WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is considering seeking authorization to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is in danger of falling to the Taliban, potentially introducing flexibility into President Biden’s plan to end the United States military presence in the conflict, senior officials said.
Mr. Biden and his top national security aides had previously suggested that once U.S. troops left Afghanistan, air support would end as well, with the exception of strikes aimed at terrorist groups that could harm American interests.
But military officials are actively discussing how they might respond if the rapid withdrawal produces consequences with substantial national security implications.
No decisions have been made yet, officials said. But they added that one option under consideration would be to recommend that U.S. warplanes or armed drones intervene in an extraordinary crisis, such as the potential fall of Kabul, the Afghan capital, or a siege that puts American and allied embassies and citizens at risk.
Any additional airstrikes would require the president’s approval. Even then, officials indicated that such air support would be hard to sustain over a lengthy period because of the enormous logistical effort that would be necessary given the American withdrawal. The United States will leave all its air bases in Afghanistan by next month, and any airstrikes would most likely have to be launched from bases in the Persian Gulf.
A potential fall of Kabul is the crisis most likely to lead to military intervention after U.S. troops leave, officials said. Intervening to protect Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city, would be far less certain, one official said. Encroaching Taliban forces have increasingly threatened several other urban hubs in almost every corner of the country in recent months.
The discussion suggests the degree of concern in Washington about the ability of Afghanistan’s military to hold off the Taliban and maintain control of Kabul and other population centers.
And it is the latest indication of the scramble by the United States to address the ramifications of Mr. Biden’s decision in April to order a full withdrawal — a goal that had eluded his two immediate predecessors, in part because of opposition from the military.
Whether to provide air support to Afghan security forces after U.S. troops pull out is one of several major questions about Afghanistan policy that the administration is grappling with as Mr. Biden prepares to meet NATO allies in Europe next week.
Also unresolved is how U.S. troops will carry out counterterrorism missions to prevent Al Qaeda and other militants from rebuilding their presence in Afghanistan, and how to allow Western contractors to continue to support the Afghan military. At the same time, the C.I.A. is under intense pressure to find new ways to gather intelligence and carry out counterterrorism strikes in the country.
With the Pentagon set to conclude the pullout of U.S. troops by early July, the Afghan military — created, trained and supplied in the image of the American military — is supposed to start defending the country on its own.
Senior American officials say that the immediate crumbling of the Afghan military is not a foregone conclusion. But there is little doubt that the Afghan forces are battered and at risk of being overwhelmed, especially if their commandos and air forces falter.
The United States is not likely to provide additional air support to Afghan forces in rural areas, many of which are already under Taliban control, the officials said. And even government enclaves around the country, which are already under siege, are unlikely to receive much military help from American warplanes, the officials said. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid speaking publicly about internal administration discussions.
When Mr. Biden announced the withdrawal in April, he promised to support the Afghan government, including its security forces; but he appeared to indicate that the Afghans would be on their own militarily after American and NATO troops left this summer. “While we will not stay involved in Afghanistan militarily, our diplomatic and humanitarian work will continue,” he said at the time.
Officials said then that the United States would launch strikes in Afghanistan only for counterterrorism reasons, in case there was intelligence about efforts to attack American interests.
A spokesman for the White House’s National Security Council declined to comment on the options under discussion, saying the administration did not publicly discuss rules of engagement.
Asked on Thursday about The Times article at a Senate hearing, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III declined to comment on any future combat operations in Afghanistan.
Mr. Austin said that the United States is providing some air support to Afghan security forces now, during the American troop withdrawal, but once the pullout is complete, he said further support would be “very difficult to do” because American warplanes and armed drones would be out of the country.
But officials say there appears to be some new flexibility in the interpretation of counterterrorism. They say a debate has risen in the administration over what, exactly, is the threshold for turmoil in Afghanistan that could lead to American airstrikes.
The discussion reflects lessons learned from the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq, which forced the Obama administration in 2014 to recommit troops and air cover to defend Iraqi cities as the group encroached on Baghdad.
Senior officials said that at the moment, that threshold looked like a looming fall of Kabul, a situation that would most likely require a signoff from the president before American warplanes — most likely armed MQ-9 Reaper drones but possibly fighter jets — provided air support to Afghan forces.
