Kabul: In a big development, General Frank McKenzie, the commander of US Central Command, told VOA that the United States is not planning to support Afghan forces with air strikes after the US troop withdrawal is complete, and counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan will be limited to instances when attack plans have been discovered to strike the US homeland or the homelands of our allies.
The top US general’s comments appear to refute a report by the New York Times that said the Pentagon is considering seeking authorization to carry out airstrikes to support Afghan security forces if Kabul or another major city is in danger of falling to the Taliban. McKenzie’s candid description of US involvement in Afghanistan after its withdrawal coincides with a narrowing counter-terror offensive against Islamic State and al-Qaida as the Pentagon prioritizes competition with China and Russia.
The general said his force size in the Middle East was now “closer to 40,000,” a significant reduction from 18 months ago, when that number was between 60,000-80,000 troops.
McKenzie says the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a major event that has strained resources, not only across his command, but also across the US Transportation Command, which helps shuttle U.S. military people and equipment to various locations across the globe. Those resources will continue to be strained, he told VOA, as US aircraft will fly from bases thousands of kilometers away in order to gather intelligence and surveillance and “keep the pressure up” on terrorists in Afghanistan.
“It’s a long haul to get forces, aircraft into Afghanistan from over the horizon. 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,” McKenzie said.
According to McKenzie, the US will help the Afghan air force, one of the country’s biggest advantages against the Taliban, maintain its aircraft through a combination of virtual advising from afar and flying parts in and out of the country. The method will undoubtedly slow the maintenance process, which could leave Afghan forces with limited air support. “Risk will be greater, significantly greater,” McKenzie acknowledged.
There is also a complete plan to evacuate Afghans who helped the United States, should the need arise, although the size, scope and timing of the operation would come from the Department of State, he said.
Meanwhile, one post-withdrawal plan that does not appear to be finalized is how the Kabul airport will be secured. The airport serves both civilian and military aircraft. McKenzie said the US military was still “in consultation with Turkish partners about the issue.” Biden is expected to meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Brussels on Monday to discuss the airport security dilemma.
Reports have said Erdogan is looking for concessions in exchange for securing the airport, including an agreement from the US that allows Ankara to keep and operate its Russian S-400 air defense system. The US opposes Turkey’s acquisition and use of a Russian system alongside NATO weapons like the F-35 fight jet.
In fact, speaking ahead of the NATO summit in Brussels, when asked about NATO’s decision to end its mission in Afghanistan, Stoltenberg stated that they will continue to support Afghans and that financial aid to Afghan security forces will continue.
Stating that they are working on the training of Afghan security forces abroad, Stoltenberg added: “We are also working on how critical infrastructures, including the airport, will be sustainable. NATO plans to provide support.”
“Some NATO countries, such as the United States and Turkey, are also in direct dialogue on how to make an international airport in Kabul sustainable. This is important for the continuation of diplomatic presence and assistance for both NATO allies and the entire international community,” he also said.
Meanwhile, MD Helicopter Inc. Mesa, Arizona, was awarded a $29,448,286 modification (P00046) to contract W58RGZ-17-C-0038 to provide maintenance capabilities in support of the Afghan Air Force. Work will be performed in Mesa, Arizona; Kabul, Afghanistan; and Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, with an estimated completion date of November 30, 2021.
In other news, Deputy Foreign Minister of Turkmenistan Vepa Hajiyev held a virtual meeting with Japan’s Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Ambassador Katsuhiko Takahashi via videoconferencing. Ambassador Katsuhiko Takahashi highly valued energy and transport projects implemented in Afghanistan with the assistance of Turkmenistan and confirmed that Japan is going to provide financial support worth millions of dollars to Afghanistan during 2021-2024 for the development of the country and its humanitarian needs.
The diplomats exchanged views regarding further development of the situation in Afghanistan and agreed to continue active dialogue for the search of reasonable forms of cooperation for assisting the country.