Top US General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the head of Central Command which directs forces in Afghanistan, has said he is concerned over the “ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they’re on now” after US troops withdraw from the country.
McKenzie testified before the US Senate Committee on Thursday, just over a week over President Joe Biden announced that remaining US troops would withdraw from Afghanistan by September 11, officially ending Washington’s longest war. The Biden administration said the withdrawal would not be “conditions based”, meaning it would go forward despite what happens in the conflict.
NATO has also said it would withdraw its approximately 7,000 remaining troops from Afghanistan, who, along with forces from Australia, New Zealand and Georgia, provide support and training to Afghan’s military.
While the Afghan President Hamid Karzai has said the government is “ready” for the troop withdrawal, McKenzie offered a less optimistic view of Afghan military’s ability to combat the Taliban, which, despite being ousted form power in 2001, continues to control large swaths of the country.
“My concern is the ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground that they’re on now, without the support that they’ve been used to for many years,” McKenzie told legislators.
While foreign forces have sought to “wean” Afghan forces off of boots on the ground support, “it’s the intelligence, it’s the fire support, it’s the enabling things that will actually give them an edge over the Taliban,” he said.
“All that will be gone,” McKenzie said, adding he was particularly concerned about “the ability of the Afghan Air Force to fly…After we remove the support for those aircraft”.
The statements on Thursday came a day after Turkey indefinitely postponed a planned US-backed international peace conference in Ankara between the Afghan government and the Taliban. Sources told Reuters news agency the delay was due to the Taliban’s non-participation.
The group had previously condemned the Biden administration for not withdrawing troops by the May 1 deadline agreed to in a deal with the administration of former President Donald Trump.
The withdrawal of foreign forces has stoked fears the county will backslide on human rights, particularly women’s rights. The Taliban, who enforce an austere brand of Sunni Islam, banned women from schools, offices, music and most of daily life during their 1996 to 2001 rule over much of Afghanistan.
Testifying before the US House Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, McKenzie said he had “grave doubts about the Taliban’s reliability” as a negotiating party.
Speaking to senators on Thursday, McKenzie added that “rough stasis exists” between Taliban and Afghan government forces, but added the Taliban “have access to offshore havens where they’re able to reconstitute, (where) the government of Afghanistan can’t reach”.
He also acknowledged the threat of a Taliban attack on US or NATO forces in the months before the withdrawal, which some observers have suggested the plans for a non-conditions based withdrawal makes troops more vulnerable to.
“We are planning collaboratively with our interagency and international partners, and 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 decide to interfere in any way with our orderly redeployment,” he said.