Congress Foreign Relations & International Law Terrorism & Extremism

A Preview of Post-Withdrawal Problems in Afghanistan

Bryce Klehm
Thursday, April 22, 2021, 11:01 AM

Tuesday’s House Armed Services Committee hearing previewed some problems that might emerge as a result of withdrawing from Afghanistan.

Army paratroopers secure a landing zone for a helicopter in Kandahar, Afghanistan on July 20, 2019. (U.S. Department of Defense Photo by Army Maj. Thomas Cieslak)

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On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to address “national security challenges and U.S. force posture” in the Middle East and Africa. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, appeared alongside Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Amanda Dory, the acting under secretary of defense for defense policy. The hearing touched on a variety of issues, from China and Russia’s influence in Africa to the U.S.’s potential return to the Iran nuclear deal. But it was also the first time that Gen. McKenzie, the head of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, has publicly appeared before Congress since President Biden announced the withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. (Gen. Austin Miller, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, did not appear before the committee.) The hearing delivered a preview of the issues that U.S. lawmakers and military personnel anticipate as the U.S. leaves the country.

Gen. McKenzie and Dory provided early, if incomplete, answers to key questions about the Afghanistan withdrawal: How will the U.S. military ensure that there will not be another terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan? Could other extremist groups gain a foothold in Afghanistan? How will the military ensure that the same mistakes of the Iraq withdrawal are not repeated? What will the drawdown mean for the Afghan Security Forces that currently depend on U.S. contractors?

As is the norm, the witnesses punted on some questions and indicated they’d offer responses during the closed-door briefings that often follow national security related public hearings. And the witnesses indicated that many issues are still being figured out by the administration. But it is worth examining Gen. McKenzie and Dory’s answers to questions about Afghanistan as a preview of the issues that will be discussed in the coming months as the U.S. withdraws from the country.

The question lawmakers most frequently posed to the witnesses was how the United States will continue to maintain counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. That question was posed in a number ways, but Ranking Member Mike Rogers’s opening statement laid out the assumption underlying the lawmakers’ fears:

I am very concerned that the Taliban will overrun the democratically elected government soon after we withdraw, when that happens, what assurance do we have that Afghanistan will not become another breeding ground for terrorists? I have yet to hear how the president intends to conduct counterterrorism operations without any U.S. troops in the region.

Gen. McKenzie, in his opening statement, tried to address these concerns in a broad manner, noting “we are further planning now for continued counterterrorism operations from within the region.” He added that these groups will be under “persistent surveillance and pressure.” As lawmakers tried to tease out specific scenarios, Rep. Wilson asked the witnesses how the U.S. would reenter Afghanistan without access to any airfields.

Dory, while not specifically addressing the question, responded that the Pentagon is considering “how to continue to apply pressure with respect to potential [counterterrorism] threats emanating from Afghanistan. So, [we are] looking throughout the region in terms of over-the-horizon opportunities”—a likely reference to launching an operation directed at Afghanistan from another country or at sea.

Rep. Joe Courtney followed up on Dory’s over-the-horizon comment, bluntly asking Gen. McKenzie: “can you describe just a little bit more detail what that looks like… is it going to be at sea? Is it going to be in neighboring countries, where we, again, have the ability to deploy assets to again respond to a terrorist threat?” Gen. McKenzie gave an answer and ended up making some news, telling Courtney, “I am actually conducting detailed planning by the direction of the secretary to look at those options right now, and I will report back to him by the end of the month with some alternatives.” He also acknowledged that it will be “harder” to conduct those counterterrorism operations, but “not impossible” thanks to tools like long-range precision fighters or manned raids. Gen. McKenzie added that U.S. diplomats will be talking to countries in the region where the U.S. could potentially base resources that it could use to conduct operations in Afghanistan. These basing agreements allow the U.S. to legally station their soldiers in another country, and, depending on the terms of the agreement, conduct either surveillance or kinetic operations. When pressed by Rep. Michael Waltz if there are any plans for bases in neighboring countries, Gen. McKenzie said, “At this time, we have none of those agreements in place.”

Rep. Scott Franklin was similarly worried that the U.S. will no longer have a base in Afghanistan. McKenzie had said in his testimony that the U.S. would seek more opportunities for “expeditionary basing” in the region. When Rep. Franklin asked him to elaborate on that, Gen. McKenzie offered one reason why the U.S. might not even seek permanent bases in countries surrounding Afghanistan: proximity to Iran. McKenzie identified the risk that a U.S. base in a country surrounding Afghanistan would be in range of Iranian weapons. Gen. McKenzie acknowledged that there are already many bases close to Iran like Al-Udeid and Al-Dhafra that “have the virtue of being close to the area you might want to fight, they also have the problem of being very close to the Iranians.” McKenzie explained, “We would seek to examine alternatives further to the West and the Arabian peninsula, they would make it more difficult for the Iranians to target our bases there … many of their weapons would not actually have the range to reach out there and get to those bases.” These potential bases farther from Iran would then be able to launch forces “in an expeditionary manner, in a time of crisis, just to make it harder for an opponent to threaten the force.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin also asked the witnesses about continuing counterterrorism operations in the country. Her line of questioning was informed by her experience as a CIA analyst in Iraq, specifically, “how difficult it was to get Washington to pay attention to what was then a growing threat of ISIS, we couldn’t get the intelligence support, we couldn’t get the overhead imagery support.” Referencing the future of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, she asked McKenzie to explain “help me understand how this will be different.” Gen. McKenzie pledged that he will “be a relentless advocate to keep the focus on Afghanistan.” He also acknowledged that the “known aspiration of these groups to launch attacks against the United States that hasn’t gone away,” and that he shares her concern. Slotkin then asked a question that was on a lot of member’s minds: “Do you feel confident that the American people will stay safe and not be attacked again emanating out of Afghanistan?” Gen. McKenzie replied, “The key thing that’s different in 2021 from 2001 is not only what’s going on in the theater but our ability to harden the country here, the steps we’ve taken here to protect ourselves.”

