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US Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan Is Halfway Complete, CENTCOM Commander Says
Kenneth McKenzie, at the time a lieutenant general, briefs the press at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, Nov. 16, 2017. (US Defense Department/Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

US Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan Is Halfway Complete, CENTCOM Commander Says

America’s longest-running war is set to end on September 11, when the US military presence is scheduled to be completely gone

The United States and its NATO allies are on track to withdraw all of its troops from Afghanistan by September 11, bringing an end to America’s longest-running war.

Marine Corps. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, the head of the United States Central Command (CENTCOM), which has Department of Defense purview over the Middle East, said on Monday that the withdrawal, which began on May 1, is “continuing very smoothly” and half complete, though he declined to give further details during a briefing with Middle East reporters. Before the drawdown got underway, the US had around 2,500 troops in the country.

CENTCOM has been releasing weekly updates on the withdrawal process. As of May 31, the Defense Department had flown about 300 C-17 Globemaster military transport planeloads of material out of Afghanistan, transferred over 13,000 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency to be destroyed or disposed of, and handed over six facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense. CENTCOM has not released updated troop numbers, citing operational security.

McKenzie said the US will keep its embassy in Kabul and will continue to support Afghan security forces, though it is questionable whether an embassy could remain there, given the Taliban’s potential role in the Afghan government.

The Taliban last met with the Afghan government for peace negotiations in September, but the talks have since petered out, and the Taliban said discussions will only resume once all foreign forces pull out. The United Nations Security Council released a report last week warning that the Taliban is making preparations to take over the country following the US and NATO withdrawal.

McKenzie on Monday expressed doubts that the Taliban was willing to engage in a political process with the Afghan government.

“Let me just note that the protection of any diplomatic mission in any country is first and foremost the responsibility of the host nation. So, we won’t be there unless we’re invited to be there,” said McKenzie.

“We recognize the government of Afghanistan as the existing government of Afghanistan, and I would leave further discussion on the definition between what the Taliban seeks or doesn’t seek and their relationship to the government of Afghanistan probably better with the Department of State than myself. But I would just close by noting, again, we do plan to have an embassy in Afghanistan, it will be at the invitation of the government of Afghanistan, and it will be first – and most important – their responsibility to protect that embassy, although we will always take whatever measures are necessary to protect our diplomats in any embassy anywhere in the world,” he said.

McKenzie also pledged to assist Afghan interpreters and other auxiliary workers who have cooperated with the coalition in the two decades since the US invaded Afghanistan.

“We will have the capability to exercise whatever orders we’re given. Clearly, it’s easier at some times than others. But the United States military has remarkable capabilities for this type of thing. We can do whatever is going to be necessary, whenever it would be necessary,” said McKenzie.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, under growing pressure from lawmakers, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Monday that he would help to expedite visas for Afghans who worked with US troops, and requested Congress lift its mandated caps on such visas.

The Afghan withdrawal remains one of our main efforts, but of course it’s not our only focus

McKenzie stressed to reporters that there will still be American efforts to maintain counterterrorism operations in the region to continue the fight against ISIS and al-Qaida.

“The Afghan withdrawal remains one of our main efforts, but of course it’s not our only focus. I recently traveled to Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, I had a great meeting with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi. We discussed the enduring defeat of ISIS, implementing security sector reforms, and other dynamics that affect regional stability. Our support to the Iraqi security forces continues to evolve as they expand their ability to plan and conduct operations independently,” said McKenzie.

McKenzie said he also traveled to Syria, where he met with US service members who are helping the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in their continued fight against ISIS, with the eventual goal of having the SDF continue the battle without significant American support.

“We’ve crushed the caliphate. They no longer hold ground, but we don’t want to take the pressure off now. ISIS still has an aspiration to hold territory and spread violent ideology. We want to prevent that from happening,” McKenzie said.

Some of the biggest threats to stability in the region come from the periphery, according to McKenzie. He listed other CENTCOM priorities as deterring China and Russia, along with Iran.

Iran and its proxies continue operating in Iraq, using small drones to attack Iraqi bases that host foreign soldiers, McKenzie said, with the goal of forcing American troops out of the country.

“They are resorting to this technique because they have been unable to force the government of Iraq to require that we leave. So, political pressure has not worked for them. Now, they’re turning to a kinetic approach. And that is very concerning to me,” he said.

McKenzie said he is not ready to assign responsibility to Iran or anyone else for a weapons shipment the US Navy seized in the Arabian Sea last month, citing an ongoing investigation, but said there was a mountain of evidence about the shipment and where it was heading. The weapons aboard the ship included Chinese-made Kalashnikov-style assault rifles, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. The shipment was similar to others seized in recent years, which were determined to be bound for Yemen, where Iran-backed Houthi rebels have been vying for control of the country.

In that vein, McKenzie said the Pentagon continues its work with Saudi Arabia to improve its integrated air and missile defense systems. Saudi Arabia has come under a steady stream of fire from the Houthis in a long-running conflict, worsening a brutal situation in Yemen, which is facing what most experts say is the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

“That’s a very high priority for us as it is for Saudi Arabia because they are subjected to, really, an unceasing bombardment from the Houthis in Yemen through ballistic missiles, small drones and land-attack cruise missiles,” McKenzie said.

“These attacks are not helpful. They are certainly not helpful in trying to find an end to the conflict in Yemen, and so we work very hard with the Saudis to enable them to defend themselves,” said McKenzie.

Meanwhile, China and Russia are vying for a larger measure of influence in the region, where they are ready to fill the vacuum left by any American disengagement.

“China engaged with nearly every country in the region in 2020, using exploitative debt traps, the Belt and Road Initiative, and medical diplomacy with their vaccine, which has dubious efficacy, to try to expand its influence,” said McKenzie.

“Russia is equally disruptive in the region, and their engagements are largely opportunistic and transactional. Russia seeks ways to position itself as an alternative to the West by offering to mediate regional conflicts, selling arms, offering military expertise, and participating in regional and multilateral organizations to advance their interests,” he added.

McKenzie has noted on prior occasions that, while American troop levels in the region are not what they once were, he believes the remaining US footprint and the leverage it brings will continue to provide allies with a reliable partner, preventing a movement toward other powers like China and Russia.

 

 

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