Hearings lay bare risks of Afghanistan withdrawal

Worrisome picture of future painted by top commander

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, testifies at a Senate Armed Services hearing Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, testifies at a Senate Armed Services hearing Thursday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 22, 2021 at 3:00pm

Whatever the merits of President Joe Biden’s decision to extract all U.S. troops from Afghanistan this year, Armed Services Committee hearings this week showed how the dangers of doing so are front of mind for lawmakers in both parties.

The near-term worry is for the safety of roughly 3,000 U.S. troops as they begin to depart Afghanistan, perhaps under fire from militants, between now and Sept. 11, the deadline Biden has set.

Over the longer term, meaning the next couple of years, lawmakers on the defense panels wonder if Afghanistan’s central government will fall to the Taliban, if terrorist cells will then revive there, and if American forces will be too far away at that point to do much about it.

That worrisome picture of Afghanistan’s future was painted Thursday at a Senate Armed Services hearing by not just lawmakers but also Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East and Southwest Asia. McKenzie also testified about Afghanistan on Tuesday before the House Armed Services Committee.

‘Atrocities’ ahead?

Most Democrats on the Senate panel manifested concerns about the looming pullout, even if they wore the guise of questions such as one to McKenzie from Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed, the committee’s chairman: “Do you agree with these assessments — one, that al-Qaida and ISIS are probably among the greatest threats and, two, if unchecked, they will revitalize themselves?”

Likewise, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal asked McKenzie how long it would take drones to respond in Afghanistan if they flew from far-flung locations hundreds of miles away, such as al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — one of the few Democrats to explicitly oppose Biden’s decision — asked if the U.S. withdrawal would “create a vacuum” in Afghanistan that nations such as Iran would try to fill with more activity by proxy militias.

Republicans, for their part, were more barbed in their opposition to Biden’s decision, and some predicted gruesome events.

“I just simply think that it’s important for the American people to understand that the repercussions of this are not going to be pretty and that we will see reports of atrocities in those areas committed by the Taliban,” South Dakota Sen. Mike Rounds said.

Similarly, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan worried that many Afghans who have helped Americans over the last two decades will be “lined up and shot and killed” if they are not extracted from the country as soon as possible.

Pullout peril

McKenzie has made clear he is prepared for U.S. troops to have to fight their way out of Afghanistan in the weeks and months ahead. He and his fellow generals are taking actions to reinforce those troops, including possibly adding military personnel, despite the drawdown, to help protect the forces, McKenzie said.

“We will take all measures to ensure the safe and orderly withdrawal of all of our forces and those of our partners,” he said. “This includes positioning significant combat power to guard against the possibility that the Taliban does seem to interfere in any way with our orderly redeployment.”

Later, he added: “Yes, we will bring additional resources in, in order to protect the force as it comes out.”

McKenzie did not address a New York Times report that he has asked Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III to approve positioning an aircraft carrier to respond with warplanes if needed.

Addressing the longer-term picture, McKenzie seemed to suggest Thursday that he agrees with the assessment of many independent experts and more than a few politicians that the Afghan security forces, without the support of American intelligence, logistics and training, will not be capable of staving off Taliban attacks — and the government may fall.

“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,” McKenzie said.

There are twice as many U.S. contractors as U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and one revelation of this week’s hearings is that almost all the American contractors too will leave the country. That could make it harder for the Afghans to operate and maintain not just military equipment but also civilian infrastructure and gear.

Biden administration officials and their allies in Congress have said that U.S. and allied financial support for Afghanistan’s government and its civilian sector will keep flowing. But Reed, among others, wonders how that spending will be overseen without Americans on the ground.

“I'd like to understand plans to continue training and assistance to the Afghan forces in light of the transition, and how we balance that against the need to conduct robust oversight of funding that we provide the Afghan government and forces,” Reed said.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren said at Thursday’s hearing that, compared to a decade ago, the Taliban’s ranks have tripled. What’s more, she said, the group controls more territory now than then. The Taliban, she said, continues to benefit from havens in Pakistan, and the Kabul government is beset by significant corruption.

Warren’s point was that things have gotten worse, even with the American military presence and significant U.S. financial aid.  

But the prevailing fear on the committee, even among some Democrats, is that, even though Warren's facts are right, things could get worse still when the Americans leave.

Future ‘architecture’ unready

U.S. intelligence about threats in Afghanistan will decrease after the withdrawal, and the U.S. military’s ability to respond to them will also be reduced, McKenzie testified.

“We will lose the ability we have now to see completely into Afghanistan,” he said.

Even so, he predicted U.S. forces in nearby countries will be ready to respond to gather intelligence and conduct operations as necessary.

“We will have an architecture in the theater that will allow us to look into Afghanistan,” he said. 

However, McKenzie told the House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that no agreements have been reached with Afghanistan’s neighboring countries for deployment of U.S. forces. Some of these countries have tense relations at best with the United States.

Moreover, the flight times for drones from other locations in the Mideast such as Qatar are many hours. So not only will it take longer for U.S. assets to respond but the amount of an aircraft’s fixed flight time that it can spend executing a mission (as opposed to getting there and back) will be reduced, McKenzie said Thursday.

“The risks will all be greater," McKenzie said, "but it will be possible to do those things.”