Afghanistan's Military Could Struggle to Protect U.S. Embassy Once Troops Leave, General Frank McKenzie Says

General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, warned Thursday that Afghanistan's military could struggle to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul once American troops withdrawal from the country.

Speaking to Congress, McKenzie said Afghanistan's military "will certainly collapse" without continued support from the U.S., and detailed his concern that the country's government could fail to protect the embassy moving forward.

"It is a matter of great concern to me whether or not the future government of Afghanistan will be able to do that once we leave," McKenzie told lawmakers on Thursday, adding that if the U.S. pulls out all troops, "my concern is the Afghans' ability to hold ground."

McKenzie's comments came after President Joe Biden announced a full withdrawal of all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, ending 20 years of U.S. involvement in the country.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

U.S. Embassy Kabul
General Frank McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, warned lawmakers Thursday that Afghanistan's military might not be able to protect the U.S. Embassy in Kabul once American troops leave the country. In the photo, a U.S. Marine stands guard in front of the embassy on December 21, 2001, in Kabul, Afghanistan. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

U.S. officials have made it clear that military commanders did not recommend the full, unconditional withdrawal that Biden has ordered. Military leaders have consistently argued for a drawdown based on security conditions in the country, saying that pulling troops out by a certain date eliminates pressure on the Taliban and weakens U.S. leverage in the peace talks with the group.

Still, McKenzie said the Biden administration's "deliberate and methodical" withdrawal discussion "was heartening," implicitly drawing a contrast with former President Donald Trump's penchant for making abrupt troop withdrawal decisions and announcing them by tweet.

In public and private sessions with lawmakers, McKenzie has been pressed about how the U.S. will maintain pressure on the Taliban and prevent terrorist groups from taking hold in Afghanistan again once the United States and its coalition partners leave. The U.S. has more than 2,500 troops in the country; the NATO coalition has said it will follow the same timetable for withdrawing the more than 7,000 allied forces.

He told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday that once troops leave the country, it will take "considerably longer" than four hours to move armed drones or other aircraft in and out of Afghanistan to provide overhead surveillance or counterterrorism strikes. He said it will require far more aircraft than he is using now.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at NATO earlier this month, said the U.S. will continue to support the Afghans after the withdrawal. He said, "we will look to continue funding key capabilities such as the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing, and we will seek to continue paying salaries for Afghan Security Forces."

Austin and others have said the U.S. will maintain the ability to counter terrorists in Afghanistan, but there are few details, and officials said they have not yet gotten any diplomatic agreements for basing with any of the surrounding nations.

McKenzie has declined to provide details during the public sessions.

He said there are no decisions yet on what size of diplomatic contingent will be left at the U.S. Embassy in the Afghan capital, and whether it will include a security cooperation office. Those decisions, he said, could reflect how the U.S. ensures the defense of the embassy. Marines often provide security at other embassies around the world.

The Pentagon said it's not clear yet whether any U.S. contractors will remain in the country. The Defense Department said the number of contractors in Afghanistan started to decline over the past year or so. According to the latest numbers, there are close to 17,000 Defense Department-funded contractors in Afghanistan and less than one-third of those were Americans.

The total included more than 2,800 armed and unarmed private security contractors, of which more than 1,500 are armed. Of those 1,500, about 600 are Americans.