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On Tour Of Middle East, U.S. Commander Blames Taliban For Afghan Instability

General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Army Central Command, meeting with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in July 2019.

The commander of U.S. forces in the Middle East says the U.S. military is looking for so-called “fallback” bases in Saudi Arabia to protect forces in the event of raised tensions with Iran.

"What we would like to do, without shutting down [current] to have the ability to go to other bases to operate in a period of heightened risk," General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Army Central Command (Centcom), said on February 18.

He made the comments while on a tour of the Middle East, during which he also assailed the Taliban for increased violence in Afghanistan.

Referring to Saudi Arabia, McKenzie stressed that the Pentagon is not looking for new permanent bases, but rather sites that could be quickly utilized in time of crisis.

"These are things that any prudent military planner would want to do to increase their flexibility, to make it more difficult for the adversary to target them," he added.

The Wall Street Journal reported last month that the Pentagon is exploring plans for potential use of a Red Sea port and two additional Saudi airfields amid heightened tensions with Iran.

The U.S. military has an array of bases in Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf Arab states, many of which are bitter rivals of Iran.

Traditionally close U.S.-Saudi relations, while strong during the administration of President Donald Trump, are uncertain under new President Joe Biden, who is expected to take a harder line against human rights violations in the country.

Biden has also expressed a willingness to reengage with Tehran following Trump’s hard-line approach to Iran.

Meanwhile, McKenzie also said that Taliban militants are "clearly" responsible for a recent surge in violence in Afghanistan.

The Taliban has denied responsibility for the violence that has intensified as U.S.-brokered peace deal with the Afghan government has stalled, blaming instead other Muslim extremist groups.

McKenzie, however, directly blamed the Taliban.

"Certainly ISIS [the Islamic State militant group] has launched some attacks. It pales against what the Taliban is doing. It's a combination of their countrywide attacks against the Afghan forces, their targeted assassinations in some of the urban areas,” McKenzie said.

"This is clearly the Taliban. There is no way it's anyone else. That's very clear," he added.

"Violence is not directed at us or our coalition NATO friends, it is directed against the Afghan military and security forces and against the people as well. And that is principally coming from the Taliban," he stressed to reporters.

During the Trump administration, U.S. negotiators struck a deal with the Taliban that called for U.S. troops to pull out of Afghanistan in the coming months in exchange for security guarantees from the militants, who have been fighting the Kabul government since their ouster from power by U.S.-led forces in 2001.

The Biden administration is reviewing the Taliban deal to determine if the militant group is meeting its commitments, including reaching a cease-fire and engaging in meaningful negotiations with the Afghan government.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the alliance did not make a final decision on whether or when to withdraw troops out of Afghanistan during a virtual meeting on February 18.

With reporting by AFP and The Wall Street Journal
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