US Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin on Thursday said the US military has already begun conducting combat operations and surveillance in Afghanistan from outside the country’s borders, but he did not mention whether the United States military will still conduct airstrikes in the country to defend population centers after the withdrawal completes.
“Going forward, in terms of our (counterterrorism) efforts, those CT efforts will be focused on those elements that can possibly conduct attacks against our homeland,” Austin said as quoted by the Air Force magazine.
Austin said the US military is already conducting air combat patrols and support from ships in the Gulf and sending surveillance aircraft to Afghanistan from nations in the Gulf region.
As of now, he said, the US is still looking for options to station troops and aircraft in neighboring countries to make the flight to Afghanistan shorter.
“We have the capability now to do that,” Austin said. “What we are looking for is the ability to shorten the legs going forward by stationing some capability in neighboring countries. That is still a work in progress.”
In response to a question on whether US aircraft would strike in support of Afghan forces to protect cities after the withdrawal, Austin said he would not speculate on “any potential outcomes or any potential future actions.”
“We continue to provide support to the Afghan security forces as we retrograde,” he said. “Once we have completed our retrograde, that will be very difficult to do because our capabilities will have diminished in country.”
The New York Times reported this week that the Pentagon is considering whether to intervene with warplanes or drones in the event that Kabul is in danger of falling to the Taliban, though no decisions have been made.
Quoting senior US officials, The Times reported that the Pentagon is considering seeking authorization to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is in danger of falling to the Taliban.