By Phil Stewart
ON BOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT (Reuters) - The U.S. Air Force may intensify its strikes in Afghanistan and expand training of the Afghan air force following President Donald Trump's decision to forge ahead with the 16-year-old war, its top general told Reuters on Tuesday.
Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein said, however, he was still examining the matter, as the U.S. military's top brass had only begun the process of translating Trump's war strategy into action.
Asked whether the Air Force would dedicate more assets to Afghanistan, where the United States has been engaged in its longest military conflict, Goldfein said only: "Possibly."
"It's actually too early to tell what this will mean in terms of plus-ups and reductions," he said in a joint interview with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
Still, he acknowledged that the Air Force was "absolutely" examining the possibility of increasing air power, including to support U.S. ground forces, following Trump's promise of a stepped-up campaign against Taliban insurgents, who have gained ground against U.S.-backed Afghan government forces.
Goldfein said the same about providing training to Afghan pilots.
Wilson, who assumed the Air Force's top civilian job three months ago, noted the Afghan military had made strides thanks to U.S. training and equipment, but added: "I think there is a long way to go there, very honestly."
In a speech on Monday night, Trump appeared to answer a call from the top U.S. commander on the ground for thousands of more troops to break a stalemate with Taliban insurgents, on top of the roughly 8,400 now deployed in Afghanistan.
Trump said the United States would not disclose troop numbers, but one U.S. official told Reuters they could start moving quickly. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said on Tuesday he would set troop levels following the review by military chiefs.
During the administration of Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, U.S. military officials privately expressed frustration about their inability to strike at many Taliban targets - including training camps - unless they could show a direct threat to U.S. forces or major impact on the Afghan state.
Wilson said Trump appeared to be giving greater flexibility to strike insurgents.
"Obviously the Joint Chiefs will work through their plans and make proposals, but I think the guidance was pretty clear from the president last night, and we're going to go on the offensive and destroy these terrorist networks," Wilson said.
Goldfein said: "I thought that came out very loud and clear in the speech that that's his priority."
Wilson and Goldfein spoke to Reuters while flying back to the United States after a nine-day trip that included a visit to Afghanistan, where the U.S. military has ramped up its firepower against Islamic State in recent months even as it helps Afghan forces battle the Taliban.
Particularly for the U.S. Air Force, the size of the American commitment to Afghanistan far outweighs the number of airmen deployed there. A network of U.S. installations throughout the Middle East supports the Afghan campaign, including in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
Still, any substantial increase in U.S. targeting of the Taliban and Islamic State militants would likely require dedicating more U.S. military assets to build intelligence, strike insurgent targets and provide support to U.S. forces in the field.
Although the U.S. military is stretched, a string of U.S. coalition-backed victories by Iraqi forces against Islamic State might free up some firepower and intelligence assets for Afghanistan, experts say.
Air Force spokesman Brigadier General Edward Thomas declined to speculate on operational planning. But he noted that U.S. air power from the region could be deployed, if needed, including fighter aircraft, bombers and spy planes.
"With the detailed planning that will follow the president's announcement, the Air Force will be ready to swing any additional airmen and aircraft to the fight as required," Thomas said.
PRESSURE ON PAKISTAN
Trump ran for the presidency calling for a swift U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, which the United States invaded in October 2001, and he acknowledged on Monday that he was going against his instincts in approving the new campaign plan sought by his military advisers.
Wilson said Trump's remarks represented a "strategic correction" in the war effort along with a significant shift in policy on Pakistan.
In his speech, Trump delivered a sharp rebuke to Islamabad for allowing Taliban insurgents a safe haven from which launch attacks in Afghanistan, and said it had "much to lose" unless it changed course. Pakistan denies that it harbors militants fighting U.S. and Afghan government forces in Afghanistan.
Reuters has reported that the United States has been considering a range of actions, including withholding aid to Pakistan and, perhaps, ramping up drone strikes.
Successive U.S. administrations have struggled with how to deal with nuclear-armed Pakistan, and the U.S. military has been dependent in the past on overflight or land routes through Pakistan to resupply its forces in landlocked Afghanistan.
Wilson did not rule out a future U.S. military role against militants in Pakistan should Islamabad fail to act, but she said Trump's focus appeared to be on diplomatic efforts for now.
"My assumption is that there will be some intense diplomatic pressure," she said.
Goldfein said he was not aware of any changes to U.S.-Pakistani military ties, but acknowledged the military would take its cues from the State Department.
"I can tell you that I have a fairly robust dialogue with the Pakistani air chief. I've hosted him. He's hosted me," Goldfein said. "But that dialogue is always supportive of the diplomatic dialogue."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Peter Cooney)