The US Is Now Halfway Out of Afghanistan, CENTCOM Commander Says

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U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command.
U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Donn H. Hill, right, speaks with U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., center, the commander of U.S. Central Command, during McKenzie’s visit in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, Sept. 9, 2019. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Roderick Jacquote)

The United States and its NATO partners are about halfway through the process of withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the head of U.S. Central Command told reporters Monday.

Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said that the coalition is on track to meet President Joe Biden's Sept. 11 deadline to complete the withdrawal.

However, he declined to offer details on how the withdrawal is going, aside from saying it is "continuing very smoothly."

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The U.S. will keep its embassy in Kabul, McKenzie said, and will continue to support Afghan security forces.

He also said the U.S. is "working with friends in the region" to establish and maintain an "over the horizon" capability to conduct counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida and the Islamic State from other bases in the area.

When asked about what options the U.S. has to help Afghan interpreters and other allies who have assisted the coalition over the last two decades, McKenzie said, "We will have the capability to exercise whatever orders we're given.

"Clearly, it's easier at some times than others," he added. "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."

CENTCOM has been releasing updates on the withdrawal process each Tuesday. Last week, the command said that, as of May 31, the Defense Department had flown about 300 C-17 Globemaster loads of materiel out of Afghanistan, turned over almost 13,000 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency to be destroyed or otherwise disposed of, and handed over six facilities to the Afghan Ministry of Defense.

McKenzie said he recently traveled to Iraq, where he met with Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi to discuss issues including the defeat of the Islamic State, or ISIS.

He also traveled to Syria, where he met with U.S. service members who are helping the Syrian Defense Forces, or SDF, continue to fight ISIS. The U.S.'s long-term goal now, McKenzie said, is to ensure that local Syrian forces can carry on the fight against ISIS without significant American or other international support.

"We've crushed the caliphate," McKenzie said. "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."

He said finishing off ISIS is important because the group still desires to attack the U.S. mainland, as well as allies. The SDF has continued to fight ISIS and apply "direct pressure" on the group, which has made it hard for it to plan attacks, he said. The U.S. is not fighting ISIS directly at this point, he added, but is instead supporting SDF troops who are doing the fighting.

"If you're scrambling up and down the Euphrates River Valley listening to aircraft overhead and worrying if you're going to survive the night, it's hard to plan an attack on someone else's homeland," McKenzie said.

He listed other top CENTCOM priorities as deterring Iran, China and Russia. He called Iran "the biggest threat to stability in the Middle East," and said the U.S.'s presence in the Middle East -- including ships, airpower and ballistic missile defense capabilities -- has discouraged Iran from taking action in the region and made it harder for the country to deny when it has done so.

Iranian-affiliated militant groups continue to operate in Iraq, McKenzie said, and seek to push out the U.S. troops who are there as part of the anti-ISIS effort. Their latest tactic, he said, has been to use small drones to attack Iraqi bases.

"Some of [the drones] are very small. Some are a little bit larger. All can be very lethal," McKenzie said. "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."

China and Russia are also looking to have greater influence in the Middle East and have sought to strengthen their ties to nations there -- but in an opportunistic manner, to exploit "any perceived decline in U.S. engagement," McKenzie said.

He said China has used "exploitative debt traps," its Belt and Road Initiative, and its COVID-19 vaccine, which he alleged "has dubious efficacy," to increase its influence. China's Belt and Road Initiative is a series of land, sea and energy infrastructure improvements Beijing hopes will increase its economic reach.

McKenzie described Russia as "equally disruptive" in the Middle East, as it tries to present itself as an "alternative to the West" while advancing its interests by offering to mediate regional conflicts, sell arms, or other actions.

However, he said it is too soon to say which nation is believed to be behind the vessel that the Navy intercepted last month in the Arabian Sea carrying a significant arms cache.

"We are still finalizing attribution for this because we want to be very careful before we go public with who we believe is associated with it," McKenzie said. "But at some point, we will certainly come out with that, and we will do that in concert with our regional partners. The time is just not ready to do that."

He added that "there's a lot of evidence of what these shipments are and where they're going, but I'll leave it at that."

The weapons aboard the ship, which the Navy described as a "stateless dhow," included Chinese-made Kalashnikov-style assault rifles, sniper rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

The arms aboard that ship were similar to other shipments seized in recent years, which were later deemed to be headed to Yemen, where Iranian-backed Houthi rebels have been vying for control of the country.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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