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| July 27, 2021
Gen McKenzie: Press Availability, July 25, 2021, Kabul, Afghanistan
Gen McKenzie: Thank you or joining me here today. I want to give you an update to our continuing assistance to the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and the ANDSF. I am here today to meet with the President of Afghanistan, President Ghani, and security leaders of GIROA. I am here for consultations on their security plan for the defense of Afghanistan, and to reassure them of the United States support to their security efforts. We had a very good dialogue on the government's defense plan as they work to stabilize the security situation and to blunt the Taliban offensive.
Specific support that I reassured the government that we are continuing to provide includes airstrikes in defense of ANDSF forces under attack by the Taliban, contract logistics support both here in Kabul and over-the-horizon in the region, funding for them, intelligence sharing, and advising and assisting through security consultations at the strategic level.
I'd like to take a moment just to highlight some of that support and how it's being executed. The United States has increased airstrikes in the support of Afghan forces over the last several days, and we're prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.
We continue to provide contract maintenance and logistics support here in Kabul to maintain Afghan defense capabilities, including their aviation capability. We continue to provide maintenance, advising them from over-the-horizon, and we're prepared to execute over-the-horizon aircraft maintenance and refurbishment with aircraft that will be flown to a third country, repaired, and returned to service in Afghanistan with the Afghan Air Force.
We've continued our robust funding support to the ANDSF, and we have worked with the government to assure they have the resources they need to continue to fight.
Finally, we continue to advise the Afghan government on the security plan, both with my team here on the ground, but also through engagement from our headquarters in Tampa. I'd like to be very clear, the government of Afghanistan faces a stern test in the days ahead. The Taliban are attempting to create a sense of inevitability about their campaign. They're wrong. There's no preordained conclusion to this fight. Taliban victory is not inevitable. I was heartened by the sense of urgency and purpose I saw tonight from the president and his advisers. They have a good plan. A plan that will concentrate their forces. And it's going to require taking a risk to execute as any good plan does. Let me say again, there are going to be hard days ahead, but there's a path that can lead us to a political solution to this war. Thank you and I'm prepared to take your questions for just a few moments.
AFP: (Inaudible) Do you know exactly is happening in Spin Boldak? There are so many (inaudible) civilians (inaudible) Is there any possibility you could throw some light on that?
Gen McKenzie: So, I could tell you that Spin Boldak is contested space right now. The Afghans are seeking to gain control of it. It is a stiff fight. The fight is not yet complete. There have been casualties on both sides. But I wouldn't say that I'd write the end of that story just yet. I think there's still some days of combat ahead in and around Spin Boldak.
Moderator: Wall Street Journal.
Wall Street Journal: So, considering that there is (inaudible) Biden and his administration that the Afghan Armed Forces (inaudible) are making more air strikes than you'd like to at this point, considering you're going to (inaudible) on August 31st, supposedly, can you elaborate a little bit on any worries, or are you worried or if not, why are you not?
Gen McKenzie: Well, we're taking air strikes as we need to take them in support of Afghan forces that are in contact with the Taliban. I don't have a sense of whether there are too many or too few. I think there are enough. We are limited compared to the strikes that we have been able to carry out months or years ago here in Afghanistan. But we're still carrying them out, and I think we're having a good effect in support of Afghan forces that are engaged in close fighting with the Taliban.
I would also point out that the Afghan Air Force is actually carrying out a lot of strikes and is having very good success against Taliban forces. And in fact, I would argue that the Afghan Air Force is the significant asymmetric advantage that the Afghans have in this fight, and I believe they're applying it very effectively.
TOLO: (Inaudible) from TOLO News, after the US forces (inaudible) when the US (inaudible) and help the Afghan security forces especially in the air strikes as well?
Gen McKenzie: So, President Biden has set a date of 31 August for the cessation of our campaign here. After that date, we will still provide significant logistics support to the Afghan military. We will still provide significant logistics support, in particular, to the Afghan Air Force through maintenance here on the ground, as well as maintenance at advanced bases in the Central Command theater. So, all of those things will continue. So, we will continue to support the Afghan forces even after that 31 August date, it will generally be from over-the-horizon. And that will be a significant change. And then it will be time for the Afghan forces to fight and carry on the battle themselves. We spent a lot of time training them. Now is their moment. Now is the time for that very stern test that I know they're going to face. I think they have the resources and the capability to actually conduct that fight and win it.
BBC: The Taliban say that they don't want to take cities in Afghanistan by force, but they're already in the outskirts of some and encircled many others. What's your assessment?
