The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was a “shot in the arm" for global extremists, US Central Command head Gen Kenneth McKenzie said on Tuesday as he warned America to be vigilant.
Speaking to The National, Gen McKenzie discussed the hasty withdrawal of US forces from Afghanistan before the August 31 deadline, admitting that the US would be doing “a pretty deep study into what went wrong”, the reaction of allies in the region to the situation in Kabul as well as the pressing threats to the Middle East today.
Gen McKenzie, who oversees US military operations for more than a dozen countries from Pakistan to Egypt, said that Washington saw the risks that the Afghan government could collapse but were surprised by the speed of the fall, which occurred in a matter of weeks.
“I think we felt there will be a grave danger as we drew down our forces to near zero in August. I don't believe anyone saw how quickly the actual collapse of the military and the government … would occur,” he said.
“We will do a pretty deep study into what went wrong and why the Afghan military, that we spent so much money on, failed so quickly, but at the same time, our investigation won't be limited to solely military matters. We need to look at the whole of government approach.”
He said his focus today was on ensuring the Taliban live up to promises made at talks with Washington in Doha that Afghanistan would not become a safe haven for terror groups plotting attacks on American interests.
“I've learnt a long time ago never to listen to what the Taliban say [but] instead to look at what they do. And there's no evidence yet that they have done anything to sever ties with Al Qaeda or to suppress the ISIS-K to the degree that it needs to be suppressed. They still have some time to do this and we will watch very carefully,” he said.
He warned the Taliban that any future US recognition, support or aid would be contingent on them living up to those commitments, “and also to not roll back the dramatic improvements in rights of women, education, other things that have occurred over the last two decades”.
But on the fallout following the withdrawal, during which the US led a global effort to fly out tens of thousands of Afghans and foreign nationals from Kabul airport, he said the legacy would be lasting but also highlighted the US’s partnerships in the region and further afield.
“We also recognise the contributions of our allies, in particular what the UAE did to help us with the flow of evacuees out of Afghanistan [which were] the actions of a true friend in a time of need.”
Gen McKenzie assured allies worried about the US exit from Afghanistan after two decades by saying that “America is going to be there”, and added that his visit to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday was part of that mission to provide reassurance.
“This is an important region to us. We are a global power with global responsibilities,” he said.
Turning to Iraq, where President Joe Biden has raised the possibility of withdrawing combat troops by the end of the year, he said any decision would happen in talks with Baghdad.
But it “is clear to me that they want our continued presence … in some form”, he said, and added that Nato, too, had a significant training mission in the country that he expects to continue.
The general said he feels there are clear lessons to be learnt from the collapse of the Afghan military this year and the Iraqi military in 2014 when ISIS invaded.
“I think the lesson of 2014 is we left very quickly and we didn't leave anything behind. I think the lesson of Afghanistan in 2021 is we left very quickly and we didn't leave anything behind — I think you can draw two lessons from that.”
His suggestion was modelled on the current US deployment in Iraq today: “If you remain behind at a relatively small level, as we are doing in Iraq right now, you can continue to allow Iraqi forces to gain success against ISIS,” he said.
While he said the once global terrorist group was diminished, it remained “an ongoing threat”, but one that can be managed through partnerships with local forces.
“One of the things we know about ISIS is they do like to hold ground; they want to re-establish the caliphate, even if it's small and far-flung,” he said.
“What we want to do is prevent them from being able to gain interconnected tissue … we want to prevent them from going global. The idea would be, you keep them local, where local security forces can deal with them — an example would be Iraq, where I think we're making very good progress.”
The Taliban released “about 1,000 hardened ISIS fighters” when they threw open prison doors after taking over, leaving “a very capable force in Afghanistan today”.
Instead of ISIS, Gen McKenzie said that Iran was the region’s most pressing security concern.
“Iran is a very serious threat. They have an aggressive theocratic regime that's outwardly facing. I think they seek hegemonic status in the region. I think they seek to be a dominant power,” he said.
Particularly, this threat comes from Iran’s “massive building of ballistic missiles, through their proxy warriors who fight across the region, to the rising threat of land-attack cruise missiles and unmanned aerial systems, which we have seen them employ against Saudi Arabia and others here in the past couple of years".
He said that the rise of drone warfare is an issue for countries around the world and is something that the US and its allies are worried. For this reason, they are investing heavily in new ways to stop drones.
“The larger drones are actually easier to deal with — they look like aeroplanes and they can be dealt with like aeroplanes. But a small drone is an enduring problem and we still got a ways to go to solve that problem but it's not for lack of hard work on the problem, let me assure you,” he said.
He said he is hopeful talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal would limit Iran's nuclear ambitions — although he said he backed Mr Biden's desire for a broader agreement that takes account of Iran's missiles and proxies — he said that the US Central Command's job was to “deter Iran so the diplomats can do that very hard work".
As to instability in Lebanon — where an economic crisis has devastated the country and street fighting between Iran-backed Hezbollah supporters, their allies and gunmen they accuse of being backed by the Christian Lebanese Forces risks deadly civil strife — Gen McKenzie says the US wants to support the Lebanese military.
Asked if that includes helping pay salaries and even providing food for servicemen, he said they provide a number of things to the Lebanese military as well as others in the region and would encourage that.
He declined to answer specifically about contingencies for removing US and foreign nationals from Lebanon in the event of a broader conflict — as the US did in 2006 during the 34-day war between Israel and Hezbollah — although he assured The National that the US military “have contingencies for everything”.