The general in charge of U.S. forces in the Middle East area said Thursday he is worried that Afghanistan's military may not be able to "hold on" after American troops leave later this year.
During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, U.S. Central Command head Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie reiterated that when the withdrawal happens, "zero means zero" -- all U.S. military, Defense Department contractors and allies will leave Afghanistan no later than Sept. 11, aside from a small force to protect its embassy.
But, he said, without any U.S. military presence there, it's an open question as to how the Afghan military will perform.
"My concern is the ability of the Afghan military to hold the ground on their own now, without the [American] support that they've been used to for many years," McKenzie said.
The U.S. has "weaned" the Afghan military from the most direct forms of support in recent years, such as American and coalition soldiers side by side with them on the ground, he said. Most recent American assistance to the Afghan military has come in the form of intelligence and fire support, he said.
But he remains particularly concerned about the Afghan air force's ability to fly after Americans stop supporting their aircraft.
"All of those things are factors that will be worked out here in the next few months, and we'll get an opportunity to see how the Afghans do," McKenzie said.
Later in the hearing, when asked about the need for the Pentagon to spend $4 billion a year to support Afghan security forces, McKenzie struck a sobering tone.
"If we don't provide them some support, they certainly will collapse," McKenzie said when asked about the need for that budgetary support. "And I think that's not in our best interest."
In a briefing with reporters Thursday afternoon, McKenzie said the U.S. plans to continue supporting the Afghan military, including financially, after the withdrawal. However, he said, it will be harder to do without people on the ground in Afghanistan.
"We believe it will be a tough fight for Afghans, but we intend to continue to support them," McKenzie said.
One area that will become particularly complicated after the withdrawal is maintenance operations for the Afghan military, and particularly its aircraft. The vast majority of that is now done by contractors.
McKenzie said the military is looking for alternative ways to assist the Afghans remotely, such as by videoconferencing with maintainers at centralized depots.
The Afghan air force is a very effective force that is a "deal-changer" in fighting the Taliban, he said, and that the U.S. has gotten a good return on its investment there. However, keeping any aircraft in the air -- particularly planes with advanced technology -- requires constant maintenance, he said. And the need for contractors to conduct that complicated work is not a sign that the Afghan air force is lacking or America's effort to build them up fell short, he said.
"Aircraft maintenance ... requires engagement every day," McKenzie said. "The effects that we've gotten from that force are actually very good. But going forward ... you have to recognize that it will be harder to do all those things."
The Taliban is likely to continue conducting military operations in Afghanistan after the withdrawal, McKenzie said, and never has stopped fighting. The pace of attacks is now about as high as it has been throughout the war in Afghanistan, he said, with roughly 30 to 50 Afghan soldiers and policemen dying in combat each day, and the Taliban also taking heavy losses.
"We'll have to wait and see how that plays out," McKenzie said. "I think the Afghans are going to fight back. I can't predict the future. I don't know how that's going to play out. We'll certainly do everything in our power to assist our Afghan partners after we leave."
But McKenzie disputed a reporter's characterization of his assessment of the situation as "bleak," and said his view of Afghanistan's outlook is not out of step with the administration's decision to withdraw. McKenzie said he, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and other top military leaders were consulted fully by President Joe Biden as the decision was being made, and that all views were on the table.