Afghan officials said they had been told by their American counterparts that the United States would also stop any takeover of major cities, a vague statement without any clear backing.
That support would be tough to maintain over any extended period.
“It’s a very hard thing to do,” said Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the former commander of United States Central Command. “It’s an operation to get aircraft to Afghanistan, especially if you’re having to come from the Gulf or an aircraft carrier. There is limited loiter time for them to do anything.”
There are already signs of the difficulties that the United States would face in sending crewed aircraft to carry out strikes after the withdrawal. As U.S. bases in Afghanistan close, it has left pilots with a conundrum: What if something goes wrong thousands of feet over Afghanistan?
Forward Operating Base Dwyer — a sprawling complex in the south with a sizable landing strip — is closing in weeks, if not days. At that point, U.S. aircraft will have only one viable American military base, Bagram, to divert to if they face a mechanical or other issue in flight. Bagram will shut down when the withdrawal is complete.
With restrictive rules of engagement that require hours of overhead surveillance before an American airstrike is authorized, Afghan forces have tried to compensate, launching 10 to 20 airstrikes a day. U.S. surveillance drones are providing a wealth of coordinates to the Afghan Air Force, but Afghan pilots and aircraft are facing burnout and maintenance issues that grow by the day as foreign contractors withdraw.
“Our policy should be to do everything possible, consistent with not having troops on the ground, to enable the legitimate Afghan government and security forces to hold on,” said Representative Tom Malinowksi, Democrat of New Jersey and a former State Department official.
Mr. Malinowski last month joined more than half a dozen other House Democrats and Republicans in urging Mr. Biden to provide an array of support to the Afghan government after American troops leave, including any information on impending Taliban attacks detected by U.S. surveillance aircraft and spy satellites.
Top American generals have acknowledged that the Afghan security forces could collapse in a year or two, or even a matter of months, after the departure of Western military support.
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered reporters traveling with him last month a lukewarm statement about the abilities of the Afghan forces. After 20 years of war, thousands of casualties and huge sums of money spent on the Afghan military and police, he characterized them as “reasonably well equipped, reasonably well trained, reasonably well led.”
When pressed on whether he thought the Afghan forces could hold up, General Milley was noncommittal.
“Your question: The Afghan army, do they stay together and remain a cohesive fighting force, or do they fall apart? I think there’s a range of scenarios here, a range of outcomes, a range of possibilities,” he said. “On the one hand, you get some really dramatic, bad possible outcomes. On the other hand, you get a military that stays together and a government that stays together.
“Which one of these options obtains and becomes reality at the end of the day?” he said. “We frankly don’t know yet.”
When asked at a Pentagon news conference last month if Afghan cities were in danger of being overrun by the Taliban after American forces left, Mr. Austin declined to say whether the United States would provide air support, saying it was a hypothetical situation.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the top U.S. diplomat leading peace efforts with the Taliban, issued last month what seemed to be a definitive statement on the matter.
“We will do what we can during our presence until the forces are withdrawn, to help the Afghan forces, including coming to their defense when they are attacked,” he told the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “But once we are out of Afghanistan, direct military support of Afghan forces such as strikes in support of their forces, that’s not being contemplated at this time.”
But three other American officials said the issue had not been resolved in high-level administration meetings on Afghanistan.
Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt reported from Washington, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Kabul, Afghanistan.
China Launch: Astronauts Dock With Space Station
Three Chinese astronauts docked with the country’s still-under-construction space station on Thursday, beginning what their government expects will be a decade or more of continuous presence by Chinese astronauts in Earth’s orbit.
Six hours and 32 minutes after the astronauts blasted off from a base in the Gobi Desert on a clear, sunny morning, their spacecraft, Shenzhou-12, docked with the station’s core module.
“It was a perfect rendezvous and docking process,” Sun Jun, deputy director of the Beijing Aerospace Flight Control Center, told CCTV, the state broadcaster, adding that the mission so far “fully achieved our original goal.”
With that, the Chinese station, called Tiangong, or Heavenly Palace, became one of two populated outposts in orbit. The other, the International Space Station, has operated for more than two decades, but its future is uncertain because of age, budget constraints and tensions between its main partners, the United States and Russia.
