Top general: US won’t support Afghan forces with airstrikes after withdrawal

File – Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command

The United States is not planning on providing air support to Afghan forces fighting the Taliban, the top U.S. general for the region said in an interview published Monday.

Gen. Frank McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, also told Voice of America (VOA) that counterterrorism strikes will be limited to when plots attack the U.S. homeland or a U.S. ally have been uncovered.

“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,” McKenzie told VOA while traveling to the region.

McKenzie’s latest comments come after The New York Times reported last week that the military was considering continuing to provide air support to Afghan forces if Kabul or another major city starts to fall to the Taliban after U.S. troops leave.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin last week declined to confirm the Times report, saying he wouldn’t “speculate about any potential outcomes or any potential future actions.”

But Austin also told the Senate Armed Services that supporting Afghan forces after the withdrawal “will be very difficult to do because our capabilities will have diminished in country.”

As all American troops withdraw from Afghanistan in line with President Biden’s order to be out by September, U.S. officials have insisted the military will be able to keep terrorism threats in check through what’s known as over-the-horizon operations, or those launched from outside the country. But whether there would be over-the-horizon support for Afghan forces after the withdrawal has been more of an open question.

Further, plans for exactly how the over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations will work and where those troops could be based are still being crafted.

McKenzie told VOA the post-withdrawal plans “are very well advanced,” but did not elaborate.

The United States does not have any basing agreements with Afghanistan’s neighbors, and various geopolitical concerns and such countries’ relations with Russia, appear to make any such agreements unlikely.

Pentagon officials have touted the military’s presence elsewhere in the Middle East, such as the Gulf region, as being able to provide over-the-horizon capabilities.

In his VOA interview, McKenzie reiterated that long flights to “keep the pressure up” on terrorists will strain resources.

“It’s a long haul to get forces, aircraft into Afghanistan from over the horizon,” he said. “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.”

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