General: Afghan military will collapse without some US help

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FILE - In this April1 14, 2018, file photo, then-Marine Lt. Gen. Kenneth "Frank" McKenzie speaks during a media availability at the Pentagon in Washington. In a blunt assessment Tuesday, Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told Congress it will be extremely difficult but not impossible for the U.S. to find, track and take out counterterrorism threats in Afghanistan once all American troops are withdrawn. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

WASHINGTON – Afghanistan’s military “will certainly collapse” without some continued American support once all U.S. troops are withdrawn, the top U.S. general for the Middle East told Congress Thursday. Gen. Frank McKenzie also said he was very concerned about the Afghan government’s ability to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.

McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, said that as the U.S. pulls out all forces, “my concern is the Afghans' ability to hold ground” and whether they will able to continue to maintain and fly their aircraft without U.S. aid and financial support. Later, at a Pentagon news conference, McKenzie said the U.S. will look for “some remote, televised way” to help the Afghan security forces perform maintenance on their aircraft without having U.S. personnel in the country.

“We're certainly going to try to do everything we can from distant locations to assist the Afghans as they maintain the aircraft and other platforms that will be essential for the fight ahead of them,” the general said. He added later: “We're going to try all kinds of innovate ways. The one thing I can tell you is, we're not going to be there on the ground with them.”

In his testimony, McKenzie said it will be paramount to protect the U.S. Embassy and “it is a matter of great concern to me whether or not the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave.”

McKenzie has spent the week detailing to lawmakers the steep challenges facing the U.S. military as it moves to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, as ordered by President Joe Biden last week. Walking a careful line, the general has painted a dire picture of the road ahead, while also avoiding any pushback on Biden's decision.

U.S. officials have made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered. Military leaders have consistently argued for a drawdown based on security conditions in the country, saying that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens U.S. leverage in the peace talks with the group.

Still, McKenzie said the Biden administration's “deliberate and methodical” withdrawal discussion “was heartening,” implicitly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump's penchant for making abrupt troop withdrawal decisions and announcing them by tweet.

In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie has been pressed about how the U.S. will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Afghanistan again once the United States and its coalition partners leave. The U.S. has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition has said it will follow the same timetable for withdrawing the more than 7,000 allied forces.