Top general: Counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan after withdrawal ‘harder’ but ‘not impossible’
Striking terrorist targets in Afghanistan without a U.S. troop presence there will be “harder” but “not impossible,” the top U.S. general overseeing the region said Tuesday.
Speaking to the House Armed Services Committee, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said he is in the midst of “detailed planning” for options for “over the horizon” forces, or forces positioned elsewhere in the region that could continue counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan. He plans to give Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin those options by the end of the month, he added.
“If you leave Afghanistan and you want to go back in to conduct these kinds of operations, there are three things you need to do: you need to find the target, you need to fix the target, and you need to be able to finish the target,” McKenzie said. “The first two require heavy intelligence support. If you’re out of the country, and you don’t have the ecosystem that we have there now, it will be harder to do that. It is not impossible to do that.”
McKenzie was testifying about a week after President Biden announced he was ordering all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11, bringing an end to U.S. military participation in America’s longest war.
Later Tuesday, Austin, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley are also scheduled to brief the full House and Senate behind closed doors on Biden’s plan for Afghanistan.
Biden’s decision came despite repeated statements from U.S. military officials that the Taliban was not yet upholding its end of a deal made during the Trump administration to reduce violence and break from al Qaeda, as well as warnings about the potential for chaos in Afghanistan that could allow an al Qaeda resurgence should U.S. troops withdraw.
McKenzie’s comments about the difficulty of intelligence gathering without a troop presence echo comments last week from CIA Director William Burns, who told senators the ability to collect intelligence on threats in Afghanistan will “diminish” with a U.S. military withdrawal.
On Tuesday, McKenzie also said he continues to have “grave doubts” about the Taliban’s reliability in upholding its commitments under the deal signed last year.
McKenzie declined to tell lawmakers how he advised Biden as the president deliberated the withdrawal, but said he had “multiple opportunities” to provide Biden with his perspective.
Speaking broadly about options to continue strikes once U.S. troops leave, McKenzie said surveillance drones could be positioned in a place where they can reach Afghanistan “in a matter of minutes” or ”perhaps much further away.”
“We will look at all the countries in the region, our diplomats will reach out, and we’ll talk about places where we could base those resources,” he said. “Some of them may be very far away, and then there would be a significant bill for those types of resources because you’d have to cycle a lot of them in and out. That is all doable, however.”
Right now, McKenzie added, the United States does not have any basing agreements with Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan or other countries surrounding Afghanistan.
McKenzie also said there are a “variety of ways” to strike targets, including long-range precision fire missiles, manned raids or manned aircraft.
“There are problems with all three of those options, but there’s also opportunities with all three of those options,” he said. “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. I can tell you that the U.S. military can do just about anything. And we’re examining this problem with all of our resources right now to find a way to do it in the most intelligent, risk-free manner that we can.”
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