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Top general concerned about Afghan forces after US troops leave

Top general concerned about Afghan forces after US troops leave
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The top U.S. general in the Middle East expressed concern Thursday about Afghan forces’ ability to fend off the Taliban after U.S. troops withdraw from the country.

“My concern is the ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they're on now without the support that they've been used to for many years," Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"I am concerned about the ability of the Afghan military to hold on after we leave, the ability of the Afghan air force to fly, in particular, after we remove the support for those aircraft," he added.

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Pressed later in the hearing on continuing to fund Afghan forces when U.S. troops withdraw, McKenzie said that without "some support," the Afghan forces "certainly will collapse."

McKenzie’s testimony marked the second time this week he has expressed concern about the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan after President BidenJoe BidenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point CDC mask update sparks confusion, opposition MORE announced last week he was ordering U.S. troops to pull out by Sept. 11.

McKenzie has declined to say publicly what his advice to Biden was, saying only that he had “multiple opportunities” to give the president his perspective.

But McKenzie has been laying out what he sees as the challenges ahead following the withdrawal. On Tuesday, he told the House Armed Services Committee that counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan would be “harder” without a troop presence there but “not impossible,” something he reiterated Thursday.

“The long-term view for the war on terror is this: it’s not going to be bloodless. The war on terror is probably not going to end,” McKenzie said Thursday.

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“What we actually seek is the creation of local security where the threats as they arise can be dealt indigenously by those countries themselves without significant U.S. presence there. We’ll see a test of that hypothesis in Afghanistan in the months ahead,” he added.

McKenzie also expressed “great concern” about the ability of the Afghan government to protect the U.S. Embassy once U.S. troops leave.

The U.S. military plans to maintain an embassy presence in Afghanistan, but has not said exactly how many troops will stay to protect the complex, with McKenzie saying that will be determined “over the next few weeks.”

“If we have concerns about the physical security of the embassy, the United States will take whatever measures are necessary to ensure the safety of our diplomats,” he said.

McKenzie suggested the security situation at the embassy could also have implications for the U.S. military’s ability to continue training Afghan forces and conducting oversight of funding for them.

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“We will work tools to mentor from remote locations that will allow us to work with the Afghans themselves,” McKenzie said. “Some of this will be contingent on how big the embassy is that remains, and that is still something that’s going to be worked out in the next few weeks. We could have a security cooperation office in the embassy. We may not have a security cooperation office in the embassy. That will be ultimately a Department of State decision, informed by our assessment of the security situation.”

In addition to McKenzie’s two public hearings this week, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinIt's time to drop 'competition' from US defense strategy Push to combat sexual assault in military reaches turning point Overnight Defense: Military sexual assault reform bill has votes to pass in Senate l First active duty service member arrested over Jan. 6 riot l Israeli troops attack Gaza Strip MORE, Secretary of State Antony BlinkenAntony BlinkenBiden's quiet diplomacy under pressure as Israel-Hamas fighting intensifies Overnight Defense: Administration approves 5M arms sale to Israel | Biden backs ceasefire in call with Netanyahu | Military sexual assault reform push reaches turning point Psaki won't say if Biden has seen Israeli intel on AP Gaza building MORE, Director of National Intelligence Avril HainesAvril HainesDomestic security is in disarray: We need a manager, now more than ever Will Biden provide strategic clarity or further ambiguity on Taiwan? States step in as Congress fails to fight foreign influence MORE and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyPush to combat sexual assault in military reaches turning point Congress, not the courts, say who has authority to court-martial servicemembers Overnight Defense: Former Navy secretary reportedly spent .4M on travel | Ex-Pentagon chief Miller to testify on Jan. 6 Capitol attack | Austin to deliver West Point commencement speech MORE briefed lawmakers behind closed doors this week on Biden’s plan for Afghanistan.

The hearings and briefings have done little to change lawmakers’ minds, with those who supported Biden’s decision continuing to back it and those who opposed it continuing to do so.

"The arbitrary Sept. 11 deadline for troop drawdown risks a power vacuum that terrorists will dominate and use to threaten our homeland again," Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Sen. James InhofeJames (Jim) Mountain InhofeInhofe tells EPA nominee he'll talk to her 'daddy' if she does not 'behave' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Senate nixes Trump rule limiting methane regulation | Senate confirms EPA chief: Biden's climate goals are 'an opportunity to lead' | Fine-particle pollution disproportionately hurts people of color: research EPA chief: Biden's climate goals are 'an opportunity to lead' MORE (R-Okla.) said at Thursday's hearing.

By contrast, while pressing McKenzie on Taliban gains over the past decade, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSenators shed masks after CDC lifts mandate Helping students make informed decisions on college Student debt cancellation advocates encouraged by Biden, others remain skeptical MORE (D-Mass.) said Thursday, "It's clear there is little for us to be gained by a continued U.S presence there."

"We should have learned by now that a conditions-based withdrawal is just a recipe for staying in Afghanistan forever," she said.

Updated at 4:20 p.m.