the insurgents tightened their grip on the countryside, hundreds of their fighters, including a string of top field commanders, have been killed by American jets, drones and helicopter gunships.



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