WASHINGTON — Afghan security forces will collapse without American financial support and it will be more difficult to target al Qaeda militants once U.S.-led forces withdraw from Afghanistan in September, a top U.S. general said Thursday.
Speaking at a Senate hearing and later at a Pentagon news conference, the head of U.S. Central Command, Marine Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie, offered a blunt assessment of the risks associated with President Joe Biden's decision to pull out U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
"My concern is the ability for the Afghan military to hold the ground that they are on now, without the support that they've been used to for many years," McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"So I am concerned about the ability of the Afghan military to hold on after we leave, the ability of the Afghan Air Force to fly in particular after we remove the support for those aircraft," McKenzie said.
U.S. financial and other assistance for Afghan security forces will be vital after NATO troops depart, he said.
"If we don't provide them some support they certainly will collapse and that is not in our best interest," the general said.
The U.S., along with NATO allies, has kept the Afghan security forces afloat with billions of dollars in annual funding over the past two decades. For fiscal year 2021, Congress appropriated over $3 billion for the Afghan military. The Taliban have steadily gained ground against Afghan security forces in recent years as the U.S. military footprint has declined. More than 2,500 U.S. troops remain in the country, along with roughly 7,000 troops from other NATO nations.
The Pentagon is now looking at how it could provide help from a distance for the Afghan military's maintenance challenges, McKenzie said.
"We may be able to work some remote televised way to do that. We're going to try all sorts of innovative ways," he told reporters later at a Pentagon briefing. "The one thing I can tell you is, we're not going to be there on the ground with them."
Once U.S. forces exit, tracking and targeting al Qaeda militants in Afghanistan will be more difficult, he said.
"Those operations will be harder but not impossible," McKenzie told reporters.
The U.S. military has no bases near the landlocked country, and fighter jets or bombers would have to cover long distances from aircraft carriers or bases in the Persian Gulf to reach targets in Afghanistan.
At a House hearing on Tuesday, McKenzie said U.S. intelligence gathering would inevitably decline without American personnel on the ground and drones inside the country able to convey information about potential threats quickly.
As for President Biden's decision to pull out troops, McKenzie did not say whether he had supported such a move but said he had "ample" opportunity to provide his advice to the president.
"It was a very thoughtful, very thoughtful, very in-depth process that went on over an extended period of time," McKenzie said. "The president went out of the way to ensure all views were on the table."
The general said he rejected the idea that America's longest war had been in vain, arguing that the U.S. had achieved its goal of weakening al Qaeda and protecting the country from terrorist attacks.
"I think that we've accomplished the mission that we set out to do which was to prevent an attack against the United States, that mission has been accomplished," McKenzie said. Both McKenzie and his son were deployed to Afghanistan.
Reflecting on Americans who had died in the war, McKenzie said, "What few words I can offer in an attempt to help those who have to deal with an empty seat at the table, the voice that will not be heard again, the missing laugh at the center of a gathering is this: We fought to protect our country and to give others the chance to choose their own destiny. There is no better, higher thing to fight for, that's why I went to war, that's why my son went to war."