By Carla Babb
ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT – The United States is not planning to support Afghan forces with air strikes after the U.S. troops withdrawal is complete, and counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan will be limited to instances when attack plans have been discovered to strike the U.S. homeland or the homelands of our allies, according to the top U.S. commander in the Middle East.
“That would be the reason for any strikes that we do in Afghanistan after we leave, (it) would have to be that we’ve uncovered someone who wants to attack the homeland of the United States, one of our allies and partners,” Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told VOA in an exclusive interview as he traveled toward the region aboard a U.S. military plane.
The general’s comments appear to refute a report by the New York Times that said 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.
McKenzie’s candid description of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan after its withdrawal coincides with a narrowing counterterror offensive against Islamic State and al-Qaida as the Pentagon prioritizes competition with China and Russia. The general said his force size in the Middle East was now “closer to 40,000,” a significant reduction from 18 months ago, when that number was between 60,000-80,000 troops.
Since President Joe Biden took office, he has ordered the full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan and cut U.S. military support for the Saudi-led offensive against Iranian-back Houthi rebels in Yemen, all while the Pentagon has moved ships, weapons systems and troops out of other Middle East nations.
McKenzie says the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major event that has strained resources, not only across his command, but also across the U.S. Transportation Command, which helps shuttle U.S. military people and equipment to various locations across the globe.
Those resources will continue to be strained, he tells VOA, as U.S. aircraft will fly from bases thousands of kilometers away in order to gather intelligence and surveillance and “keep the pressure up” on terrorists in Afghanistan.
“It’s a long haul to get forces, aircraft into Afghanistan from over the horizon. We’ve said all along this is a very difficult thing to do. It’s not an impossible thing to do, and we’re working that right now,” McKenzie said.
Plans ‘well advanced’
Experts and former commanders have raised concerns about the lack of details that have been associated with securing Afghanistan after the withdrawal.
“The plans are very well advanced,” McKenzie said, deferring to the Defense Department to release further information.
Ret. Gen. Joseph Votel, the former commander of CENTCOM, told VOA he has hoped to see a “more comprehensive plan for what this withdrawal would look like” in order to leave the government of Afghanistan and the Afghan forces “on the very best footing that we could.”
He pointed to the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq as a “much more deliberate approach” that left behind a large embassy and a security cooperation element of special forces on the ground.
“Those are the kinds of things that that I would be expecting to see. I think the challenge with this right now is we’re just not seeing a lot of details,” Votel added.
According to McKenzie, the U.S. will help the Afghan air force, one of the country’s biggest advantages against the Taliban, maintain its aircraft through a combination of virtual advising from afar and flying parts in and out of the country. The method will undoubtedly slow the maintenance process, which could leave Afghan forces with limited air support.
“Risk will be greater, significantly greater,” McKenzie acknowledged.
There is also a complete plan to evacuate Afghans who helped the United States, should the need arise, although the size, scope and timing of the operation would come from the Department of State, he said.
Turkey in the spotlight
One unanswered question is how the Kabul airport will be secured. The airport serves both civilian and military aircraft.
Several hundred troops from NATO ally Turkey have been defending the airport, but it is unclear whether they will remain once NATO withdrawals, stoking fear that diplomats will not be able to safely enter and exit Afghanistan.
McKenzie said the U.S. military was still “in consultation with Turkish partners about the issue.” Biden is expected to meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels on Monday to discuss the airport security dilemma.
Reports have said Erdogan is looking for concessions in exchange for securing the airport, including an agreement from the U.S. that allows Ankara to keep and operate its Russian S-400 air defense system. The U.S. opposes Turkey’s acquisition and use of a Russian system alongside NATO weapons like the F-35 fighter jet.
Another major concern is how well the U.S. will be able to uncover terrorists plots in Afghanistan, the very plots its military is supposed to be preventing through airstrikes, without a military presence in the country.
Bradley Bowman, a defense expert with the Washington-based think tank Foundation for Defense of Democracies, criticized the pullout for reducing the United States’ capability to monitor and deter the approximately 20 terror groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
“Just because we leave and we say it’s over, it’s not over,” Bowman said. “The Taliban is interested, and al-Qaida’s interested in forever jihad, and they’re going to keep fighting.”