But as the Taliban ramp up their attacks and Afghan forces call for help, American commanders will have to decide where the support is allocated, an especially difficult decision given that Afghan security forces have a record of calling for air support at the first sign of danger.
General Miller, the commander of the U.S.-led mission in Afghanistan, stays in touch with the Afghan corps commanders spread across the country, frequently over WhatsApp, as they request support or keep him abreast of the situation.
Rules of engagement of American air power are extremely restrictive, according to a U.S. official, meaning that in some cases approval to strike could take longer than some jets can stay airborne. Many targets need to be preplanned and watched for hours, if not days, by drones and other surveillance aircraft, meaning immediate support for Afghan forces under siege is increasingly difficult.
U.S. officials have noted the gains made by the Afghan air force in recent years. Their fleet of small helicopters and armed propeller planes — that look more at home in a World War II movie — have become increasingly capable, though civilian casualties caused by their attacks have spiked.
But with about 17,000 military contractors also leaving with U.S. and NATO troops, the Afghan government is panicking on how to continue to maintain their aircraft. Almost the entire air force, minus some aging Soviet-era helicopters, is nearly completely dependent on contractor support for maintenance. The contractors even control the supply of fuel, one Afghan pilot said, because it has been siphoned and sold off by Afghan troops in the past.
Addressing the contractor issue, General Milley said that much would be determined by the security conditions on the ground. “The intent,” he said, “is to provide them with continued support.”
Thomas Gibbons-Neff reported from Kabul, Afghanistan, and Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt from Washington. Reporting was contributed by Fahim Abed and Najim Rahim in Kabul, Taimoor Shah in Kandahar, Zabihullah Ghazi in Nangarhar and Farooq Jan Mangal in Khost.