US to keep about 650 troops in Afghanistan after withdrawal

By Lolita C. Baldor and Robert Burns | AP
The Washington Post
June 24, 2021 at 5:26 p.m. EDT
FILE - In this April 29, 1975, file photo the helicopter zone at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, showing last minute evacuation of authorized personnel and civilians. With U.S. and NATO forces under a Sept. 11, 2021, deadline to leave Afghanistan, many are recalling that desperate, hasty exodus as they urge the Biden administration to evacuate thousands of Afghans who worked as interpreters or otherwise helped U.S. military operations there in the past two decades. (AP Photo, File)

WASHINGTON — Roughly 650 U.S. troops are expected to remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main American military force completes its withdrawal, which is set to be largely done in the next two weeks, U.S. officials told The Associated Press on Thursday.

In addition, several hundred additional American forces will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security, as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place, the officials said. Overall, officials said the U.S. expects to have American and coalition military command, its leadership and most troops out by July Fourth, or shortly after that, meeting an aspirational deadline that commanders developed months ago.

The officials were not authorized to discuss details of the withdrawal and spoke to the AP on condition of anonymity.

Officials have repeatedly stressed that security at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is a critical requirement to keeping any U.S. diplomatic staff in Afghanistan. Still, the decision to keep additional troops there for several more months makes it more complicated for the Biden administration to declare a true end to America’s longest war until later this fall. And it keeps the embattled country near the forefront of U.S. national security challenges, even as the White House tries to put the 20-year-old war behind it and focus more on threats from China and Russia.

On Friday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, chair of the High Council for National Reconciliation, are meeting with Biden at the White House. The two Afghan leaders also are to meet at the Pentagon with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and possibly other administration officials, the Pentagon announced.

As recently as last week, there was discussion of possibly extending the U.S. troop presence at Bagram Airfield, north of Kabul, but officials said the U.S. presence at the base is expected to end in the next several days.

The roughly 650 U.S. troops that are planned to be a more permanent force presence in Afghanistan will provide security for the U.S. Embassy and some ongoing support at the airport. Officials said the U.S. has agreed to leave a C-RAM — or Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar system — at the airport, as well as troops to operate it, as part of an agreement with Turkey. The U.S. also plans to leave aircrew for helicopter support at the airport.

On Wednesday, Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said there is not yet a written agreement with Turks on airport security. He said he did not want to speak about specifics before there is a final agreement, but added, “I feel very comfortable that security at the Kabul airport will be maintained and the Turks will be a part of that.”

The U.S. troop departure, which began with Biden’s announcement in April that he was ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan, is ramping up just as the administration moves ahead with plans to evacuate tens of thousands of interpreters and others who worked with American forces during the war and now fear for their safety.

The Pentagon has said the military is prepared to assist the State Department as needed but indicated that charter flights might be adequate to move the Afghan visa applicants, thus not necessarily requiring a military airlift.

Officials said that NATO allies, such as Germany, are also very close to being completely out of the country.

Senior Pentagon leaders, including Austin, have been cautious in recent weeks when asked about the troop withdrawal, and they have declined to provide any public details on when the last troops would leave, citing security concerns.

US to keep about 650 troops in Afghanistan after withdrawal