WASHINGTON — In a blunt assessment Tuesday, the top US general for the Middle East told Congress it will be extremely difficult but not impossible for the US to find, track, and take out counterterrorism threats in Afghanistan once all American troops are withdrawn.
General Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said that armed drones, which can now get to a location within minutes from bases in Afghanistan, will have to be positioned much farther away. And he acknowledged that the US has no agreements yet with neighboring countries to base troops, but is working on a plan.
“I don’t want to make light of it, I don’t want to put on rose-colored glasses and say it’s going to be easy to do,” McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee, adding that if the US needs to go back into Afghanistan because of a threat, it will require significant intelligence support. “It will be harder to do that, it is not impossible.”
McKenzie declined to say what recommendations on Afghanistan he gave to President Biden, who last week ordered the full withdrawal of the more than 2,500 remaining US troops by Sept. 11. He said he had full opportunity to provide his advice to the president.
US officials have made it clear, however, that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal. Military leaders have consistently argued that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens US leverage in the peace talks with the group.
McKenzie told lawmakers that the US would have several options if it needs to hit a target, including a long-range strike or the use of manned aircraft or a raid by ground forces, which would be “inherently dangerous.” Lawmakers pressed him for details and he said he would provide more specifics in a classified session.
Over the past year, as then-President Trump pushed for a complete troop withdrawal, defense and military officials successfully argued that any pullout should be based on security conditions on the ground.
Asked about the previous administration's orders to withdraw troops, McKenzie quickly noted that Trump's command was “conditions based."
Biden’s withdrawal date coincides with the 20th anniversary of the Al Qaeda terror attack on the US that had triggered the US-led invasion of Afghanistan. NATO announced it would follow the same timetable for withdrawing more than 7,000 allied forces.
The president’s decision defies a May 1 withdrawal deadline that was agreed to by the Trump administration as part of a peace agreement with the Taliban. Instead, Biden said the US withdrawal would begin on May 1.
McKenzie told lawmakers that terror groups in Afghanistan, including Al Qaeda and the Islamic State group, continue to aspire to attack the US
“I think that’s a reasonable concern and I share that concern frankly,” he said.
The Taliban have threatened to take action if the US does not comply with the May 1 deadline.
McKenzie said the US plans to aggressively protect the security of US troops in Afghanistan as the withdrawal of personnel and equipment goes on. And he said the US is prepared to take any action necessary.
Meanwhile, concerns are growing about one American who risks being left behind.
Mark Frerichs, a contractor from Lombard, Ill., believed held for more than a year by the Taliban-affiliated Haqqani network, was not mentioned in Biden’s address on Afghanistan last week. Nor was the troop withdrawal conditioned on his release from custody, fueling concerns that the US could lose bargaining power to get Frerichs home once its military presence is removed from the country.
“Any leverage that we had, we’ve just now announced to the world and to the Taliban and the Haqqanis that we’re going to pull out. Not only is it our leverage, it’s our military capability to rescue him,” Representative Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and Green Beret who served in Afghanistan, said in an interview with the Associated Press. “So it’s just utterly disheartening.”
The Biden administration has said it regards the return of hostages to be a top priority. Despite this, the fate of a single captive is unlikely to sway the broader policy interest in ending a 20-year war that began in response to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. It’s not uncommon for detainee issues to be eclipsed by other foreign policy matters, as appeared to happen last week when the administration didn’t mention Russia’s detention of two Americans, even as it announced reasons for taking punitive action against Moscow.