US Central Command (CENTCOM) on Tuesday released its weekly update on the Afghanistan withdrawal, which said the process was over 50 percent complete, but questions remain about what sort of US footprint will be in the country or nearby in the region after the pullout.
According to a report from The Associated Press, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of CENTCOM, is preparing to present Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin with a range of options for protecting the US embassy in Kabul, supporting the Afghan government, and continuing “counterterrorism” operations in the country after the withdrawal. McKenzie will give Austin an estimate of the number of troops he thinks is needed to protect the embassy and the Kabul airport, which is currently being guarded by Turkish soldiers.
US officials told AP that the number of US troops that could be left in Afghanistan for “security missions” could range from a few hundred to 1,000. McKenzie is also expected to discuss with Austin options for launching surveillance flights and drone strikes in Afghanistan after the pullout, what the Pentagon has dubbed “over the horizon” capabilities.
The officials told AP that as it stands, the US has no options to base troops in neighboring countries, as no deals have been reached with countries such as Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, or Uzbekistan. On Monday, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan confirmed that the US was discussing post-withdrawal plans with Pakistan. Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the CIA is looking for new bases in the region to launch attacks inside Afghanistan. The report focused on Pakistan, where CIA Director William Burns recently visited.
Pakistan has publicly denied that it would host a US base again, but a recent deal that allowed US warplanes to use Pakistani airspace to bomb Afghanistan raised questions about the possibility of a secret basing deal. But so far, nothing is confirmed. The US might have to settle for launching planes and drones out of bases in the Gulf or from aircraft carriers in the region for missions in Afghanistan.
If the US continues to launch attacks inside Afghanistan after the withdrawal, the Taliban would see that as a violation of the Doha agreement, and the group would be less likely to continue peace talks with the Afghan government.
In its weekly withdrawal updates, CENTCOM is not disclosing troop numbers. The command said the Pentagon has so far removed about 500 C-17 cargo planeloads of material out of Afghanistan and turned over 13,000 pieces of equipment to be destroyed. The process is expected to be finished sometime in July, before the September 11th withdrawal deadline set by President Biden.