Some members worried about the potential for attacks against U.S. forces as they withdraw in the coming months. In his opening statement, McKenzie noted that during the withdrawal, the U.S. will place “significant combat power to guard against the possibility that the Taliban decide to interfere in any way with our orderly redeployment.” Rep. Jackie Speier expressed her concern that the Doha deal’s previous May 1 deadline for total U.S. troop withdrawal is quickly approaching. When she asked Gen. McKenzie if the U.S. has any assurances that the Taliban will not attack U.S. forces, Gen. McKenzie said, “I can tell you that we are prepared for those attacks should they occur and we will be able to defend ourselves.”

Throughout the hearing, few lawmakers acknowledged that the Taliban, as part of the Doha deal, also has certain counterterrorism commitments to meet. One clause of the agreement notes that the Taliban must take steps "to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qa’ida, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies." Rep. Rogers inquired about the possibility of a resurgent Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan. McKenzie responded, “the Taliban has undertaken to agree to not allow that to happen, with the Taliban I have learned not to listen to what they say, but rather to watch what they do.” Rep. Lamborn later asked if the Taliban are “a reliable partner.” McKenzie asserted that he has “grave doubts about the Taliban’s reliability,” but offered that they have some incentive to keep to their agreements, “if they want any form of international recognition for Afghanistan, if they want any form of international support, they’re going to have to keep to the agreements that they’ve made.”

The witnesses also indicated that the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan will probably take on an outsized role regarding U.S. oversight of aid funds. On what the United States’s footprint would look like in the country, Dory said that “from here in to September that we will not have combat forces … [in Afghanistan] and we will transition to a diplomatically oriented footprint with the U.S. embassy.”

In last week’s withdrawal announcement, Biden said that although the U.S. military was leaving, “we will keep providing assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.” The primary mechanism that the United States uses to fund and assist those forces is the Afghanistan Security Forces Fund (ASFF). The Office of the Secretary of Defense describes that fund as “the center of gravity of the Department of Defense’s mission in Afghanistan” which funds the roughly 350,000 personnel Afghan National Army and police forces. Gen. McKenzie, when asked how the U.S. will oversee the deployment of funds from the ASFF, acknowledged that it will be difficult to oversee those funds from a remote location, but “a lot will depend on the size of the U.S. embassy that remains and we have not yet finally determined that and that’s something that we’re talking about planning right now.” In a separate line of questioning, McKenzie also revealed that the U.S. is currently working on a security agreement for the U.S. diplomatic personnel with the Afghan government.

Another realm of U.S. support that the Afghan government stands to lose are the U.S. contractors that maintain logistic support to the Afghan Security Forces. These contractors, as Rep. Waltz noted, are conducting a range of tasks that provide “critical support to the Afghan Security Forces,” including aircraft maintenance for the Afghan Air Force (AAF). According to the Pentagon’s lead inspector general, contractors performed 73 percent of the ground vehicle maintenance tasks for the Afghan National Army in December 2020, and 84 percent for the Afghan National Police in the same month. For the AAF, the dependence on contractors is even more critical. The Pentagon’s inspector general report notes that without contracting services, “consequences to the AAF will be the loss of aircraft maintenance, as the entire fleet is completely dependent on contractor logistics and supply chain support.”

Rep. Waltz asked McKenzie, “What’s the plan for the continuing presence of those critical contract support services?” McKenzie replied that they were examining some remote options for contracting but, “clearly there are going to be some things that we are not going to be able to do anymore as the contractors leave and I don’t want to minimize that.” Later on, Rep. Speier asked if any U.S. contractors will stay, McKenzie said plainly, “everyone will leave, all U.S. defense contractors will leave as part of the withdrawal.”

Tuesday’s hearing showed that the administration is still trying to figure out a lot about the U.S.’s future role in Afghanistan. During the hearing, Gen. McKenzie revealed that he will provide Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with options for potential future counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan at the end of April. In conjunction with its counterterrorism role, the U.S. is also assessing basing agreements in surrounding countries, negotiating a diplomatic security arrangement with the Afghan government, figuring out the size and role of the U.S. embassy in Afghanistan and adjusting the military’s broader posture in the Middle East. All of these issues will be worth watching in the coming months.

Bryce Klehm is a first year law student at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is a former associate editor at Lawfare.

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