To keep tabs on the military situation on the ground, the U.S. military wants to continue using some version of what it calls the Combined Situational Awareness Room, where it coordinates with its Afghan counterparts (often over WhatsApp), funneling information and helping put air support and other forces into place on the battlefield. But it remains unclear where the command center would be, with options including the American Embassy or outside the country.
Though the Afghan Air Force has become increasingly capable in recent years, American drones and other surveillance aircraft still provide key targeting information. And U.S. strikes, though reduced under extremely restrictive rules of engagement, still occur as international forces depart and Afghan security forces struggle to hold ground.
U.S. military officials believe the United States will devote a significant number of reconnaissance aircraft to continue to help the Afghan forces but will limit airstrikes to “counterterrorism operations” only, a loose description that has been used in the past to justify a variety of actions.
With no bases to position aircraft close to Afghanistan, that means American aircraft will have to fly from bases in the Middle East or from aircraft carriers in the Arabian Sea to support Afghan forces or to conduct counterterrorism missions from “over the horizon.”
For prop-powered surveillance drones and planes, that means several-hour trips just to get to Afghanistan.
For jets based on aircraft carriers, that means frequent midair refueling stops. As land-based U.S. jets leave Afghanistan, United States forces are struggling to meet the demand for carrier-based aircraft because of an increased need for refueling tankers. For now, the jets onboard the U.S.S. Eisenhower in the Arabian Sea can fulfill only around 75 percent of the requests over Afghanistan, a military official said.
Questioned by lawmakers last month about the challenges of countering terrorist threats in Afghanistan after American troops leave, Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the Pentagon’s Central Command, said, “It’s going to be extremely difficult to do, but it is not impossible.”