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US has yet to design plan to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan, CENTCOM general says

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Also testifying are Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, and Kathryn Wheelbarger, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs.

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By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 10, 2020

WASHINGTON – The Pentagon has not developed military plans for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, despite the U.S. commitment to remove all forces from the country in 14 months should the Taliban uphold its end of a peace deal signed last month, a top U.S. general said Tuesday

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, told the House Armed Services Committee that the United States would draw down to 8,600 troops by midsummer and any further withdrawal would be contingent on the Taliban’s actions in the coming months. The peace agreement signed Feb. 29 in Doha calls for the Taliban to halt attacks on U.S. and other foreign forces, reduce violence across the country, cut ties with al-Qaida and negotiate directly with the Afghan government.

“The Taliban need to keep their part of the bargain,” McKenzie said. “… Conditions on the ground will dictate if we go below that [8,600 troops]. If conditions on the ground are not permissive, my advice would be not to continue that reduction."

The ongoing Taliban violence in Afghanistan has been largely low-scale attacks on Afghan forces at isolated checkpoints and not high-profile strikes in city or district centers, McKenzie told the lawmakers. However, he said that violence remained at a higher level than allowed by the peace plan.

Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, said later Tuesday that the United States was making progress with the Taliban in urging it to reduce violence.

CENTCOM announced Monday that the United States had already begun withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, and McKenzie said 8,600 troops were sufficient to continue fighting Islamic State forces in the country and the remnants of al-Qaida, whether the Taliban sticks with its commitments or not.

He said the United States has measures in place to verify what the Taliban does in Afghanistan after the peace plan, and he would not rely on the group’s mere word.

“I have no confidence” in the Taliban’s promises, McKenzie said. “I am going to be driven by the observed facts. Either they will draw down the current level of attacks or they won’t. And if they are unable to draw down the current level of attacks, then political leadership will make decisions about that.”

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Several House lawmakers expressed skepticism Tuesday about the deal. Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., worried a full withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave the United States in a position where it would be difficult to return if the Taliban allowed terrorist groups sanctuary.

“We do not want to have to go back in,” Mitchell said. “That would be catastrophic.”

Others questioned the secretive portions of the agreement, which spell out precisely what conditions the Taliban must meet to end U.S. involvement in the 18-year war launched in the weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

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Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., who fought in Afghanistan as an Army Special Forces officer, said he had a lot of questions about those conditions.

Another Afghanistan war veteran, Rep. Jason Crow, D-Colo., urged officials to make those conditions public.

“I believe, as do many people on this committee, that the American people deserve to know under what terms we are withdrawing from Afghanistan,” said Crow, a former Army officer who served in the 75th Ranger Regiment.

Later Tuesday, the Pentagon defended the need to keep some aspects of the agreement secret. Hoffman told reporters that Congress has been provided the full agreement, but for security reasons, they did not want that information made public.

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Kathryn Wheelbarger, a top Pentagon policy official, told lawmakers that the deal is merely a first step toward a political agreement that would end the war. They expressed optimism that the Taliban and Afghan government would soon begin their own negotiations.

Those talks have been stalled amid post-election upheaval in Afghanistan where on Monday incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his primary rival for power, Abdullah Abdullah, held ceremonies to be sworn in as president. Ghani, also on Monday, said he was building a team to negotiate with the Taliban.

“We are prepared for all eventualities,” Wheelbarger testified. She indicated if the Taliban does not live up to its agreement, the Pentagon could ultimately return the forces to Afghanistan that it will soon remove from there.

“Fourteen months to go to zero [troops] is an aspirational benchmark based on the conditions being achieved,” she said. Defense Secretary Mark Esper “is well prepared to look at the terrain in a few months to see what the Afghan government and the Taliban have come to. He’s prepared … to readjust our force posture up or down based on what the conditions required to achieve our objectives.”

Dickstein.corey@stripes.com
Twitter: @CDicksteinDC
 

Rep. Michael Waltz, R-Fla., attends a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Waltz, a former Army Special Forces officer, said he had questions about conditions the Taliban must meet to end U.S. involvement in Afghanistan
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

Rep. Paul Mitchell, R-Mich., right, prepares for the start of a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, left, and Gen. Stephen Townsend, commander of U.S. Africa Command, prepare to testify. Mitchell cautioned that a hasty withdrawal would allow terrorist groups sanctuary.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

Kathryn Wheelbarger, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, testifies during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday, March 10, 2020.
CARLOS BONGIOANNI/STARS AND STRIPES

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