Reuters reported that McKenzie will be able to order airstrikes against the Taliban and in support of the U.S.-backed government in Kabul until late August, and then will switch over to operations against ISIS and al Qaeda.
Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby previewed the handover last week, noting that after the transfer, McKenzie will develop options to continue supporting the Afghan forces once the drawdown is officially complete.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also established a new command, U.S. Afghanistan Forward, a smaller office that will be led by Rear Adm. Peter Vasely and based in Kabul, Kirby said. Vasely will lead a force of roughly 650 U.S. troops who will remain in Afghanistan to protect the U.S. Embassy and help secure the Kabul airport.
Only a handful of U.S. troops and contractors remain in the country, POLITICO reported last week, citing U.S. officials who said that the withdrawal was over “for all intents and purposes.”
The news comes as the Taliban continue to make significant territorial gains across the country and western officials worry that the government in Kabul will soon fall.
The group has taken control military of key districts throughout the country in recent weeks and is now cutting off revenue sources to the Afghan government by seizing strategic border crossings, including with Iran and Turkmenistan.
As of Monday, the Taliban controls 204 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts and contests another 124 districts, according to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which closely tracks the conflict.
Despite the Taliban’s gains, Biden last week said the fall of Kabul was “not inevitable,” and said it’s now up to the Afghan military to protect the government as the U.S. leaves. But his assessment was more optimistic than those of his military commanders, including Miller, who recently warned that Afghanistan could soon fall into “civil war” once the U.S. departs.
McKenzie again acknowledged the threat from the Taliban on Monday, yet he also predicted they will have difficulty taking Kabul.
“I think, certainly, the provincial capitals are at risk, and we’ll see how that shakes out over the next few weeks,” McKenzie said, according to press reports. “I think the Afghans are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals.”
The U.S. must still iron out the details of the final withdrawal and plans for how to effectively conduct counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan after the last American combat troops leave. The Biden administration is in discussions with several central Asian nations about potentially basing U.S. troops in the region to provide quicker access to Afghanistan, but defense officials expressed skepticism that this plan will come to fruition.
Currently, the plan is to keep an eye on the Taliban and hunt terrorists from far-away U.S. bases in the Middle East and ships in the Persian Gulf.
Biden also announced last week that the administration will begin flights to relocate the thousands of Afghan interpreters to a location outside the continental U.S. to await the approval of special immigrant visas. He did not specify which locations the refugees would move to.
However, lawmakers who have pushed the administration to evacuate these Afghans criticized the plan as too little too late. Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.) told POLITICO in an interview that Biden’s promises amounted to “a lot of rhetoric.”
“We’re talking a few thousand here who have worked with Americans for years and been extensively vetted already. It makes no sense. It’s infuriating,” Waltz said. “Time has run out, and these people are being hunted down as we speak.”