The top commander in charge of US forces in the Middle East said on Tuesday that some of the 3,500 American troops set to leave Afghanistan by September 11 will probably remain in the region.
“I think some of the forces are going to remain in Central Command because we are going to look at offshore, over-the-horizon operations, and that’s going to require some different things,” Central Command's Gen Kenneth McKenzie testified to Congress.
“Nothing on the scale and expenditures that you’re seeing now in Afghanistan of course, but we still need to do some things there as well.
“But I think broadly it’s going to be a significant lever for the department to apply against what, I agree, are some of the more significant challenges that we face to date.”
Gen McKenzie said the US would continue with counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan but identified China and Russia as some of the more pressing threats facing the Defence Department.
It remains unclear where in the region the US can post military for future counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.
Gen McKenzie said the administration of President Joe Biden did not have agreements with neighbouring countries to station US forces.
That could hinder Washington’s ability to conduct air strikes and surveillance operations in Afghanistan after the withdrawal.
“Right now, we’re engaged in a significant effort to evaluate where we want to put potential forces where they’d be best optimised in geography and also the diplomatic angle of it as we go forward,” he said.
He said Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has instructed him to prepare a "detailed" plan by the end of April, outlining options for future counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.
Acting defence secretary Amanda Dory promised to provide members of Congress with more specific details on those options in a classified part of the House of Representatives briefing.
At the same time as Gen McKenzie was testifying, US special envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad briefed members of the House behind closed doors.
Mr Khalilzad briefed senators in camera on Monday.
“I share the president’s desire to get our troops out of Afghanistan,” Democrat Bob Menendez, chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, said after Mr Khalilzad’s testimony.
"But I continue to have concerns about our ability to protect the hard-fought gains made for the rights of Afghan women and minorities, as well as our confidence level that Afghanistan will not again become a haven for terrorists.
“How we withdraw and what political arrangement is left in our wake is critically important.”
Mr Menendez pledged to hold a public Senate hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal within “the coming weeks".
Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell voiced many of the same concerns, albeit with more scathing language, as Biden administration officials made their rounds on Capitol Hill.
“Does the administration have a plan for keeping terrorists off balance in the absence of troops and leverage in the region?” Mr McConnell asked the Senate on Tuesday.
“Does the Taliban share the administration’s commitment to a negotiated solution? To not harming Afghan women and girls or seeking vengeance on those who’ve worked with the US to root out terror? Somehow I doubt it.”
The agreement the Trump administration brokered with the Taliban last year in Qatar required the group to severe ties with Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in exchange for the departure of US forces by May 1.
The Biden administration is starting the withdrawal on May 1 and has pledged that it will be finished by September 11.
But the Taliban has already issued thinly veiled threats against foreign forces that remain in Afghanistan past the May 1 deadline.
“I have grave doubts about the Taliban’s reliability,” said Gen McKenzie. “But we need to see what they’re going to do here.
“The fact of the matter is if – let’s say we leave. If they want any form of future international recognition for Afghanistan, if they want any form of international support, they’re going to have to keep the agreements they’ve made.”
He gave a more concrete assessment of counter-terrorism operations in Iraq, where US troops in the counter-ISIS mission have become the frequent target of fire from Iran-backed militias who hope to push them out of the country.
“I don’t see us completely withdrawing from Iraq in the future,” Gen McKenzie said.
The US and Iraq hinted at the withdrawal of US combat forces from the country as part of a strategic dialogue this month.
But the vast majority of the 2,500 troops stationed there are supporting the Iraqi Security Forces in an advisory, rather than combat, capacity.
That suggests the agreement is unlikely to result in a significant withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.