KABUL (Reuters) - The United States’ use of air power in Afghanistan in the first two months of 2015 was its lowest in five years, as the reduced international military coalition sharply cut battlefield aid to Afghan security forces.
The reduction reflects the smaller U.S. role in its longest war, even as Washington mulls slowing down the planned drawdown of American troops.
None of the 503 air support sorties by American air assets this year have been flown to support Afghan security forces in battle, a coalition spokesman said.
“The vast majority of those missions were in support of the U.S. counter-terrorism mission,” Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for Resolute Support, the new non-combat NATO mission that launched in January, wrote in an email.
The U.S.-led coalition recorded 36 “weapon releases” by aircraft in February and 40 in January. That compares with a peak of 1,043 weapon releases in October 2010, military data show.
Of the roughly 10,000 American troops left in Afghanistan, most are in a training and advising role, with about 1,800 designated for missions to hunt down al Qaeda and other jihadist militants.
The reduced U.S. air support puts pressure on the fledging Afghan Air Force, which has just a fraction of NATO’s former air power, to support Afghan ground troops.
Afghan security forces faced heavy casualties last year, and are bracing for their first spring fighting season after NATO’s 13-year combat mission officially ended in December.
President Barack Obama is expected to decide in the next few days whether to slow the pace of the U.S. troop withdrawal, possibly by next week, when Afghan President Ashraf Ghani travels to Washington.
U.S. bases in Kandahar and Jalalabad are likely to remain open past the end of the year, a senior U.S. official said, addling that conditions had changed since the president announced the drawdown timeline.
Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, is a crucial base for the Afghan air force, which is short on aircraft and trained personnel. Last year it flew an estimated 7,000 missions, a small fraction of them in direct support of ground troops.
Additional reporting by Kay Johnson in Kabul; Editing by Clarence Fernandez