No such problems face the Chinese space program, which is building its station independently, though it has invited other countries to contribute experiments and may, in the future, welcome foreign astronauts.
The launch Thursday was shown live on Chinese state television, a reflection of top officials’ growing confidence in the space program. Its missions have often been shrouded in militarylike secrecy, presumably, at least in some cases, out of fear that something might go wrong. Images from the recent Mars mission were not released for days.
Before Thursday’s launch, by contrast, China’s space agency arranged briefings for selected news organizations as well as interviews with the astronauts, who were escorted to the launch site just after dawn on Thursday by a motorcycle guard along streets lined with people waving flags.
“It feels great,” the commander of the mission, Maj. Gen. Nie Haisheng, said in a video showing him and the others preparing to board Shenzhou-12 on Thursday morning. “My heart is flying, marching courageously forward.”
Senior political and military leaders watched from the space launch center near Jiuquan, a city on the edge of the Gobi, near China’s border with Mongolia. They included Han Zheng, one of seven members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the Communist Party’s top governing body, which is led by Xi Jinping, the country’s paramount leader.
Mr. Xi did not attend, in contrast to his predecessor, Hu Jintao, who witnessed the start of China’s first human spaceflights, beginning in 2003. The country’s string of successful missions in space has been touted by officials and in state media as validation of the Communist Party’s rule in China and Mr. Xi’s position at the top.
All three astronauts are party members, and they and other space officials repeatedly credited Mr. Xi or the party for the country’s feats in space. Several officials noted that the mission will coincide with the 100th anniversary of the official founding of the Chinese Communist Party in Shanghai on July 1, 1921.
“The construction and operation of the space station can be considered an important symbol measuring a country’s economic, technological and comprehensive strength,” Ji Qiming, an assistant to the director of the China Manned Space Agency, said at a prelaunch briefing.
The three astronauts are China’s first in space since 2016. It is only China’s seventh crewed mission, but more are coming. Three additional launches will carry astronauts to the space station in the next year and a half to complete its construction.
China launched the station’s main module in April and docked a cargo ship to it a month later. Shenzhou-12, a craft modeled on the Soviet-era Soyuz capsules, consists of three modules, including a re-entry craft that will bring the astronauts back to Earth.
The remainder of the Shenzhou-12 will effectively become a third piece of the space station, which is orbiting 242 miles, or 390 kilometers, above Earth, slightly lower than the International Space Station at 248 miles.
The astronauts will spend three months in space. Since the station remains under construction, the astronauts’ main task is essentially to move in, begin installing equipment like cameras and start testing various functions, including life support and waste management. They are scheduled to conduct two spacewalks.
The commander, General Nie, of the People’s Liberation Army’s Astronaut Brigade, is a former fighter pilot and veteran of two previous Shenzhou missions, in 2005 and 2013. At a briefing with journalists on Wednesday, he said this mission would be more arduous and challenging than the first ones.
“We will not only have to arrange the core module, the ‘space home,’” he said, “but also to carry out a series of key technology verifications.”
At 56, he is the oldest Chinese astronaut to fly in space. (The oldest person ever to do so was John Glenn, the first American in orbit, who returned 36 years later aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1998, when he was 77.)
Another crew member, Maj. Gen. Liu Boming, 54, is also a space veteran, having been part of a mission in 2008 that included China’s first spacewalk. That feat was accomplished by another astronaut, Zhai Zhigang, but General Liu briefly emerged from a portal to become the second Chinese astronaut to walk in space. The third astronaut, Col. Tang Hongbo, 45, is making his first trip after 11 years of training.
China previously launched two, short-lived prototype space stations, also called Tiangong, in 2011 and 2016. This one is intended to be more durable, serving for the next decade as an orbiting laboratory for the country’s space program.
Officials said the station would allow Chinese astronauts and scientists on the ground to perfect complex operations and conduct experiments in the weightless space environment. At least nine scheduled experiments, so far, involve international partners. Officials have said that once the station is completed, they will consider ferrying foreign astronauts to the station.
