CENTCOM CO: No U.S. Over-the-Horizon Strikes in Afghanistan Since Withdrawal

March 15, 2022 3:54 PM
Gen. Kenneth McKenzie commander, U.S. Central Command, provides testimony at a House Armed Services Committee hearing on ending the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan, Rayburn House Office Building, Washington, D.C. on Sept. 29, 2021. DoD Photo

The U.S. is gathering over-the-horizon intelligence on terrorist activities in Afghanistan but hasn’t made a strike against ISIS-K and al Qaeda, the head of U.S. Central Command told a Senate panel said.

Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth McKenzie said Tuesday in answer to a question “you will be able to draw your own and stark conclusions from that” when the Senate Armed Services Committee moved into closed session in the afternoon.

In his opening remarks, he said in his final appearance before the Senate panel, “the margins are thin” on being able to “find, fix and finish” targets under those conditions.

McKenzie added that the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) has been re-constituting itself. He said current intelligence estimates predict that within 12 to 18 months the group might be able to attack targets outside Afghanistan.

“The Taliban is attempting to maintain pressure on ISIS,” but McKenzie said he expected attacks “to ramp up this summer,” even in Kabul. He added that when the Taliban took control of the country, they “did not help themselves” when they released more than 1,000 ISIS prisoners.

While the security situation in parts of Afghanistan may have improved since the Taliban takeover in August, McKenzie said, “I’m not sure it’s a place you want to be.” In addition to the ISIS-K attacks, he cited the Taliban’s continued reprisals against former Afghan government officials and the elimination of opportunities for women and for girls’ education.

Although the United States does not recognize the Taliban regime as Afghanistan’s government, McKenzie said, “there are levers we can apply” to change conditions there. Since the Taliban wants international recognition as the legal government, he said diplomacy and economic aid could sway its behavior.

Overall, “the challenges [in Central Command] have proven remarkably resilient from 1979” to the present – namely in Iran and Afghanistan, he said. “CENTCOM is the land of less than perfect solutions.”

Among those “less than perfect solutions” could be a new nuclear weapons agreement with Iran that included some sanctions relief from Washington and putting off further negotiations on Tehran’s burgeoning missile program, he said.

McKenzie said Iran’s ballistic and cruise missiles and long-range unmanned aerial systems pose an “exigent threat” to U.S. allies and partners. He said Tehran possessed more than 3,000 missiles in its arsenals, some with effective range to target Tel Aviv, Israel. Iran claimed responsibility for Sunday’s missile attack on Erbil in Iraq. In the dozen-missile strike, some landed near the American consulate in the Kurdish-controlled province.  Tehran said it was targeting Israeli facilities there. Kurdish officials denied that there was any Israeli presence in Erbil. Two people were wounded in the attack.

Tehran also supplies insurgents like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and militias in Syria and Iraq with missiles and unmanned systems. The Houthis most recently have been striking targets across the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia with Iranian-supplied missiles in retaliation for their military support of the Yemeni government.

When asked about the value of bringing Israel into the command’s area of responsibility, he said Jerusalem’s addition offered more opportunities to develop a true integrated air and defense missile system, a CENTCOM goal for years, to cover the region.

McKenzie said Iran’s efforts to gain more leverage with the Iranian government have largely failed since a new agreement was reached between Baghdad and Washington. he pact put Iraq’s security forces in charge of the counterterrorism fight and national defense as the Biden administration announced the end of the U.S. combat mission in July. Some American forces will remain in a training and advising mission.

To avoid a repetition of the mistakes surrounding the investigation of a U.S. drone missile attack in August that killed 10 civilians in Kabul, McKenzie said the command was re-starting its “red cell” program to “prevent confusion bias” on whether to fire. At the same time, the command is bringing the commanders at every level into the investigation to determine exactly what happened. “You can’t investigate yourselves,” as was the case in the Kabul strike.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense, GovExec.com, NextGov.com, DefenseOne.com, Government Executive and USNI News.

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