The US withdrawal from Afghanistan is more than half done, and US officials say that while it could be completed by 4 July, the final exit of equipment and troops more likely will be later in the summer.
As early as this week, the top US commander for the Middle East, Gen. Frank McKenzie, will give Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin a range of military options for securing the US embassy in Afghanistan and providing counterterrorism support from outside the country once the withdrawal is complete, officials said.
The number of American troops needed for the overall security missions inside Afghanistan will depend on a variety of requirements, and could range from roughly a couple hundred to a bit less than 1,000, officials said.
McKenzie’s deliberations are a reminder that much about US postwar support for Afghanistan remains uncertain, including how to protect Afghans who worked with the US government from reprisals and how to avoid an intelligence void that could hamper US early warning of extremist threats inside Afghanistan.
At stake is not just a political verdict on President Joe Biden’s judgment about the risk posed by renewed instability in Afghanistan, but also the legacy of an American war that was launched 20 years ago in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks and that imperceptibly morphed into what Biden calls this forever war.
McKenzie is expected to provide options on the amount of aerial surveillance and drones needed to keep an eye on any potential resurgence of al-Qaida, Islamic State or other militant groups. Those options will involve US aircraft from ships at sea and air bases in the Gulf region, such as Al Dhafra air base in the United Arab Emirates. And they could range from persistent US overwatch to a more minimal presence.
The officials, who spoke to AP on condition of anonymity to discuss planning details, said there are no options yet for basing US troops or aircraft in nations neighboring Afghanistan, because those possibilities require diplomatic negotiations. Any agreements with countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan or Uzbekistan would be difficult because there would be Russian opposition. McKenzie told reporters Monday that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is on pace and continuing very smoothly.
He said it was about halfway finished, but provided no details. Other officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the pullout was more than half completed but provided no specifics. Officials acknowledge that the withdrawal so far has largely involved removing or otherwise disposing of the mountain of equipment, gadgetry, aircraft and other war materials that accumulated in Afghanistan over the years not the departure of troops.
Officials say the troops who are needed to secure and execute the withdrawal will be among the last to leave. So far, the US military has none of the Taliban interference that American officials had feared at the start. But there are widespread concerns about whether financial and diplomatic support alone will prevent the Kabul government’s collapse after the international military support is gone.
The Pentagon says it will do all it can to ensure that Afghanistan does not collapse as soon as its international military support is gone. But given the Taliban’s interest in returning to power, and the lack of progress toward a political settlement between the Taliban and the U.S-supported Kabul government, skeptics say the outlook appears dim.