President Obama's desire to avoid large new ground commitments in the Middle East is, in many respects, understandable, given the experiences of some 15 years of war. At present, however, the modest number of U.S. and coalition troops in Afghanistan operate with one hand tied behind their backs — at a time when Afghan forces, though fighting hard, are struggling. That should be changed. We should unleash our airpower in support of our Afghan partners in the same way that we support our Iraqi and Syrian partners against extremists.
At present, U.S. and NATO airpower in Afghanistan is used only to attack validated al-Qaida 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.
The origins of this contorted policy are, once again, somewhat understandable, even if the policy itself should be changed. When he was Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai frequently objected to NATO's use of firepower, especially when tragic accidents took the lives of Afghan civilians. Though this war has probably involved the most carefully controlled airpower in the history of warfare, with NATO troops taking extraordinary measures to protect innocents, mistakes inevitably occurred. Karzai's accumulated frustration led him to increasingly react to such tragedies not just with private outrage but also public excoriation. At times, the mission's future hung in the balance. To minimize such friction, while also prodding Afghans to view the fight against the Taliban more as their own and less as ours, Obama decided to end NATO targeting of the Taliban in most situations.
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-Qaida 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-Qaida and the Islamic State at bay.
We have the tools in place to step up our game considerably. When combined with a motivated and competent ground force, airpower can be quite effective. This was witnessed in 2001, when U.S. airpower and special operatives worked with the Northern Alliance to oust the Taliban from power. It was seen on a vast scale while supporting coalition and host-nation forces in Iraq and Afghanistan — increasing in effectiveness, in fact, as the fleet of drones and other precision-strike assets expanded dramatically over the course of the "surges" in each war. It has also been seen of late in Iraq and Syria, where U.S. airpower collaborated with Kurdish forces and other partners in both countries to prevent further inroads by the Islamic State in 2014 and then to liberate places such as Sinjar and Ramadi in Iraq and a number of villages near Kobani in Syria last year.
In Syria and Iraq, U.S. and coalition airpower has been used increasingly vigorously. In 2014, coalition aircraft dropped ordnance during about 2,000 aircraft sorties; that number grew above 9,000 last year.
But we have moved in the opposite direction in Afghanistan. Even though our military footprint there is more firmly established, with nearly 10,000 U.S. troops and 6,000 other foreign troops, and with several major airfields accessible to NATO forces in country, ordnance was dropped during only about 400 sorties last year. The corresponding tally for 2014 was about 1,100; in 2010, it was about 2,500.
The Taliban is not winning decisively in Afghanistan by any means, but it has learned that it can mass for attack in many places without fear of NATO airstrikes. Partly as a result, it temporarily took control of the provincial capital of Kunduz in the fall; more recently it has taken large swaths of Helmand province, as well as a number of places in the country's mountainous east.
We do not need a big U.S. troop buildup in Afghanistan, but we should take the gloves off of those who are there. Afghan forces are doing perhaps 99 percent of the fighting on the ground, and that is as it should be — though as the tragic recent casualties in Helmandand near Bagram Airfield reminded us, Americans are certainly still in the fight.
The development of the Afghan air force will take a least a few more years. In the meantime, we can and should do more to ensure that the Taliban does not win the war, which could lead to new sanctuaries for al-Qaida and the Islamic State on the eastern flank of their broader area of operations. Vigorous use of the airpower we already have in the region is the most logical and straightforward next step for doing so.
David Petraeus, a retired Army general who commanded coalition forces in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2011, is chairman of the KKR Global Institute. Michael O'Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.