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CENTCOM general warns fighting terrorism will become difficult once US troops leave Afghanistan

Gen. Frank McKenzie testifies at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on April 20, 2021.

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By SARAH CAMMARATA | STARS AND STRIPES Published: April 20, 2021

WASHINGTON — The top general for U.S. Central Command told House lawmakers on Tuesday that it will be difficult to battle terrorism in Afghanistan without U.S. troops in the country.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told House Armed Services Committee members that he is working with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to come up with a plan should a renewed terrorism threat from the Taliban emerge once U.S. troops leave Afghanistan.

“Some of the forces are going to remain in Central Command because we are going to look at offshore, over the horizon options,” he said during a hearing on national security challenges and military activity in the Middle East and Africa.

Throughout the hearing, McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for operations in the Middle East and Central Asia, said while it’s going to be difficult to conduct counterterrorism operations, it will not be impossible.

The general pointed out a MQ-9 armed drone can be over a target in a “matter of minutes” even if it’s based far from Afghanistan. However, McKenzie’s plans so far were scant on details.

His comments Tuesday come as Democratic and Republican lawmakers have voiced concern about President Joe Biden’s decision last week to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.

Lawmakers repeatedly urged McKenzie during the hearing to share details on the military’s reorganization of counterterrorism capabilities and assets in the region to prevent terrorism attacks. Yet, many answers were put off by McKenzie to be discussed in a closed House session scheduled for later in the afternoon.

But Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., pressed McKenzie for details on what “over the horizon” capabilities will look like to ensure that counterterrorism efforts can continue without U.S. troops in Afghanistan to counter a terrorist threat.

“I’m actually conducting detailed planning by direction of [Austin] to look at those options right now. We’ll report back to him by the end of the month with some alternatives. But I can broadly state that if you leave Afghanistan, you want to go back in and conduct these kinds of operations, there are three things you need to do,” McKenzie said.

He said U.S. forces must do three things to conduct counterterrorism operations: “You need to find the target. You need to fix the target, and you need to be able to finish the target … the first two require heavy intelligence support.”

McKenzie said he will look at all the countries in the region to base U.S. overhead intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platforms, or ISR, which can include large manned aircraft to small unmanned aerial vehicles, such as drones.

He also said U.S. diplomats will reach out to representatives in those countries to determine what is possible.

But some of those forces could be “very far away” from Afghanistan, McKenzie said, making it expensive because troops and equipment would have to cycle in and out.

The general said to strike targets and minimize collateral damage, the U.S. must have precise intelligence and use long-range precision weapons, manned raids or manned aircraft.

However, McKenzie said: “I don’t want to make light of it. I don’t want to put on rose-colored glasses and say it’s going to be easy to do.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., along with others, pressed the general to dispel fears that she hears from her constituents “that by pulling out, we won’t be going right back in, because we have a threat that impacts us here in the homeland.”

“We will use a variety of means to monitor al-Qaida and [the Islamic State] in Afghanistan. The intelligence will decline … but we will be able to continue to look into Afghanistan. And I think the president’s been very clear. We’re not going to re-enter to reoccupy Afghanistan under any conceivable circumstances,” McKenzie said.

The administration of former president Donald Trump struck a peace agreement with the Taliban that had set a deadline for U.S. troops to withdraw by May 1.

But Biden said the remaining 2,500 or so U.S. troops will leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11 -- the date that marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

McKenzie dodged a question from Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., whether he advised Biden to withdraw troops by Sept. 11.

“I can tell you that I had multiple opportunities to have a detailed conversation with the president and give my advice. He heard my advice. I am not going to be able to share it with you here this morning,” the general replied.

McKenzie’s comment came as multiple news outlets reported that top military leaders pushed Biden to keep a small U.S. presence on the ground in Afghanistan to counter the Taliban and prevent the country from harboring terrorists.

At the hearing, McKenzie said he has “grave doubts about the Taliban’s reliability” and the U.S. will track the Taliban’s actions closely.

“If they want any form of international support, they’re going to have to keep the agreements that they’ve made. We will be able to observe that and see it very clearly and directly whether or not they’re able to do it,” he said.

Cammarata.Sarah@stripes.com
Twitter: @sarahjcamm