Pentagon Seeks to Soften Blow of U.S. Withdrawal From Afghanistan

WASHINGTON — When Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III convened his army mind belief final Thursday on a labeled videoconference for an replace on Afghanistan, commanders had cause to really feel optimistic.

The American troop drawdown that President Biden ordered in April was full — two months forward of schedule. The final fight forces would exit the army’s hub at Bagram Air Base in a single day, leaving simply 650 troops to assist safe the United States Embassy in Kabul and Kabul International Airport. There was even speak that the highest American commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Austin S. Miller, would go away for good in a couple of days.

But actuality steadily intruded within the days main up to Mr. Austin’s assembly with General Miller; Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top of the army’s Central Command. The Afghan Army was reeling from a sequence of defeats in battles towards the Taliban. The Afghan Air Force confronted grounding with out contractor assist that was scheduled to finish. And Mr. Biden’s plan to relocate hundreds of Afghan interpreters, drivers and others who labored with American forces in an effort to hold them secure had stalled.

With the White House’s blessing, Mr. Austin, a retired four-star Army common who oversaw the American troop withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, ordered a sequence of steps to gradual the tempo of the ultimate withdrawal from America’s longest warfare. The measures would purchase a while to soften the drawdown’s psychological shock to the Afghans, and to lengthen at the least via August an American safety umbrella that not had any fight troops, gear or bases within the nation.

The first measure sought to underscore Mr. Biden’s message to Afghan leaders that the United States was not abandoning the nation at a second when intelligence analysts assess that the federal government may fall in as few as six months to a resurgent Taliban.

General Miller will stay in Afghanistan for “at least a couple more weeks,” John F. Kirby, the Pentagon spokesman, instructed reporters on Friday, to assist transition the American army mission from warfighting to two new goals — defending a seamless U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul and sustaining liaison with the Afghan army.

General Miller will flip over his command to General McKenzie, who from his headquarters in Tampa, Fla., will assume at the least via August the identical authorities General Miller had to perform airstrikes towards Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and, in very restricted circumstances, Taliban fighters, Pentagon officers stated.

A two-star Navy admiral in Kabul, Rear Adm. Peter G. Vasely, and a one-star Army common in Qatar, Brig. Gen. Curtis A. Buzzard, will deal with day-to-day safety and safety help issues, and can report to General McKenzie, Mr. Kirby stated.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the top of the army’s Central Command, will take over for General Miller at the least via August.Credit…Phil Stewart/Reuters

General McKenzie shall be approved, at the least via September, to transfer 300 further troops into Afghanistan if wanted for safety or emergencies, just like the doable evacuation of the American Embassy, a rising concern amid the deteriorating safety within the nation, Pentagon officers stated.

Over the following few weeks, General Miller will journey inside Afghanistan, in addition to to Brussels, to transient NATO officers on the transition, and to the ahead headquarters in Qatar, Pentagon officers stated. One senior official described General Miller’s travels as “a hand-holding tour.”

Mr. Biden had given the army till Sept. 11 to full the withdrawal, however with solely three,500 troops left in Afghanistan, the pullout went a lot sooner than anticipated. Several Pentagon officers and army commanders predicted the mission may wrap up by early to mid-July.

But Mr. Kirby stated for the primary time on Friday that the withdrawal would now be accomplished by the top of August, a delicate however vital shift that’s meant to assist obtain at the least three goals, officers stated.

First, it is going to lengthen the contracts of a couple of hundred of the 18,000 Pentagon contractors who now present important upkeep to and resupply missions for the Afghan army.

The Afghan Air Force, particularly, is closely reliant on American and different overseas contractors for repairs, upkeep, fueling, coaching and different jobs mandatory to hold it working. Those contractors are actually departing together with the American army, leaving a void that U.S. and Afghan leaders say might be crippling to Afghan forces as they face the Taliban alone.

DynCorp and Leidos, and their subcontractors, now present the principle assist to the air pressure and the Afghan fleet of Black Hawk helicopters, officers stated. Both contractors declined to touch upon their operations in Afghanistan.

The August date additionally offers the administration extra time to discover locations to relocate hundreds of Afghans, and their members of the family, who helped Americans throughout the 20-year warfare. The White House has come underneath heavy strain to shield Afghan allies from revenge assaults by the Taliban and pace up the prolonged and complicated course of of offering them with particular immigrant visas.

Administration officers beforehand stated they have been Guam as one doable location, however State Department officers say they want a number of websites. The overseas ministers of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan have been each in Washington final week, and the difficulty of Afghan safety was raised of their conferences with Mr. Austin and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.

Finally, having General Miller keep on a couple of extra weeks, and increasing the safety umbrella at the least via August, is meant to supply, if nothing else, a lift for beleaguered Afghan troops. Pentagon officers stated that exiting Bagram Air Base and having General Miller depart on the similar time would have been a devastating blow to Afghan morale.

“A safe, orderly drawdown enables us to maintain an ongoing diplomatic presence, support the Afghan people and the government, and prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorists that threatens our homeland,” Mr. Kirby stated.

The White House joined within the reassurance messaging marketing campaign on Friday — up to a degree. Mr. Biden stated that regardless that the United States nonetheless retained the flexibility to conduct airstrikes to shield the Afghan authorities, no reversal of the withdrawal was on the desk.

“We have worked out an over-the-horizon capacity,” he stated, speaking about American warplanes and armed Reaper drones based mostly primarily within the Persian Gulf, “but the Afghans are going to have to do it themselves with the air force they have.”

But all American fight troops and plane are actually out of Afghanistan, officers stated, so any army assist to the Afghan forces may have to come from American bases eight hours away in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates.

“Our leaving does not end the war. It just ends the American involvement,” stated John R. Allen, a retired four-star Marine Corps common who commanded U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013, and oversaw the start of the drawdown of allied forces there, from 150,000 troops to about 11,000, on the finish of 2014. “The war will continue.”