The commander of U.S. Central Command confirmed that American special operators would serve as the main security force to combat terrorists and militants across Afghanistan as U.S. troops begin to draw down.
A U.S-Taliban deal inked Feb. 29 that could see the withdrawal of all American forces has lawmakers worried that the Taliban could return to power in Afghanistan and breathe new life into the plethora of terror groups that operate in the region.
Pentagon planners and lawmakers have voiced support for maintaining a small counterterrorism footprint in Afghanistan as hedge against the Taliban reneging on its commitments outlined in the agreement. The deal with the Taliban calls for all American troops to leave within 14 months.
But Marine Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the commander of CENTCOM, explained to lawmakers Thursday during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that even a small counterterrorism footprint below 8,600 troops would require major progress in intra-Afghan talks and integration between the Taliban and Afghan army.
McKenzie explained to lawmakers that the U.S. could not maintain a small counterterrorism presence in Afghanistan below 8,600 troops if the Taliban continue large scale attacks against Afghan forces. He said on Thursday that going smaller requires integration between the Taliban and Afghan government.
The special operations security construct was first reported by the Washington Post.
The CENTCOM commander explained that the principle driver to maintaining a smaller counterterrorism posture below 8,600 was a “far lower level” of violence across the country — something the Taliban has failed to deliver on despite their signed commitment with the U.S. to do so.
McKenzie told lawmakers that the Taliban continue to launch small-scale attacks against Afghan forces across the country. He said the level of violence carried out by the Taliban was not consistent with a group planning to honor its agreements.
During a hearing on Tuesday, McKenzie told members of the House Armed Services Committee that he would advise not reducing the U.S. footprint below 8,600 if the peace progress stalls or if Afghan forces are are not capable of defending the country.
The U.S. has already started started drawing down forces to 8,600 as stipulated by the Taliban agreement, but pending progress in peace talks and a reduction in violence across the country the Pentagon says it has no plans to reduce its footprint below that number.
McKenzie explained that there was nothing really new about the Pentagon’s plans to use special operators as the driving force to combat terrorists groups as the troop draw down commences. He told senators Thursday that’s just how the U.S. military has been “doing business for awhile now in Afghanistan.”
American special operators have served as a hammer calling in strikes against Taliban and ISIS militants for several years now while conventional advisers help train Afghan forces.
However, there is risk for American commandos as conventional forces begin to exit Afghanistan. McKenzie explained that U.S. special operators in Afghanistan operate in a “conventional force structure.”
That means they require support from enablers like logistics, air power, intelligence and strike capabilities from both U.S. conventional troops and host nation partner forces.
To be able to draw down the U.S. footprint below 8,600 and still operate a robust counterterrorism campaign with adequate support and protection for special operators requires a more “permissive” environment in Afghanistan.
That would mean a reduction in violence where U.S. forces could focus on ISIS and al-Qaida and not have to defend against Taliban attacks.
McKenzie explained that the U.S. could reduce the number of bases across Afghanistan if American commandos did not have to worry about defending from Taliban attacks.
On Tuesday, McKenzie said that the military has yet to develop plans for a full withdrawal from Afghanistan despite a signed agreement with the Taliban to draw down all American forces within 14 months.
Shawn Snow is the senior reporter for Marine Corps Times and a Marine Corps veteran.