By C. Todd Lopez
WASHINGTON (April 20, 2021) -- By Sept. 11, 2021, all U.S. forces must be out of Afghanistan. But that doesn't mean that the U.S. will be at the mercy of groups like ISIS, al-Qaida or the Taliban if they want to create problems and threaten U.S. interests, the commander of the U.S. Central Command said.
While the 3,500 troops currently in Afghanistan will leave that country by the end of the summer, some will remain in the region, Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. said during a hearing today before the House Armed Services Committee.
"I think some of the forces are going to remain in Central Command, because we are going to look at offshore, over-the-horizon options," he said.
Right now, McKenzie said, he's figuring out how the U.S. will be able to conduct counter-terrorism activities in the area without being in Afghanistan.
"I'm actually conducting detailed planning, by the direction of the secretary, to look at those options right now. I will report back to him by the end of the month with some alternatives," he said.
Broadly, McKenzie said, if a crisis arises in Afghanistan and the U.S. needs to go back in, three things will need to happen that the U.S. can still do -- though with more difficulty than it can do right now.
"You need to find the target, you need to fix the target and you need to be able to finish the target," he said. "So those three things all firstly require heavy intelligence support. And 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. It will just be harder to do it."
For intelligence assets in the region, he said, U.S. diplomats are working now to find new places to base them, he said.
"There are ways to get to the find and the fix part," he said. "The fix part is very important though, because if we're going to strike something, we're going to strike it in concert with the law of armed conflict and the American way of war."
It's the striking of a target -- if need be -- that's going to be an even bigger challenge than it is now, McKenzie told lawmakers.
"It's difficult to do that at range -- but it's not impossible to do that at range," he said.
The general said long-range precision fires, manned raids and manned aircraft are all possibilities for strike options, if need be. All are on the table, and all are doable -- though with increased risks and costs.
"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. Though 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."
When forces do leave Afghanistan, McKenzie said, there's the risk that there could be attacks at that time. He said he's confident, however, that while such a redeployment is complex, U.S. forces will be safe.
With the Afghanistan withdrawal, he said, equipment will need to leave the country, installations will need to be turned over and people will need to leave.
McKenzie said discussions with Army Gen. Austin S. Miller, commander of the Resolute Support mission and U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, have left him assured that redeployment can be done safely.
"I'm confident that we will have the forces necessary to protect our forces should the Taliban decide to begin attacking us on [May 1] or any other date," he said.