Anyone that's been following US pronouncements on Afghanistan over the last many years should know what to expect by now: when Washington touts its latest "full exit" strategy, it's likely to end in anything but. From the start of both Trump's prior pullout efforts (which had during his last year in office been set for May 1st, now come and gone) as well as Biden's current "out by Sept.11" final timetable, the Pentagon has simultaneously pronounced it will keep some level of sizeable security and 'counterterror' force on the ground.
For example in May defense officials were predicting that it might take a contingency of 600 Marines to permanently secure the sprawling US embassy complex in Kabul - which hardly seems like the full withdrawal being promised. The various "options" and their intense discussion have only increased, given this month Western media reports are full of predictions of just how fast Kabul is likely to fall to the Taliban after the US finally exits. According the The Wall Street Journal this week, US intelligence is now giving it six months - which many pundits say itself is an overly optimistic estimate.
"The U.S. intelligence community concluded last week that the government of Afghanistan could collapse as soon as six months after the American military withdrawal from the country is completed, according to officials with knowledge of the new assessment," the report says.
"American intelligence agencies revised their previously more optimistic estimates as the Taliban swept through northern Afghanistan last week, seizing dozens of districts and surrounding major cities," WSJ continues.
This has further intensified debates surrounding whether the US will provide air support to Afghan national forces from neighboring countries - a scenario looking less and less likely after Biden last week ordered a significant drawdown of US military equipment from nearby Gulf countries in reflection of a major shift of US defense priorities, which will reportedly place greater emphasis on countering China and Russia.
It now looks like the US will go with the initial plan to keep a large security presence focused on the embassy and diplomatic compounds in Kabul, as The Associated Press reports Friday US officials are confirming that roughly 650 troops will stay in the Afghan capital.
"In addition, several hundred additional American forces will remain at the Kabul airport, potentially until September, to assist Turkish troops providing security, as a temporary move until a more formal Turkey-led security operation is in place, the officials said," according to the report. "Overall, officials said the U.S. expects to have American and coalition military command, its leadership and most troops out by July Fourth, or shortly after that, meeting an aspirational deadline that commanders developed months ago."
650 troops is a sizeable enough military footprint in the country to likely convince the Taliban and other insurgents that the occupation is only continuing, not ending. It's also a big enough force that should this remnant US presence come under direct threat (and the latest US intelligence suggestion that Kabul will be overrun within six months of US exit is a clear indicator of that likelihood), the Pentagon wouldn't hesitate to send additional security support and firepower, which would in the end perpetuate the very problem (of how to finally and fully exit) that the Sept.11 draw down date is meant to solve.
Meanwhile, at the start of this week Pentagon spokesman John Kirby suggested the US still has the option of slowing the pace of its Afghan draw down, amid recent heavy fighting and Taliban advances against the national army.
"The situation in Afghanistan changes as the Taliban continue to conduct these attacks and to raid district centers as well as the violence, which is still too high,”" Kirby told a Monday press briefing. "If there needs to be changes made to the pace, or to the scope and scale of the retrograde, on any given day or in any given week, we want to maintain the flexibility to do that."