Officials give Congress few answers on Afghanistan pullout

WASHINGTON — Defense officials had few solid answers Wednesday as frustrated lawmakers sought details on how the United States will keep the terrorist threat from reemerging in Afghanistan after American and coalition troops leave later this year.

Under persistent questions from members of the House Armed Services Committee, the officials said discussions and negotiations are continuing on almost every aspect of the pullout: the post-withdrawal security of Afghanistan, the training of Afghan troops, intelligence collection, protections for Afghans who have helped coalition troops, and the potential for a U.S. diplomatic presence in the nation.

The testimony from David Helvey, acting assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, and Brig. Gen. Matthew Trollinger, deputy director for political and military affairs on the Joint Staff, laid bare the lack of solutions so far on how the Biden administration will monitor and possibly fight threats in Afghanistan from “over the horizon.”

“What we’ve heard today is when it comes to basing, when it comes to the visas for these people who have helped us, when it comes to training the Afghan forces going forward, we’re hearing, ‘We’re working on it’,” said Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, top Republican on the committee. “I’m of the opinion this should have been resolved before you announced you were leaving.”

President Joe Biden announced last month that all U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11. There are at least 3,300 American troops and special operations forces there now; hundreds more have gone in to provide security and logistical help for the withdrawal.

Military leaders have said they will monitor threats from “over the horizon,” to ensure that al-Qaida and other groups cannot again use Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against the U.S. But those leaders have provided few details.

Helvey acknowledged there are no agreements yet with any of Afghanistan’s neighbors to allow the U.S. to base troops there or permit overflights into Afghanistan, including for surveillance. He said the State Department is leading the effort in talks with other countries.

Rep. Doug Lanborn, R-Colo., noted the difficulty in securing a base location, given that neighbors such as China, Iran, Pakistan and India are not likely solutions. That would leave, he said, countries such as Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Helvey said the U.S. has significant military capabilities in the Middle East and is “exploring options” to keep assets in the region so threats can be identified as they emerge. But, he said, it’s a “very difficult neighborhood” and the U.S. has to work quietly and carefully on those issues. He gave the same answer about exploring options when asked how the U.S. plans to continue to train Afghan forces.

Pressed by lawmakers on whether the U.S. would stay longer in Afghanistan if needed to get all those solutions worked out, Helvey said the withdrawal timeline and the negotiations are on parallel tracks “but are not linked.”

Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., who has served as a senior defense and CIA official, asked how the U.S. will know if a threat is starting to emerge in Afghanistan. She noted that the Islamic State group was able to capture large swaths of territory in Iraq and Syria before the U.S. went back into Iraq to help defeat the insurgents.

Helvey said the U.S. will need “persistent” intelligence. Gen. Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, has said that keeping surveillance aircraft over Afghanistan will require long flights from U.S. bases in the region — as much as six hours away. As a result, he said, it will take a greater commitment for more drones and other aircraft to keep an eye on the terrorist groups.

The committee chairman, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Washington, led a drumbeat about the need for the Pentagon and other agencies to rapidly get as many 18,000 Afghans who have worked for and aided the coalition effort out of the country. The Afghans, including thousands of interpreters who worked for the military, face violence or death at the hands of the Taliban if they stay.

Helvey said the State Department is heading that effort, but added that it would be helpful if Congress increased the quota for the number of Afghans who can get special visas or other help to get out. Lawmakers said the Pentagon should explore ways to evacuate the Afghans, while other diplomatic solutions are worked out.

As lawmakers were heading into a closed, classified briefing, Rogers said he would be looking for better clarity “that gives me comfort that ‘we’re working on it’ means a whole lot more than ‘we’re working on it’.”