WASHINGTON — The U.S. military will remain involved in the Afghanistan war into September, keeping the option of launching airstrikes against the Taliban to defend Afghan forces, U.S. officials said Thursday, even as the final combat troops prepare to leave the country in coming days.
For weeks, officials have said the withdrawal of the main U.S. military force and its equipment from Afghanistan would be largely completed by this weekend, well ahead of the Sept. 11 deadline set by President Joe Biden. Army Gen. Scott Miller, the top U.S. commander there, would then leave, marking a significant turning point in the U.S. mission. But a range of complicating factors means that will not end America’s involvement in the 20-year war.
Officials said when Miller flies out, his combat role, including authority to carry out strikes on the Taliban and to conduct counterterror operations against al-Qaida or other groups, will be taken over by Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East, who is based in Florida. Officials said there have been several U.S. airstrikes in support of the Afghans in recent weeks, using warplanes based outside of Afghanistan, and those strikes will continue.
The new U.S. commander inside Afghanistan will be Navy Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, who will head the security mission at the U.S. Embassy. He is already in Kabul, working with Miller on a transition, said the officials, who discussed new details of the withdrawal on condition of anonymity.
Vasely will have 650 U.S. troops in the country, based largely at the embassy to secure the diplomatic mission, a force that will remain indefinitely. In addition, until September, McKenzie will have the authority to keep up to 300 more troops in Afghanistan to help with security, including at the airport, said the officials.
The Pentagon and other U.S. leaders — from the White House to Capitol Hill — have expressed alarm about a recent surge in violence in Afghanistan, amid fears that it will lead to a widespread civil war and the collapse of the Afghan government and its military.
During his final press conference in Kabul earlier this week, Miller painted a grim picture of the security situation. He noted the rapid loss of districts around the country to the Taliban and warned that “a civil war is certainly a path that can be visualized if this continues on the trajectory it’s on right now, that should be of concern to the world.”
The U.S., meanwhile, is also scrambling to develop a plan to get some of the thousands of Afghan interpreters and others who aided the U.S.-led coalition out of the country. While the U.S. military is not expected to play a major role in the evacuation, troops may be needed to ensure security for the departures.
Thus, while the military has hastened its exit, security requires that the September deadline remain the final goal.
‘We remain on the timeline that the president announced just a few weeks ago, which is to get our troops out of Afghanistan, while having a remaining diplomatic presence on the ground, by September,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki this week.
Officials have repeatedly stressed that security at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul is a critical requirement for keeping any U.S. diplomatic staff in Afghanistan. While Turkey has agreed to continue that mission, agreements with the Afghans and the U.S. have not been finalized.
As part of the agreement with Turkey, the U.S. would keep a C-RAM — or Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar system — at the airport, as well as troops to operate it. The U.S. also plans to leave aircrew for helicopter support at the airport.
It is unclear exactly when Miller will board a plane and depart with his staff and security, but it is expected soon. Once he leaves and the equipment withdrawal is complete, the U.S. will shift its focus to two missions — protecting the diplomats and providing financial and logistical support to the Afghan government from outside the country.
That withdrawal essentially fulfills an agreement made when the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020. The deal called for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by May 2021, and in exchange, the Taliban vowed to cut ties with al-Qaida and ensure that Afghanistan would not again become a safe haven for militants seeking to attack the U.S. After taking office, Biden moved the withdrawal deadline to Sept. 11.
The U.S. has also made it clear that it will continue to monitor terror groups operating in Afghanistan, including al-Qaida and the Islamic State group. And the U.S. maintains its authority to strike any militants that pose a threat to the American homeland.
Bagram Airfield, a massive complex north of Kabul that has long been the heart of American military power in Afghanistan, is to be turned over to the Afghans any day now.
NATO agreed in April to pull out its roughly 7,000 non-American forces, and as of this week 19 nations had announced troop withdrawals totaling more then 4,800. Germany and Italy declared their missions in Afghanistan over on Wednesday and Poland’s last troops have returned home.
Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.