Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, telling lawmakers that as American troops leave Afghanistan, the Department of Defense plans to station personnel in neighboring countries. Although he did not mention a specific nation that would host US troops, Austin said their mission would be focused on counterterrorism, reiterating that the US ground mission in Afghanistan is complete.
“We need to be able to focus on a discrete set of threats, and those threats that could conduct operations against the United States of America, that would emanate from that space in Afghanistan,” Austin told lawmakers before singling out al Qaeda as the DOD’s concern.
Austin said due to the ongoing retrograde, the military is already conducting many missions from “over the horizon.” Specifically, he cited air support missions being flown out of the Persian Gulf region, rather than from airfields in Afghanistan. Just last month, the US handed Kandahar Airfield over to the Afghan government. Bagram Air Base could be handed over in the coming weeks, and the need for additional capabilities seems imminent. However, Austin stated that a plan to work through neighboring countries is still “in progress.”
“I don’t have a timetable. I will tell you that we will move as quickly as we can, in conjunction with State Department efforts,” Austin told lawmakers.
Questions remain about what US force structure in the region, and inside Afghanistan, will look like once the withdrawal is complete, with some reports this could come as early as July. Senior military officials reportedly told The New York Times that the Biden administration is considering keeping US warplanes and drones in a position to support the Afghan government, should a major crisis occur. According to the Times, examples include preventing the capture of a major city such as Kabul by the Taliban or a scenario that puts the American Embassy at risk.
According to The Sun, a significant US troop presence at the American Embassy is a possible option. Sources told the British paper that as many as 600 US Marines could be deployed to protect the embassy. In addition, there are currently 600 Turkish soldiers in Afghanistan, with the primary responsibility of securing Kabul International Airport. According to a source who talked to The Sun, without the airport being secure, “Kabul crumbles.”
The Taliban and Afghan government forces remain locked in bitter combat throughout the country, with Deutsche Welle reporting that fighting is ongoing in 26 of the country’s 34 provinces this week. Much of the heaviest fighting is in the northern part of Afghanistan, with Tolo News reporting Thursday that at least 80 Afghan Security Force members had been killed in clashes over the previous 24 hours. The carnage is also taking a toll on civilians and aid workers.
The United Nations released its Afghanistan Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict 2021 First Quarter Report. It details a 29% increase in civilian casualties compared with the same time last year. Overall, the UN reports that 573 Afghan civilians were killed and another 1,210 injured in the first three months of 2021.
“The number of Afghan civilians killed and maimed, especially women and children, is deeply disturbing. I implore the parties to urgently find a way to stop this violence,” said Deborah Lyons, the secretary-general’s special representative for Afghanistan.
Civilian casualties stemming from the fight between the Taliban and the Afghan government are not the lone cause of death and injury to noncombatants. According to Deutsche Welle, in northern Afghanistan on Tuesday evening, Islamic State group (ISIS) fighters killed 10 civilians working for Halo Trust, a mine-clearing organization. The attack, occurring in the highly contested Baghlan district outside of Kabul, also wounded at least another 14 people.
According to Deutsche Welle, Afghan Interior Ministry spokesman Tareq Arian originally attributed the attack to the Taliban but ISIS ultimately took responsibility. According to the BBC, the attackers asked if any of the workers were Hazara before opening fire.
Afghanistan’s Hazara minority has been repeatedly targeted by ISIS. In early May, ISIS militants targeted a Hazara girls school in Kabul with a series of bombings. Those explosions killed at least 85 and wounded another 147 people.
As fighting continues to escalate between the Taliban and Kabul, questions remain about how far Washington will go to intervene. A recent report from the United Nations warns about the future of the Afghan government without help from Washington. While the document states that ANSF has managed to reverse some Taliban advances, it has come at a considerable cost. As the withdrawal continues, the situation grows more dire by the day.
“Afghan Forces remain dependent on foreign technical support and financial assistance. The coming international military withdrawal […] will challenge Afghan Forces by limiting aerial operation with fewer drones and radar and surveillance capabilities, less logistical support and artillery, as well as a disruption in training,” the report says.