Commanders in Washington and Kabul agree that an increased air presence is looking like a necessary response amid growing pressure on the U.S. Army to help Afghan forces fight Taliban militants.
John Campbell, the outgoing commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, says a broader authorization of force is the best way to support stretched local troops now that there are fewer American soldiers on the ground and their rules of engagement are limited. Since NATO, whose presence in the country is dominated by U.S. armed forces, officially ended combat operations in 2014, its mission in Afghanistan has focused on training and assisting local troops.
Such an initiative would include attacks from the air, which dropped sharply in 2015. "Only air support and air strikes break the Taliban," said General Daud Shah Wafadar, commander of the Afghan Army's 205th Corps, based in the southern city of Kandahar, which is close to some of the fiercest fighting in recent months.
Such calls for more bombing raids are not new, but the debate has gained further urgency since the Taliban made significant territorial gains, particularly in northern Kunduz and swathes of Helmand Province in the south.
"I think we've seen this year that they (the Taliban) have taken advantage of the reduction of the number of coalition aircraft," Campbell told the House Armed Services Committee last week.
The United States carried out about 400 air strikes last year, down from some 1,100 in 2014, when it was in full combat mode. There were 12 air strikes by U.S. aircraft in two days in Helmand last month in unusually heavy engagement, used to help relieve a dozen U.S. special forces soldiers serving on the ground on a mission with Afghan counterparts.
"That's quite a bit in terms of what we've used down there recently," said Brigadier General Wilson Shoffner, U.S. Army spokesman in Kabul, referring to the battle in which one Green Beret was killed. "That's the kind of thing that's happening down there."
In a sign of alarm over recent events in Helmand, hundreds more American troops are heading to the restive province, although the U.S. Army specified their role would be to train, advise, and assist, and "not to participate in combat operations."
Their rules of engagement limit the forces to defending U.S. troops from attack, although a Pentagon report to Congress says they may take action "in extremis" to avoid "detrimental strategic effects to the campaign."
"If the Taliban are attacking coalition forces, then I have everything I need to do that," Campbell said. "To attack the Taliban just because they're Taliban -- I do not have that authority."
"Realistically, the thing that I can make a difference on is authorities as we go forward," he said.
Recently, U.S. troops were given broader authority to target Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan.
NATO’s withdrawal of most of its troops by the end of 2014 has been keenly felt on the ground. U.S. forces are set to be cut from 9,800 to 5,500 by the end of 2016. More than 140,000 foreign soldiers once fought the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militant movement attempting to regain power in Kabul.
"There used to be dozens of foreign military advisers who played a key role and helped us with all issues, but now there is only one with me," Wafadar said, adding that local forces were, however, largely coping without their allies.
With no immediate prospect of adding "boots on the ground," others have also suggested broader terms of engagement. In a recent editorial in The Washington Post, David Petraeus, one of Campbell's predecessors, said Washington should "unleash our air power in support of our Afghan partners."
James Dobbins, a senior fellow to the RAND Corporation and a former Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said combat air support, casualty evacuations, and intelligence and surveillance were among the priorities.
"Those are all air assets essentially. And at least some of them don't need to be based in the country."
With reporting by James Mackenzie for Reuters