On July 2nd, 2021, the Pentagon’s top spokesman announced that command of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would be transferred to the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) from NATO’s Resolute Support Mission, which previously commanded U.S. forces in the country, and which was most recently led by former U.S. Army former Delta Force officer, General Scott Miller. CENTCOM commander General Frank McKenzie, a career U.S. Marine officer, will now command the U.S. forces remaining in the country.
Embedded in that announcement — in addition to the fact that command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will now fall under a regional combatant commander instead of a specific operational commander — was the news that a new operational command was being established in Afghanistan: U.S. Forces Afghanistan Forward, to be led by Navy SEAL Rear Admiral Peter Vasely.
What exactly do these announcements signify, as far as the nature of future American military operations in Afghanistan? Are we not completely pulling out of the country, as has been alluded to by members of the Biden administration, as well as by some press reports and commentary? It would appear that we are not, or at least, not so comprehensively.
The establishment of the new U.S. Forces Afghanistan Forward command was described in the press release as a “smaller security mission,” based in Kabul, which would report directly to CENTCOM and be supported by the Defense Security Cooperation Management Office – Afghanistan, based in Qatar and led by U.S. Army Brigadier General Curtis Buzzard. We can glean an assessment of the nature of the U.S. mission going forward in Afghanistan by looking at these latter two commands, and who is leading them.
First, Rear Admiral Vasely is a Navy SEAL officer, he previously served at SEAL Team 6, he was recently assigned to Joint Special Operations Task Force (JSOTF) Afghanistan, and he has also served at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA). All of that tells us that he has experience operating in and commanding SOF in theatre, as well as in Department of Defense HUMINT collection (from a management position, anyway). Secondly, General Buzzard (this author exercises great restraint in not referencing a potential new GI Joe villain name) was previously assigned to a number of G3 (staff operations) positions in the U.S. Army, including in the 3rd Infantry Division, the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment, and the 82nd Airborne. This tells us that he has largely specialized in operational planning at the command level, presumably including in areas like force demobilization and allocation of resources.
In other words, we know that remaining in Afghanistan is this forward operations element (ostensibly for security, but commanded by a Navy SEAL flag officer), which reports operationally to the combatant commander of U.S. Central Command, and is supported by a more staff-oriented command with “defense security cooperation management” in its name. In addition, there are undoubtedly CIA operations personnel — both core collectors and likely paramilitary officers — who will remain in place in the country, dispersed throughout various strategic locations as they have been for two decades.
The conclusions we can draw based on these facts are:
— Some number of U.S. Special Operations Forces will remain in country, “advising and assisting” Afghan forces on the ground in their struggle against the Taliban, and providing some level of quick reaction force to respond to both American and Afghan forces in extremis. This will likely entail seeing at least some amount of combat operations. Those same U.S. SOF will also possibly be involved in operations directed against various high-value terrorism targets that pop up in the country from time-to-time.
— U.S. military and intelligence cooperation, including a financial component, will continue for the foreseeable future, though no longer emanating from the platform of a large deployed force at war. The relationship will likely shift to a more advisory-focused one, and for simplicity’s sake, can likely be described as an enhanced Foreign Internal Defense/Counterterrorism relationship. The day-to-day logistics and details of that relationship will likely be handled by a mix of diplomats, CIA officers, and military/DOD personnel such as General Buzzard.
— U.S. intelligence operations will continue in the country, and throughout the wider theatre, with counterterrorism personnel primarily focused on preventing a resurgence of al-Qaeda and other transnational terrorist groups, and additional intelligence personnel focused on issues related to great power politics. I am, of course, assuming that such a shift — to a greater focus on traditional intel targets in addition to counterterrorism targets — was not already effected by the CIA in recent years.
Frankly, the above configuration of missions and forces seemed the most likely to take shape when the Biden administration first announced its intention to bring “all American forces home” from Afghanistan by 9/11/2021. Realistically, the United States was never going to completely abandon its hard-won strategic foothold in Central Asia, especially with a still-active al-Qaeda and ISIS there, and strategic rivals like Russia, China, and Iran located in the same general neighborhood. That would have been strategically short-sighted, and such a move would have been argued against — undoubtedly vociferously — by the national security establishment in Washington.
It appears, given what we know at this time about the American stay-behind elements that will remain in Afghanistan, that those national security voices ultimately prevailed on the politicians serving in the Biden administration.
Feature image: U.S. Marine Corps/ Staff Sgt. John Jackson