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State Department’s New Black Hawks In Afghanistan Could Prove Especially Important After Withdrawal

Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby also revealed at a briefing today that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin had approved a plan to shift command authority for operations in Afghanistan from U.S. Army General Scott Miller, the current head of U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and the NATO Resolute Support Mission, to U.S. Marine Corps General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). This transfer of authority to a much higher-level officer outside of the country, which is set to take place this month, is a clear reflection on the dwindling size of the U.S. military’s presence in Afghanistan. The main office in charge of U.S. military security cooperation with the Afghan government will also move to Qatar. A smaller U.S. Forces-Afghanistan (Forward) command element will subsequently be established in Kabul.

What the exact U.S. military force posture will look like in the end is unclear, with reports suggesting that up to 1,000 personnel could remain to perform various missions. These could include advising and liaising with Afghan security forces and providing security for any remaining American facilities in the country, such as the Embassy. In April, CNN had reported that the U.S. military was actually deploying a 650-person contingency force, primarily drawn from the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, an elite special operations unit, to bolster security amid the ongoing withdrawal.

Whatever that precense is “will remain focused on four things over the course of the coming period. One, protecting our diplomatic presence in the country,” Press Secretary Kirby said at his briefing today. “Two, supporting security requirements at Hamid Karzai International Airport. Three, continued advice and assistance to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as appropriate. And four, supporting our counterterrorism efforts.”

What other U.S. forces, such as Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) paramilitary personnel and specialized units from the State Department, to include elements of the Air Wing, will remain is also still unclear. The Embassy in Kabul itself has been operating at a reduced level since April, when non-essential staff made an “ordered departure” from the country. Approximately 4,000 personnel, including Afghan nationals and private contractors, in addition to diplomatic staff, continue to work there, according to Politico. It’s also worth noting that the United States does not presently have a formal ambassador to Afghanistan, with chargé d’affaires Ross Wilson presently running the Embassy.

Politico
had also reported today about potential events that could force the U.S. Embassy to further reduce its staff or shut down entirely based on a list of unclassified “decision points” from a three-year-old version of an Emergency Action Plan that the outlet obtained. These points, which include more mundane triggers, such as acts of terrorism or violent protests, would not all automatically lead to dramatic action. However, some of them, including the outbreak of a pandemic, a major factor facing anyone working there now, are clearly more serious than others.

The “anticipated long-term or actual disruption of utilities, fuel, water, goods, and services (including means of communications), which eliminates [the embassy’s] ability to maintain safe and healthy conditions for staff” would certainly prompt major discussions about the viability of continued operations at the Embassy, as would if “the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorates such that security forces in Kabul are diminished or otherwise unavailable, weakening the host government’s ability to respond to … requests for security support.”

When it comes to the Air Wing’s mission, another one of the decision points has to do with whether or not there is “ground and/or air access” to Hamid Karzai International Airport or if “commercial flights become limited or stopped.” Separately, U.S. and NATO officials have been negotiating with Turkish authorities about having that country’s forces continue to help secure Hamid Karzai International Airport after all the other withdrawals are complete.

As it stands now, there are already significant concerns about the ability of the government in Kabul to continue providing security across the country, with the Taliban having made significant territorial gains in recent weeks. That militant group, the chief opponent to Afghanistan’s current central government, has also seized hundreds of vehicles, as well as other weapons, ammunition, and other equipment, from Afghan security forces, who, in some cases, have turned that materiel over directly in exchange for safe passage out of certain areas.

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