Bombers Deploy, Carrier Extends to Cover US Troops' Withdrawal from Afghanistan

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B-52H Stratofortress Minot Air Force Base
A B-52H Stratofortress assigned to the 5th Bomb Wing, Minot Air Force Base, N.D., parks on the flightline April 23, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar. The B-52 aircraft are deployed to Al Udeid AB to protect U.S. and coalition forces as they conduct drawdown operations from Afghanistan. (Staff Sgt. Greg Erwin/U.S. Air Force)

As the U.S. military begins its final withdrawal from Afghanistan, it's bringing in some heavy firepower to cover the troops' exit.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Friday approved an extension of the aircraft carrier Dwight D. Eisenhower's stay in the Middle East, Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters. Kirby did not specify how much longer the Ike will remain.

Austin also approved the deployment of more long-range bombers to the region, Kirby said.

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The first two aircraft, a pair of B-52H Stratofortress bombers from the 5th Bomb Wing at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, arrived at Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar on Friday, the Air Force said in a release. Airmen from the 5th Bomb Wing also arrived at Al Udeid to support the bombers' deployment.

The New York Times on Wednesday was the first to report that Austin was considering a request to extend the Eisenhower's deployment.

The military is deploying these forces in case the Taliban decides to attack U.S. troops as the last few thousand forces pull out of Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11, Kirby said.

"It would be foolhardy and imprudent not to assume that there could be resistance and opposition to the drawdown by the Taliban, given their staunch rhetoric," he said. "In light of that … we're going to make this a safe, orderly and deliberate, responsible withdrawal, where force protection is at a premium."

Kirby declined to comment about what other forces could deploy in the near future, but said more temporary steps to protect forces could be taken to ensure the drawdown goes smoothly.

He said that plans drawn up under the Trump administration, which negotiated a May 1 withdrawal with the Taliban, to pull out equipment are being revised to account for the new timeline. Some equipment and systems will be inspected, cleaned and shipped back to the United States, Kirby said. Other equipment will be shipped elsewhere in the world.

Other pieces will be donated to Afghan partners, he added, and the rest will be destroyed.

Most of the American equipment, particularly vehicles, that will be taken out of Afghanistan will be shipped using Air Force cargo aircraft, Kirby said.

"Given the unique [geography] of Afghanistan ... airlift is the most effective way to remove the personnel and to remove the equipment that we do intend to leave with," he explained.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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