US may bomb Taliban if Kabul comes under attack

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Afghan security officials patrol a village after they cleared the area of Taliban militants in Achin district of Nangarhar province - GHULAMULLAH HABIBI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
Afghan security officials patrol a village after they cleared the area of Taliban militants in Achin district of Nangarhar province - GHULAMULLAH HABIBI/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

The Pentagon may bomb the Taliban if it tries to retake Kabul in the wake of US forces withdrawing, it emerged on Thursday night.

Senior US defence officials are considering airstrikes in support of Afghan troops if a defence of the capital, or another key city, is needed.

US forces are expected to complete their withdrawal in July. Joe Biden had vowed to end US presence in Afghanistan after two decades, and that was expected to include the use of air power.

But the option being considered by the Pentagon would again see US aircraft or armed drones involved.

A decision has not yet been made on whether to authorise airstrikes, The New York Times reported. Mr Biden would have to personally approve any such action.

Officials were said to be planning how to handle scenarios such as the fall of Kabul or sieges involving Western embassies. Due to the lack of US aircraft remaining in Afghanistan, any future attacks would have to be launched from bases elsewhere.

US officials told The New York Times that strikes would be most likely if the fall of Kabul seemed imminent. It was less clear whether they would intervene to protect the second largest city of Kandahar, and action to protect other areas seemed unlikely.

Mr Biden is meeting with Nato allies in Brussels next week.

When he announced the US withdrawal in April, he vowed that diplomatic and humanitarian work would continue, but said: "We will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily."

However, there is an internal debate in the Pentagon over what level of Taliban resurgence would amount to a national security threat to the US, and therefore justify strikes.

The Pentagon is wary of allowing terrorism to breed in Afghanistan and having to recommit militarily later.

Gen Joseph Votel, the former commander of United States Central Command, told The New York Times: "It's an operation to get aircraft to Afghanistan, especially if you're having to come from the Gulf or an aircraft carrier."

Lloyd Austin, the US defence secretary, declined to address whether the military would provide combat air support to the Afghan forces to prevent them or their major cities from being overrun after the withdrawal.

At a congressional hearing, he would not "speculate on potential actions" but noted that once troops were fully withdrawn from Afghanistan it would be "very difficult" to provide such support.

He said the US military had already begun conducting combat operations and surveillance in Afghanistan from outside the country's borders. He said the US was considering stationing troops and aircraft in neighbouring countries to make the flight to Afghanistan shorter.

He said once the withdrawal was complete, the US would focus counterterrorism efforts on al-Qaeda and other terror groups that could conduct attacks against the American homeland.

There have been persistent questions, including from segments of the Afghan government, about whether the US would provide any combat support if the country came under siege from the Taliban.

There is widespread concern that once US and coalition troops have left, the Taliban will increase their attacks and the Afghan government could collapse.