Washington: US aircraft will not carry out air strikes in support of Afghan forces next year unless Kabul`s fledgling army is faced with a "catastrophic" situation, a senior American officer warned Wednesday.
The scaling back of air power -- both for bombing raids and medical evacuations -- reflects a shift in the US mission in Afghanistan, as the bulk of NATO troops withdraw by the end of the year.
From January, US-led air power will focus on safeguarding the remaining American troops on the ground, or what the military calls "force protection," said Lieutenant General Joseph Anderson.
Speaking via video link from Kabul, the number two US officer in Afghanistan said US warplanes would only back up Afghan National Security Forces "in extremis or ... catastrophic strategic implication type things for the ANSF."
Employing air power for the Afghan army or police will be rare under the more limited mission that will begin in 2015, but the precise details are still being worked out, said Anderson, the head of the International Security Assistance Force joint command.
"What`s yet to be defined explicitly will be coalition assets in support of ANSF, based on what types of operations they`re doing and, again, what the strategic consequences may be based on where they find themselves, what situations they get into," he said.
US fighter jets, bombers, attack helicopters and armed drones have carried out thousands of air strikes every year since 2001 against the Taliban insurgency, but officials say the number has started to decline as NATO-led forces pull back from frontline duties.
Afghan troops will now face a crucial test after having relied heavily on American air power in battles with Taliban insurgents, and it remains unclear if their fledgling air force will be up to the task.
The Afghan army will also be essentially on its own when it comes to medical evacuations starting next year, Anderson said.
Afghan government forces already conduct 88 percent of all evacuations of wounded soldiers using their own ambulances or Russian-made helicopters, he said.
The general said coalition forces already are providing only "very limited" support for medical evacuations and the Afghans "have full responsibility for that essentially now."