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Lawmakers scold Pentagon for leaving Afghanistan without ‘over-the-horizon’ plan

Aircrew assigned to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, carry their gear into a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, April 27, 2021, at Al Udeid AB. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kylee Gardner)

The United States could be left with no footprint in Southwest Asia if troops leave Afghanistan before agreements are nailed down with neighboring countries to host American assets, Pentagon officials said Wednesday during a confrontational Congressional hearing that raised concerns with some lawmakers about the military’s ability to respond to terrorist threats.

“Why would we leave Bagram when we don’t have an alternative closer than [the United Arab Emirates]?” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., the ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, asked in a hearing.

Rogers asked officials to commit to not fully withdraw from Afghanistan until access, basing, and overflight agreements are locked in with other countries in the region.

But David Helvey, acting assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said the withdrawal is separate from the effort to obtain agreements with other nations to keep assets in the area.

“The two planning efforts are in parallel, but they’re not linked,” he said.

Helvey declined to say in an unclassified setting which countries the United States is talking with to maintain a presence in the region. But Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., laid out the options as he saw it.

If the U.S. military is relying on reaching Afghanistan by air from ships in the Arabian Sea, it will require flights over Iran or Pakistan. “The first is impossible, the second is problematic,” Lamborn said.

The nations that border Afghanistan include Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iran, Pakistan, China, and a small stretch that’s disputed between India and Pakistan, many of which have significant tensions with the United States that make cooperation unlikely.

The United States has three air options in the region about 1,000 miles away: Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, Naval Support Activity in Bahrain and Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar, where the military recently deployed bombers to protect troops during the withdrawal. Afghanistan is about 300 miles from the coast of the Arabian Sea, where the U.S. Navy typically has one or two aircraft carriers.

Helvey said there is no agreement confirmed with any of the bordering countries, but that “we are working all the different options.”

“It is a very difficult neighborhood,” he acknowledged.

The drawdown is moving forward as these discussions continue. As of Monday, the military had shipped more than 100 C-17 cargo planes full of material out of Afghanistan and had sent more than 1,800 pieces of equipment to the Defense Logistics Agency to be destroyed. That means the withdrawal is between 6 and 12 percent complete, U.S. Central Command officials said in a statement.

How the military can conduct surveillance and control the terrorist threat in the region has been the biggest open question since President Joe Biden announced last month that the United States would completely withdraw from Afghanistan in September.

“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago,” Biden said on April 14. “That cannot explain why we should remain there in 2021.”

Biden is following through on the Doha agreement President Donald Trump made with the Taliban to withdraw by May 1, though the president delayed the timeline by four months.

Helvey said the administration intends to counter the terrorism threat in Afghanistan without troops in the country three ways: by leveraging its diplomatic presence in Kabul, using capabilities in the region, including through ongoing discussions to try to secure basing locations closer to Afghanistan, and bolstering the global effort to combat transnational threats.

Still, the department faced tough questions from lawmakers in both parties pushing for more details on how the administration will fight terrorism in Afghanistan, especially with a planning timeline of just four months.

“I feel sorry for you because you’re being asked very specific questions about how you’re going to do things…from an audience that’s incredibly skeptical, that doesn’t believe you can do them,” said Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio.

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