Gen McKenzie: So, it's hard to know exactly what the Taliban's plan is. There's been a little bit of a lull here over the Eid holiday period. We would expect the tempo perhaps to pick up in the days ahead. I think if you want to go to where the people are generally you're going to have to go into the cities. The Afghanistan of 2021 is not the Afghanistan of the mid-1990s, when the last time the Taliban tried to come to power. I think the human terrain is very different and they're going to have to deal with the cities if they actually want to try to claw their way back into power. And again, I don't think it's a foregone conclusion that they're going to be able to capture these urban areas or that they're going to be able to come back in to power.
Shamshad: (Inaudible) General, whenever the U.S. troops leave Afghanistan and the security of Kabul International Airport is handed over to Turkey. The Taliban has (swore) to start attacking the Turkish Forces, and they will not accept any foreign troops here in Afghanistan. What will be the U.S. and NATO's reaction to the Taliban's attacks if Turkish forces are being attacked in Kabul?
Gen McKenzie: So, of course, the maintenance of an embassy platform in Kabul, not only for the United States but also for the broader international community, is going to require an open and effectively operating international airfield. And, of course, that's the airport that you're talking about. The Turks have maintained security at a large part of that airfield for many years under the various operations that have been conducted here. We're negotiating with them now. Where we will share in that security mission going forward. I would note that we consider maintenance of the airfield critical to our continued presence here. Of course, the principle organization responsible for the defense of the airfield is actually the government of Afghanistan, and they are well prepared to conduct that defense. So, we will work with them as well in the days ahead. And as you've noted, I have seen these statements from the Taliban. They make a lot of statements. I tend to judge the Taliban, not by what they say, because frankly, it's not believable. But rather what they do. So, we'll watch very closely in the days and weeks ahead.
Moderator: New York Times.
NYT: Thanks. So, are you saying definitely no more U.S. air strikes against the Taliban after August 31st?
Gen McKenzie: I'm concentrating on the here and now, I'm not going to be able to give you an answer to that. I'm just not going to deal with that question tonight. I will tell you right now, and for the days and weeks ahead, we will continue airstrikes working very closely with our Afghan partners, and that's all I'm going to be able to give you right now.
Ariana: Thank you, General. This is Rohid Andishmand from Ariana news. I did see that United States forces around one thousand, were still in Afghanistan, for protection of the embassy as well as the Kabul airport. What's your consideration about this, and second question, despite it's been asked, but I’d like to know more details about reporters? We have been looking (inaudible) for end of the August. Will the United States continue (inaudible)?
Gen McKenzie: So, we will leave enough forces here in Kabul to protect our embassy and to ensure, in cooperation with our Turkish partners, that the airfield remains open. After 31 August, that will be the purpose of U.S. forces in this country. Other activities that we carry on with the government of Afghanistan, the logistics activities that I talked about, both ground logistics, aviation logistics and other things that are associated with support of their fighting forces, will largely be carried on from over-the-horizon platforms from other places in the theater with a very, very small presence here at this embassy and at the airfield, to actually interface with the Afghans going forward. So that's the way we would see the future for US forces in Afghanistan going forward. And I'm just not going to be able to comment anymore about the future of U.S. airstrikes after 31 August.
Moderator: Washington Post.
Washington Post: Yeah, thanks for doing this. I was curious if the over-the-horizon support in the second country will also include training for unconventional forces and also given that the U.S. investment in the Afghan Air Force was so significant, what does it say about their capabilities to sustain it by now that you have to provide over-the-horizon support for them in a second country?
Gen McKenzie: Let me deal with the second part of your question first. The solution for support of the Afghan Air Force has always been a contract and maintenance solution. We've never had any other solution than that, regardless of whatever the future is going to be in Afghanistan. Now the issue is that it would be largely conducted from an offshore platform and not here. Although there will be significant interface still here on the ground at HKIA as we go forward, particularly for air force support. So, the essential core construct remains. I'm not going to kid you and say it's going to be easy. It will be far more difficult than it was in the past. And we think we have a path to do that. And we're going to work that very hard because I go back to the point again, I believe that the singular advantage the government of Afghanistan has right now in the fight they're in, is their air force. So, we will do everything in our power to keep that air force effective, flying in support of their forces. As for the first part of your question, we'll look at a lot of different ways to do training abroad. I know that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is examining ways they can conduct external training. I'm sure that we will examine those alternatives, as well.
Pajhwok: Thank you, General. Is the deal with Turkey finalized on security of Kabul International airport?
Gen McKenzie: So, we're still continuing to work out elements of that. In the meantime, though, our forces are cooperating on the ground and executing security for the airfield itself. So, we still have some details to work out. And I'll leave that to the diplomats who are actually working those. But at a practical level, on the ground, we have a very good relationship and I'm very comfortable with the situation as it exists out there right now.
Pajhwok: Thank you General, and my second question about (inaudible). How do you feel this, that people are concerned with (inaudible)?
