A little over a week into the withdrawal, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of United States Central Command, which includes the Middle East and Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Forces Committee Thursday that the Military planners are looking for ways to continue operations in the country after the withdrawal and, in the short term, bring “additional” resources “to support a safe withdrawal of troops.
He said the United States wants to be able to conduct counter-terrorism missions, at least from the air through the use of manned and unmanned aircraft, as well as carry out surveillance and reconnaissance activities. But there is no significant US military presence in the countries surrounding Afghanistan – Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan – that would allow for US forces to be grounded. The main drones used in Afghanistan – MQ-1 Predators and MQ-9 Reapers – can reach the country from US allied bases in the Gulf, McKenzie said, but such flights dramatically affect the drones’ ability to operate over long periods of time.
“We will have architecture in the theater that will allow us to look into Afghanistan,” McKenzie said. “It will not give us the same image we have now. It will allow us to see inside. The intervals will be greater, the resources will be greater, the risks will all be greater, but it will be possible to do them again. It is certainly not impossible, but we will not have the vision we have. now “.
US diplomats will look to the “art of the possible” to see if there are potential ground deals with other countries, McKenzie added, but made clear the plan is to withdraw every troop from Afghanistan – “zero will be zero” – to exception of the forces necessary for the security of the embassy.
“We’re not going to go back. We’re not going to,” McKenzie stressed. “I didn’t say we wouldn’t go back to strike. But we’re not going to go back to reoccupying.”
Forcing protection is a priority when troops withdraw
A defense official told CNN that McKenzie required a constant presence of aircraft carriers in the region to provide air support, at least until the scheduled end of the 9/11 withdrawal. USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is currently operational in the region. Additionally, the military is considering deploying several hundred additional ground troops to provide security, especially in remote areas where US forces are located. Force protection is a priority in any withdrawal or disengagement, but it has taken on added urgency due to the Taliban’s threats to attack US forces if they are still in Afghanistan early next month.
“I am confident that we will have the combat capability to deliver an overwhelming response should we be attacked or our allies and partners are attacked while we carry out the levy,” McKenzie said in a Pentagon briefing Thursday. “We look every day, every hour to the protection of the force in Afghanistan,” he said at the Senate hearing.
McKenzie will provide a formal withdrawal proposal to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin later this month. Austin will then decide which military support to send to the region to assist with the harvest.
Still to be resolved is how the American people will be informed of the levy which will begin no later than May 1st and end no later than September 11th. “The key is security,” a second defense official said. For remote areas such as Kandahar and Jalalabad, there may be no public recognition of the pickup until it is completed.
Yet McKenzie painted a potentially bleak future for Afghanistan after a complete US withdrawal, especially as the Taliban kept up the pace of attacks on Afghan forces, not just US or coalition troops.
“My concern is the ability of the Afghan military to maintain the ground they are on now,” McKenzie told the committee. “I am concerned about the Afghan Armed Forces resisting after our departure and the Afghan Air Force’s ability to fly, particularly after we have removed support for those aircraft.” U.S. contractors provide crucial support and maintenance to the country’s Air Force, without which the aircraft may not be able to fly.
It is the intention of the United States, McKenzie said, to take out not only the remaining 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, but also to withdraw more than 6,100 US contractors who support, maintain, train and assist the Afghan government and military.
“The only thing I can tell you is that we won’t be down with them.”