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Biden’s pick to lead military in Middle East says U.S. has a ‘moral obligation’ to help Afghans left behind

Lt. Gen. Michael Kurilla, nominee to be commander of U.S. Central Command, testifies during a Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing on Feb. 8. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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President Biden’s nominee to command U.S. troops across the Middle East said on Tuesday that he sees Iran’s regional influence and weapons programs as “vexing,” and that he believes America has a “moral obligation” to evacuate more Afghans who helped the United States during its longest war.

Army Lt. Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla, who has deployed to the Middle East and Afghanistan throughout his career, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that if confirmed as the next commanding general of U.S. Central Command, he would assess what military options could assist the State Department in doing so.

The general’s comments came in response to a question from Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who is among the lawmakers from both political parties pressing for the Biden administration to do more for the thousands of allies left behind after the Taliban swept to power in August.

“I have been frustrated, frankly, by our State Department’s seeming reluctance to be as engaged as it should in this effort,” Blumenthal said during the hearing.

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Kurilla, commanding general of the Army’s XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg, N.C., affirmed he would prioritize the matter.

Asked about the military’s options for carrying out counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan now that U.S. forces have withdrawn, Kurilla indicated that remained a work in progress.

“It’s resource-intensive to be able to do the finding, and then the fixing and finishing of those targets that you’re going after,” he said, adding that drones continue to fly over Afghanistan from long distances from other partner countries.

The general said that he wants to continue working with Pakistan to the extent possible. Islamabad has had an uneven and at times adversarial relationship with the United States over how to handle militant groups in the region, but Kurilla said shared interests remain.

“The humanitarian crisis inside of Afghanistan threatens the migrants to push into Pakistan,” he said, alluding to waves of refugees who already have begun to leave Afghanistan.

Tuesday’s wide-ranging hearing also touched on recent prison breaks at Islamic State detention centers in Syria, China’s global expansion and whether a potential Russian invasion of Ukraine would have implications in the Middle East.

Kurilla, who in the near term is set to lead a headquarters unit in Germany overseeing U.S. troops deployed in response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis, said he believes an invasion would likely alarm Central Asian nations like Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Kazakhstan that were once Soviet states.

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The general said that Iran’s influence across the region continues to be troubling. He cited Tehran’s support for Houthi rebels in Yemen and militias in Iraq and Syria who have launched rockets at U.S. troops. The United States, Kurilla said, must expose Iran’s involvement in such actions whenever possible.

“It causes them to react,” he said. “They try to hide their behavior and not take action for a time.”

Kurilla, 55, is expected to face little opposition to confirmation. Several lawmakers, including Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Tuesday they believe he is right for the job.

As commanding general of the XVIII Corps, Kurilla oversees more than 90,000 service members, including some of the Army’s best known units. They include the 82nd Airborne Division, the 10th Mountain Division, the 101st Airborne Division and 3rd Infantry Division.

A 1988 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., he has participated in virtually all of the military’s major campaigns since joining the Army, and served each year in the Middle East from 2004 to 2014, commanding conventional and Special Operations troops as he rose through the ranks. In 2005, as battalion commander, he was wounded in a firefight in Iraq.

Kurilla is expected to replace Marine Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, who has led Central Command since March 2019. He is expected to retire.