The Afghan military “will certainly collapse” without continued US support once all US troops are withdrawn, the top US general for the Middle East told the US Congress on Thursday.
Gen. Frank McKenzie also said he was very concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to protect the US embassy in Kabul.
McKenzie, chief of the US central command, said that as the US withdraws all forces, “my concern is the ability of the Afghans to hold their position” and whether they will be able to continue to maintain and fly their own. planes without the help and financial support of the United States. .
Later, at a Pentagon press conference, McKenzie said the United States would seek “a remote, televised way” to help Afghan security forces perform maintenance on their aircraft.
“We will certainly try to do everything we can from remote locations to assist the Afghans as they maintain the aircraft and other platforms that will be essential to the fight ahead,” the general said.
He added later: “We will try all kinds of innovative ways. The only thing I can tell you is that we will not be there in the field with them.”
In his testimony, McKenzie said it will be vital to protect the US embassy and “it is of great concern to me if the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave.”
McKenzie spent the week describing to lawmakers the steep challenges facing the US military as it moves to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by 9/11, as ordered by US President Joe Biden last week. Following a careful line, the general painted a disastrous picture of the way to go, while also avoiding any rejection of Biden’s decision.
US officials made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full and unconditional withdrawal ordered by Biden. Military leaders have consistently advocated a withdrawal based on security conditions in the country, saying that the withdrawal of troops by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens the US leverage in peace talks with the group.
However, McKenzie said the Biden administration’s “deliberate and methodical” discussion of the withdrawal “was encouraging,” implicitly contrasting former President Donald Trump’s propensity to make swift decisions about withdrawing troops and announcing them through. tweet.
In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie was urged on how the United States will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan once the United States and its coalition partners are gone. The United States has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition said it will follow the same timetable for the withdrawal of the more than 7,000 allied forces.
He told the US Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that once troops leave the country, it will take “much longer” than four hours to move armed drones or other aircraft in and out of Afghanistan to provide aerial surveillance. or counter-terrorism attacks. He said it will require a lot more planes than now.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking to NATO earlier this month, said the US would continue to support Afghans after the withdrawal. He said “we will try to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and the Special Mission Wing, and we will try to continue paying salaries for the Afghan security forces.”
Austin and others have said the US will retain the ability to counter terrorists in Afghanistan, but there are few details and officials say they have not yet secured any diplomatic deal for the base with any of the surrounding nations.
McKenzie refused to give details during the public sessions.
He said there are still no decisions on what size of the diplomatic contingent will remain at the US embassy in the Afghan capital and whether it will include a security cooperation office. Those decisions, he said, could reflect how the United States ensures the defense of the embassy. Marines often provide security in other US embassies around the world.
US senators have expressed divided views on the withdrawal, with comments that cross party lines. Several lawmakers have questioned whether the United States will be able to prevent the Taliban from allowing a resurgence of terrorist groups in Afghanistan that are trying to attack America. Others have asked whether the United States will be able to adequately account for how the Afghan government spends American money.
The Pentagon said it is still unclear whether any US contractors will remain in the country. The Defense Department says the number of contractors in Afghanistan has started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are nearly 17,000 Department of Defense-funded contractors in Afghanistan, and less than a third of those were American.
The total included more than 2,800 armed and unarmed private security contractors, including more than 1,500 armed. Of these 1,500, about 600 are American.