Mr. Ji, the space agency’s assistant director, acknowledged at a briefing that China was “a latecomer” to the construction of orbiting space stations, which the United States and Soviet Union accomplished decades ago. He said, however, that China benefited from “latecomer advantages.”
The Tiangong is being built at a time when Russia and the United States are squabbling over the future of the International Space Station, and when China and Russia are cooperating more closely on space exploration.
The International Space Station was originally scheduled to be retired in 2015, just four years after construction was completed, but its lifetime was subsequently extended to 2020, then through 2024. Legislation that recently passed in the United States Senate proposes another extension, to 2030.
In 2018, President Donald J. Trump’s administration said it wanted to end direct federal financing of the station after 2024 and shift orbital operations to private space stations. After that decision was criticized, however, NASA officials insisted that it was not a fixed deadline. A NASA feasibility study concluded that the aging space station could keep going through at least 2028, though Russia has signaled that it might consider pulling out of the project before then.
Claire Fu contributed research.
Hong Kong Police Arrest Apple Daily Executives
HONG KONG — When the Hong Kong police last year arrested Jimmy Lai, a pugnacious newspaper publisher, they seemed to be going after a longtime government critic. On Thursday, the city’s authorities sent a message to the rest of the media industry: be careful what you write.
Hundreds of police officers raided the newsroom of Mr. Lai’s defiantly pro-democracy newspaper, Apple Daily, scrutinized journalists’ computers, arrested top editors, froze company accounts and warned readers not to repost some of its articles online.
The raid and new restrictions were the most aggressive use yet of Hong Kong’s sweeping national security law, imposed last year by Beijing, against a media outlet, and could put the newspaper’s survival in question. The operation was a sharp escalation in the authorities’ intensifying frontal assault on media outlets in Hong Kong, a former British colony once known for its vibrant media scene and broad free speech protections.
The pressure on Apple Daily had been building for months, with officials and pro-Beijing voices singling the newspaper out for criticism.
“But today’s actions are still shocking,” said Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer of journalism at City, University of London who previously worked for Hong Kong media outlets, pointing to the raid and seizure of computers, among other things. “We have to remind ourselves that until very recently, a free press was regarded as ‘normal’ in Hong Kong.”
In recent months, the government has moved to rein in the media. It has sought to overhaul a public broadcaster known for its investigative work, replacing editors and pulling programs. Top police officials have warned journalists that they could be investigated for reporting “fake news.” A court in April convicted a journalist of making false statements for a news report that was critical of the police.
The police said they had arrested five executives and editors at Apple Daily and its parent company, Next Digital, on suspicion of “collusion with a foreign country or with external elements to endanger national security.”
Apple Daily’s editor in chief, Ryan Law, was taken from his apartment in handcuffs. Trading of Next Digital’s shares were suspended in Hong Kong on Thursday morning following news of the arrests.
With its accounts frozen, Apple Daily would have difficulty paying its staff of about 700, said Mark Simon, an aide to Mr. Lai, the newspaper’s founder, who is in prison for taking part in illegal protests, charges his supporters say are trumped up to silence him.
“We’re having an incredibly tough time. I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Mr. Simon said. “I think they’re going to keep coming and coming.”
Footage broadcast by Apple Daily reporters showed police officers carting away suitcases from the headquarters of Next Digital. A photo posted by Apple Daily on its Instagram account showed officers looking through files on reporters’ computers. After the photo was taken, journalists were forced out of the newsroom, which was declared a crime scene.
The police said that a search warrant had authorized the police to search and seize journalistic material.
Last year, Apple Daily journalists live streamed the police raid from the newsroom floor. But on Thursday the police restricted employees’ access to certain floors of the building and warned them to turn off their cameras.
Police said an investigation showed more than 30 Apple Daily articles had urged foreign countries to enact sanctions against Hong Kong and China. The United States has imposed sanctions against officials in Hong Kong and China over Beijing’s moves to rein in the city. Under the security law, calls for such sanctions are considered acts of collusion with foreign countries. Mr. Lai, the paper’s founder, also faces separate charges under the national security law for allegedly calling for international sanctions against Hong Kong.
“We have very strong evidence that the articles in question play a crucial part in the entire conspiracy scheme, providing talking points to foreign countries or overseas institutions to impose sanctions,” Li Kwai-wah, a senior superintendent in the police’s national security department, said at a news conference.
