On Tuesday, the House Armed Services Committee held a hearing to address “national security challenges and U.S. force posture” in the Middle East and Africa. Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, appeared alongside Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, and Amanda Dory, the acting under secretary of defense for defense policy. The hearing touched on a variety of issues, from China and Russia’s influence in Africa to the U.S.’s potential return to the Iran nuclear deal. But it was also the first time that Gen. McKenzie, the head of all U.S. forces in the Middle East, has publicly appeared before Congress since President Biden announced the withdrawal of all U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. (Gen. Austin Miller, the head of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, did not appear before the committee.) The hearing delivered a preview of the issues that U.S. lawmakers and military personnel anticipate as the U.S. leaves the country.
Gen. McKenzie and Dory provided early, if incomplete, answers to key questions about the Afghanistan withdrawal: How will the U.S. military ensure that there will not be another terrorist attack emanating from Afghanistan? Could other extremist groups gain a foothold in Afghanistan? How will the military ensure that the same mistakes of the Iraq withdrawal are not repeated? What will the drawdown mean for the Afghan Security Forces that currently depend on U.S. contractors?
As is the norm, the witnesses punted on some questions and indicated they’d offer responses during the closed-door briefings that often follow national security related public hearings. And the witnesses indicated that many issues are still being figured out by the administration. But it is worth examining Gen. McKenzie and Dory’s answers to questions about Afghanistan as a preview of the issues that will be discussed in the coming months as the U.S. withdraws from the country.
The question lawmakers most frequently posed to the witnesses was how the United States will continue to maintain counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after the withdrawal. That question was posed in a number ways, but Ranking Member Mike Rogers’s opening statement laid out the assumption underlying the lawmakers’ fears:
I am very concerned that the Taliban will overrun the democratically elected government soon after we withdraw, when that happens, what assurance do we have that Afghanistan will not become another breeding ground for terrorists? I have yet to hear how the president intends to conduct counterterrorism operations without any U.S. troops in the region.
Gen. McKenzie, in his opening statement, tried to address these concerns in a broad manner, noting “we are further planning now for continued counterterrorism operations from within the region.” He added that these groups will be under “persistent surveillance and pressure.” As lawmakers tried to tease out specific scenarios, Rep. Wilson asked the witnesses how the U.S. would reenter Afghanistan without access to any airfields.
Dory, while not specifically addressing the question, responded that the Pentagon is considering “how to continue to apply pressure with respect to potential [counterterrorism] threats emanating from Afghanistan. So, [we are] looking throughout the region in terms of over-the-horizon opportunities”—a likely reference to launching an operation directed at Afghanistan from another country or at sea.
Rep. Joe Courtney followed up on Dory’s over-the-horizon comment, bluntly asking Gen. McKenzie: “can you describe just a little bit more detail what that looks like… is it going to be at sea? Is it going to be in neighboring countries, where we, again, have the ability to deploy assets to again respond to a terrorist threat?” Gen. McKenzie gave an answer and ended up making some news, telling Courtney, “I am actually conducting detailed planning by the direction of the…