The Middle East continues to be a hotbed of violence and conflict. U.S. troops have been fighting, advising, and training in the region for almost 20 years. While there will always be U.S. troops deployed to the Middle East under the jurisdiction of the Central Command (CENTCOM), many are questioning how much longer the U.S. plans to keep troops in Syria and Afghanistan.
Combat troops in Syria are tasked with assisting the Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) in their fight against ISIS. Within Syria, U.S. forces are operating in an area known as the Easter Syria Security Area. There, troops are working with local forces to support them in the fight against ISIS. Troops are also stationed at At-Tanf, which is further south in the country.
U.S. forces are also assisting the SDF with maintaining their oil facilities. During the Middle East Institute event, which took place June 10, General McKenzie, the Commanding Officer for CENTCOM, explained, “We’re there to assist the SDF in the maintenance of the oil facilities for their use to help them generate income, which could be used [sic] for a variety of things, some of which would be to continue operations against ISIS.”
It is no secret that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is not an ally of the United States. McKenzie noted that “Over time, Bashar al-Assad is probably going to turn to the east and increase pressure on us, and we’ll deal with that as it happens.”
President Trump has expressed his desire to remove U.S. troops from Syria, but so far has not accomplished this task.
On that point, General McKenzie stated, “I don’t know how long we’re going to remain in eastern Syria. At some point, we’re going to come out, and that’s a political decision and we’ll be ready to execute those orders when that time comes.”
He also pointed out that there are 10,000 ISIS members currently locked up in prison camps in Syria. He categorized over 2,000 of the prisoners as “hardcore foreign fighters.”
According to General Mckenzie, the U.S. is ahead of schedule to meet the agreed-upon drawdown number of troops to 8,600. The troop decrease was a stipulation in the peace deal that the U.S. signed with the Taliban earlier this year.
While the U.S. may very well meet the initial drawdown agreement, McKenzie and others have expressed serious doubt about whether it will be possible to remove all troops by May 2021. Complete removal of U.S. forces is contingent on the Taliban remaining peaceful and ensuring that Afghanistan doesn’t become a host country for terrorist organizations once again.
Referencing this subject, Mckenzie pointed out, “The threat to the United States is not the Taliban, it’s never been the Taliban, it’s the entities they allow to live in Afghanistan that threaten us, and really we’re talking about ISIS and Al Qaeda.”
The U.S.’s military and political position hinges on the actions of the Taliban. As far as McKenzie is concerned, the Taliban are not an ally of ISIS. The Taliban have been fighting them for years, specifically in the Nangarhar Province. The U.S. wants the Taliban to take the same position vis à vis al-Qaeda.
Yet, General McKenzie is not as convinced that the Taliban is prepared to fight al-Qaeda, saying that, “It is less clear to me that they will take the same action against al-Qaeda and only time will tell. We will know by observation, not things they say, but things they do and those are things I believe that should actually inform our actions going forward.”
Although al-Qaeda’s stronghold area is nothing like it used to be, its “headquarters” still exists in eastern Afghanistan, along the border with Pakistan.
To complicate things further, the Taliban continue to attack the Afghan Army. These attacks by the Taliban are consistently happening away from cities, to prevent hitting U.S. and coalition troops. The attacks taking place in the cities are being blamed on ISIS.
Summing up the current situation in Afghanistan, General McKenzie said “We don’t have to like the Taliban, we have to believe the Taliban, what we need to do is watch the Taliban and see what they do. We’ll know more in the days ahead.”
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