Mr. Li also warned the public against sharing articles from Apple Daily. “As a law enforcer, I would advise you not to invite suspicion,” he said. He did not specify which articles.
John Lee, Hong Kong’s security secretary, denied the raid and arrests would harm press freedom in the city and cautioned journalists to distance themselves from Apple Daily.
“This action has nothing to do with normal journalism work,” he said. “It is aimed at suspected use of journalism as a tool to commit acts that endanger national security. Normal journalists are different from them. Don’t get involved with them, and keep a distance from them.”
The Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government, Beijing’s official arm in Hong Kong, described the arrests and asset freezes as just, and made clear that there were limits to the freedom of speech enshrined in the city’s mini-constitution.
“There are no rights and freedoms without boundaries. None can breach the bottom line of national security,” the office said in a statement.
The government’s accusations against Apple Daily raised alarms for advocates of media freedom in the city.
“We just can’t see how articles or reports carried by news media would constitute a threat to national security,” said Chris Yeung, the chair of the Hong Kong Journalists Association. “It gives rise to fear that speech can be seen as acts and are vulnerable to the national security law.”
In addition to Mr. Law, the chief editor, the arrested executives included Next’s chief executive, Cheung Kim-hung, and Tat Kuen-chow, its executive director. Among the editors arrested were Cheung Chi-wai, the chief executive editor, and Chan Puiman, deputy chief editor.
The authorities froze about $2.3 million in accounts belonging to Apple Daily and affiliated companies.
Mr. Lai and his newspaper have long been a thorn in the side of the Chinese and Hong Kong governments, and Beijing has targeted him as one of its leading enemies in the territory.
Hong Kong’s chief of police, Chris Tang, singled out Apple Daily in April for its coverage of a national security event hosted by the police and warned that the authorities would investigate news outlets seen as having endangered national security.
Despite the mounting pressure on Apple Daily, its journalists pledged to get back to work. “As difficult as the current circumstances may be, we will carry on with our jobs with the aim to publish our papers as normal tomorrow,” the Next Media Trade Union wrote in a statement.
But the newspaper acknowledged its fate was out of its hands. “In today’s Hong Kong, we are unfamiliar and speechless,” the Apple Daily said in a letter to its readers, posted on its website. “It seems that we are powerless to deal with it, and it is difficult to prevent the regime from doing whatever it wants.”
After Pandemic and Brexit, U.K. Begins to See Gaps Left by European Workers
LONDON — Agnieszka Bleka has had to work hard in past years to find companies that need workers, spending much of her day reaching out to local businesses in the northern English city of Preston where she is based.
But now, Ms. Bleka, who owns Workforce Consultants, a company that finds jobs in Britain for mostly Eastern and Central Europeans, says that she is fielding several calls a day from companies looking for temporary staff and that she can’t keep up with the demand.
“The fish pond is getting smaller,” she said. “And people are picking and choosing the jobs, or leaving as well, going to their home countries.”
Free movement between Britain and Europe technically ended at the start of 2021 because of Brexit, but the effects were masked by strict pandemic travel restrictions. Only lately, as the economy picks up steam, is the new reality beginning to be fully felt.
Migration experts say that there is not enough reliable data to say whether perceived shortages of workers are the result of Brexit, the pandemic or some combination of the two. It is also unclear whether they are temporary or reflect a more enduring shift. But there is little question that many companies are having considerable trouble filling jobs.
Ms. Bleka described it as “an employees’ market,” particularly among the workers she typically places in jobs in industrial warehouses, construction, landscaping and other low-skilled jobs.
“It’s like 180 degrees,” she said. “Where we used to have lots of people and not so many vacancies to fill up, now it’s the other way around.”
But others less tethered to Britain moved back to their home countries, even before the pandemic hit, particularly those from Eastern and Central Europe who filled those lower-skilled jobs that now seem so tough to fill. Brexit and the anti-immigrant sentiment that helped drive it made many feel unwelcome, while others were discouraged by the sharp drop in the pound’s value after the vote to leave the European Union.
As a member of the Polish community whose children attend a Polish school in Preston, Ms. Bleka said that the number of students had noticeably dropped since the pandemic began.