Gen McKenzie: Well, I think what you have here is a legitimate government in Afghanistan that's under enormous pressure from the Taliban. And I think the next days and weeks will determine if the government is going to be able to defend the country that they have. As I've noted, I don't think it's going to be an easy path. I think there are going to be some very difficult days ahead. But I think there is a path to a way forward that would allow some form of a political solution to be reached.
I do not accept the narrative that there is going to be a civil war of necessity. It may not yet be. Certainly, that is a possibility. And I wouldn't be honest with you if I told you it isn't a possibility. There's also a possibility, though, that this fight could stalemate, the government could hang on, and there could be some kind of a political solution going forward. That, too, is possible. So those things are just not known to us yet. Anybody who says he knows what's going to happen is simply far smarter than me.
Moderator: Stars and Stripes.
Stars & Stripes: One quick thing to caveat off of Pajhwok, now on the practical side, what exactly are the U.S. troops that you're facing with the Turkish actually doing? Are they doing the C-RAM training stuff? And then my actual question is for over-the-horizon. How low in the command structure are we planning to actually interface the over-the-horizon assistance?
Gen McKenzie: So, it'll be very high in the command structure. And that's just a risk that we recognize where before we were partnered to a relatively low level. Now that partnership is going to end at a much higher level. And so, we will not have the visibility on the disbursement of systems, capabilities, funds and all those other things that we had in the past, we've known that. That's a risk we know and accept going forward. And the Afghans ability to deal with that, with the removal of that partnering at a lower level, I think is going to be one of the fundamental things that shapes their success or failure going forward. Because they have a large, complex military organization and now they're going to have to run it largely themselves, not really at sort of below the sub-ministerial level.
As to what's going on out at HKIA, we're cooperating with the Turks in a variety of ways. Certainly, C-RAM is one of the areas where we have unique capabilities that we bring to the fight.
Stars & Stripes: General, to clarify, you said at a lower level, are you saying at the sub-ministerial level or at the corps level, or have you figured that out?
Gen McKenzie: No, not at the corps level, above that. Probably a better way to phrase it would be, let's just leave it at the ministerial level. Because it will be geographically restricted to the areas that you see here. In HKIA, we're not going to be out in the field moving around. So really out of necessity, that means it's going to be at the ministerial level, which is probably the way I should have said it at the beginning.
Moderator: Time for the last two. 1TV.
1TV: Thank you. This is Hadi from 1TV. General, President Biden always says that United States reached (inaudible) in Afghanistan. (inaudible) ISIS and al Qaeda (inaudible) in Afghanistan. Are you worried about this group? And the second question is, following the recall of Coalition, after September 11, if Taliban tried to take over Kabul, what would you do?
Gen McKenzie: So, we recognize there are two extremist groups in Afghanistan that have our direct attention. One is al Qaeda, one is ISIS, ISIS-K. Through the counterterrorism pressure that we placed on them over the years, they have not been able, particularly al Qaeda, to generate effective external attack plans against the United States, our homeland, or the homelands of our allies. We know that remains an aspirational goal of theirs. And so, going forward, we will retain the ability to strike into Afghanistan should it become necessary, against those two groups. We've been very clear about that. I've also been very clear that it will not be easy to do that, but it is not impossible to do that. Obviously, I think the Taliban probably would like to conduct an operation against Kabul. I think they will find it much harder than when they came here in the mid-90s. It's a much larger urban area. I think there are a lot more people here. I think the true nature and ferocity of Taliban rule is actually known to Afghans in a way that it wasn't known before. So, I don't think it'll be the same thing that happened in the mid-1990s, should that occur.
1TV: The last question. Have you reached an agreement with regional countries, especially Pakistan, about U.S. bases?
Gen McKenzie: Our diplomats are talking to a variety of countries around the region about basing, and that's really a better question for the Department of State than me.
Moderator: OK, last question then. I'm going to come back to AFP. All right, no? Wall Street Journal, bring it home.
Wall Street Journal: Could you elaborate a little bit? I mean, Kandahar has been problematic at this point. Have many of these airstrikes been concentrated around there, can you give us a little bit more detail about it?
Gen McKenzie: Sure, it's a tough fight down there right now. We are flying air strikes in support of the ANDSF down there. They were flying their own airstrikes down there. I think it's obvious that for a lot of reasons, I think the Taliban would be drawn to Kandahar. It's profoundly symbolic to them. And so, I think that's why you see those attacks being generated against them.
We continue to support them in every way that we can. I think the issue's in doubt but Kandahar has not fallen. ANDSF continue to defend it. It is a critical city for both contestants in this war and that's about all I can tell you.
Thanks very much. I enjoyed talking to you tonight. Thanks for coming out again on such short notice. Thank you very much.