The US is keeping the option open to bomb Afghanistan until at least September even though the bulk of its forces are expected to be out of the country sometime this week, US officials told The Associated Press Thursday.
President Biden pushed back the original May 1st withdrawal deadline to September 11th. The US wants to keep 650 troops in Afghanistan to guard its embassy in Kabul indefinitely. Several hundred additional troops would stay until September 11th to help Turkey secure the Kabul airport.
The officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the top US commander in Afghanistan, Army Gen. Scott Miller, will leave this week. His authority to bomb the country will then be transferred to Gen. Frank McKenzie, the head of US Central Command.
Under the plan, McKenzie will also have the authority to keep 300 additional troops at the Kabul airport until September 11th. The US and Turkey are working out a deal regarding the security of the airport. According to the AP report, under the US-Turkey plan, the US would keep a small presence at the airport, even after the September 11th deadline.
The AP report reads: “As part of the agreement with Turkey, the US would keep a C-RAM — or Counter-Rocket, Artillery, Mortar system — at the airport, as well as troops to operate it. The US also plans to leave aircrew for helicopter support at the airport.”
The US is trying to spin its post-withdrawal plans as merely security for its diplomatic mission. But 650 troops, as well as a missile system and helicopter crews at the airport, could do a lot more than just guard an embassy. The Taliban will reject this plan, fueling more violence and putting US troops in danger of being attacked.
The officials said there have been several US airstrikes against the Taliban in recent weeks that were carried out by warplanes based outside of Afghanistan. In early June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said that the US had already begun launching Afghanistan operations from aircraft carriers and military bases in the Gulf region.
The ability to bomb Afghanistan from outside its borders, dubbed “over the horizon capability” by the Pentagon, is something the US wants to maintain beyond September 11th. Pentagon officials have said they would not bomb the Taliban after Biden’s withdrawal deadline but left open the possibility to target groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.