The Corner

Shocking News From Afghanistan — We’re Denying Air Support in the Fight Against the Taliban

In Afghanistan, the only news is bad news. The American-trained Afghan Army is in retreat, the Taliban have made “major gains” on the ground, and now ISIS is gaining a foothold. So this is another example of the limits of American military power, right? Not exactly. It turns out that we’re setting up our allies for failure by denying them access to American air support.

Here’s David Petraeus, writing in the Washington Post:

At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaeda targets, to counter specific individuals or groups who have attacked coalition forces previously and to respond directly to attacks on coalition forces. According to leaders on the ground, U.S. and NATO forces are otherwise not allowed to attack Taliban targets. The situation appears to be in flux in regard to Islamic State elements, but through 2015, they too could be targeted only under narrow circumstances. (Emphasis added.)

What’s the reason for this astonishing policy? Part of it is of course the familiar (and understandable) concern for civilian casualties, but then there’s this:

Also, some administration lawyers harbor concerns that the authorization for the use of military force approved soon after 9/11 does not extend to justify the continued use of force against the Taliban. That is logic we believe unfounded; after all, it was the Taliban that allowed al-Qaeda the sanctuary it used to plan the fateful attacks 15 years ago. In addition, the Taliban, in cahoots with the Haqqani network and other extremist elements, is trying to overthrow the very Afghan government that is now committed to keeping al-Qaeda and the Islamic State at bay. (Emphasis added.)

Since 9/11, the Taliban have never stopped harboring and supporting al Qaeda. The legal authorization for the use of force doesn’t expire simply because the fight drags on. We’ve been at war with the Taliban continually since 9/11, and the original AUMF remains in full force. 

Petraeus rightly encourages the administration to”unleash America’s airpower.” Otherwise, the administration’s rules of engagement echo the tragic mistake in Vietnam — when we pulled out of the country and then denied the South Vietnamese government the air support (or any other military aid) it needed to repel the NVA. We haven’t completely abandoned Afghanistan, of course, but when we deny our allies access to our most lethal firepower, we seal their fate.

In my recent print cover story on our draconian rules of engagement, I made this point:

The Left is fond of claiming that the outcome of American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan reveals the “profound limitations” of American military power. In reality, however, they reveal only the profound limitations of a military so lawyered up that it can’t drop a bomb or fire an artillery round without a J.D. on the line.

In this case, the problem is worse. American air power isn’t just “limited,” it’s banned entirely from arguably the most crucial phase of the fight for Afghanistan. 

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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