“There must be something that is taking people back, and Covid definitely didn’t help,” she said, noting that some workers may be finding a better quality of life and stronger economies in their home countries now than when they left.
Post-Brexit immigration changes, which utilize a points-based system, were intended to restrict the movement of lower-skilled workers from Europe in favor of higher-skilled workers in specialist roles.
Nevertheless, Madeleine Sumption, director of the Migration Observatory, a research body at Oxford University, said it was difficult to draw a direct line between the changes in the country’s immigration system and the worker shortage. Lack of reliable migration data, the fact that some workers are still on furlough and the uncertainty of the pandemic have all made the true picture more opaque.
She has written about how the migration data collected in Britain during the pandemic offers an imperfect picture, and warned that estimates of Europeans leaving by the hundreds of thousands may be way off. The true figure, she says, is more likely to be closer to tens of thousands.
But that could still be significant, she added.
“At the macro level, the impact of changing the system in this way is actually not expected to be very big,” she said. “But for individual employers, it can be absolutely huge.”
Industries like food manufacturing and food processing, which have relied heavily on low-skilled European migrants, could find their growth hampered by a lack of workers, she noted.
Before Brexit, Ms. Sumption said, “What we might expect to see is that as recruitment picks up again, new people would come into the U.K. using their free movement rights, or people who had previously left coming back.” Now, that is no longer an option.
The hospitality industry in Britain has been one of the major employers of European migrants and is already suffering from an inability to recruit new arrivals.
When England’s first lockdown was lifted last summer, the Australian restaurateur Bill Granger said that he had encountered no problem taking on staff for all four of his Granger & Co. locations in London.
But this time around, he said, it has been a trial.
After a number of prolonged shutdowns, and with the added complications of Brexit visa changes and broader travel restrictions, he said he had found that many of his former employees had moved on. Some, such as waiters and chefs from France, Hungary, Italy, Romania and Spain, as well as Australian baristas, had returned home. Others had moved out of hospitality work entirely.
“We opened and closed, and opened again, and what’s happened now is we’ve lost all those people,” Mr. Granger said. Even with the added help of a newly contracted human resources team, the company is still struggling to fill positions.
And with a smaller number of people working longer shifts because of the vacancies, he said, his current staff were stretched: “All our team are absolutely exhausted.”
While some hospitality workers have taken the chance for a career change, others are still on furlough because of the pandemic and not ready to apply for new jobs yet.
Mr. Granger’s restaurants in London have in the past relied on an influx of young European and Australian recruits, and they are no longer traveling in the numbers they once did because of tighter restrictions on movement.
“Everyone is happy to be back, but also just with losing people, it’s really, really hard,” Mr. Granger said.
Jack Kennedy, an economist at Indeed, a job search site, said that the demand for hospitality workers was outpacing the number of available workers across the sector.
“The job postings have been rising so fast and the supply of candidates just really hasn’t been able to keep up with that,” he said, adding that a reliance by some industries on foreign-born workers who may have left during the pandemic had probably been part of the problem.
But the dearth of employees is also driving up pay, he said, with hourly wages advertised for hospitality roles across the country increasing. That raises the question of whether other industries struggling to fill roles will follow suit, and how big of an impact on the economy the shortages will have.
Ms. Sumption, of the Migration Observatory, said she was surprised to see so many reports of shortages, because unemployment in Britain is actually quite high — and is higher among residents who hail from the European Union than among those born in the country. But, she noted, in industries like food manufacturing and food processing, workers from European Union countries made up most of the staff, and those sectors could be feeling more of a crunch.
“Some employers have a business model that has really relied on free movement, and for those employers, there are much harder questions about how they deal with it,” she said. “Are they able to adjust to a world without free movement, or will they just do less, or even go out of business?”
She noted as an example that, after large number of Eastern European workers arrived after 2004, there was a large amount of growth in Britain in the production of soft fruit, which is labor-intensive, because the influx of workers made it more affordable.
“One of the kind of long-term impacts that one should expect to see is a change, not necessarily in the total economic prosperity of the U.K., but in the composition of the economy,” she said. “So we could have less growth in labor-intensive sectors that have relied on free movement.”