CENTCOM Chief Says US Won't Use Airstrikes to Support Afghan Forces After Withdrawal: Report

U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. in Afghanistan.
U.S. Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., U.S. Central Command commander, right, meets with U.S. Army Gen. Austin Scott Miller, Resolute Support Mission commander, left, during his visit to Kabul, Afghanistan, April, 5 2019. (U.S. Central Command/Sgt. Franklin Moore)

The United States will not conduct airstrikes to support Afghan security forces after it withdraws its remaining troops from Afghanistan, the head of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, told Voice of America.

In an interview published by VOA on Monday, Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said the U.S. will conduct airstrikes in Afghanistan only when plans to conduct terrorist attacks against the American homeland, or those of its allies, have been uncovered.

"That would be the reason for any strikes that we do in Afghanistan after we leave," he told VOA while aboard a military plane headed for the Middle East. "[It] would have to be that we've uncovered someone who wants to attack the homeland of the United States, one of our allies and partners."

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The New York Times reported last week that the Pentagon was considering whether to intervene and carry out airstrikes, either from manned aircraft or drones, to support Afghan security forces if Kabul or other major cities were at risk of falling to the Taliban.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin declined to comment on that report during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.

VOA reported that McKenzie's comments appeared to refute the Times' report about airstrikes being considered.

McKenzie also told VOA that a plan to evacuate Afghan interpreters and other citizens who have assisted the United States, if necessary, has been completed. He said that the State Department will dictate when that plan would be carried out and the size of the operation.

Activists and lawmakers who are working to help Afghan allies obtain visas to come to the United States have grown increasingly concerned in recent weeks about those Afghans' safety, and are desperately pushing the administration to do more. Some Afghans already have been killed in retaliation for their work helping the U.S., the activists say; as the withdrawal continues, time is quickly running out to help those who remain.

The Special Immigrant Visa program meant to vet Afghan allies and bring them to the U.S. has long been deeply troubled and plagued by understaffing, and its complex and bureaucratic process often leaves Afghans in limbo for years. A report earlier this year said the program had a backlog of about 18,800 people. Some activists are now pushing a plan that calls for flying Afghan allies and their families to Guam, where they can be safely housed away from potential retaliation while the visa process takes its course.

McKenzie also told VOA that there are now roughly 40,000 troops in the Middle East, fewer than the 60,000 to 80,000 that were there about a year and a half ago.

He said in the interview that the Afghanistan withdrawal has strained resources across both CENTCOM and U.S. Transportation Command, as mobility aircraft have shuttled large amounts of equipment out of the country.

In a roundtable with reporters last Monday, McKenzie said that the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces from Afghanistan was about halfway complete.

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

Related: The US Is Now Halfway Out of Afghanistan, CENTCOM Commander Says

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