U.S. commanders request aircraft carrier to protect troops withdrawing from Afghanistan, officials say

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WASHINGTON — U.S. commanders have asked for the deployment of an aircraft carrier to help protect U.S.-led troops as they withdraw from Afghanistan, two senior Defense officials told NBC News.

With fighter squadrons at the ready, an aircraft carrier in the region could provide additional cover in case U.S. and other NATO forces come under fire as they depart by a Sept. 11 deadline set by President Joe Biden. The request underscores concerns at the Pentagon that the Taliban may launch attacks on the troops as they pull out.

The Taliban has hinted at the possibility that it could target U.S.-led forces after May 1 as the United States had pledged to pull out all forces by the deadline under an agreement signed last year with the insurgents.

The New York Times first reported the request.

No final decision has been taken on the request from Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, the officials said.

“There has been no specific decision about additional assets at this time,” one of the officials said.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has made clear the U.S. troop pullout would be carried out in a safe and orderly way, the official added.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Thursday, McKenzie said more troops and resources would be deployed to safeguard the forces leaving Afghanistan.

“Yes, we will bring additional resources in, in order to protect the force as it comes out,” the general said. "That is normal in any kind of disengagement operation.“

While he declined to go into detail about the withdrawal operation, he said the United States “will have additional capabilities and I’m confident that we ... and our coalition partners will be able to extract ourselves. We look every day, every hour at force protection in Afghanistan.”

At a House hearing Tuesday, McKenzie said U.S. troops were ready if the Taliban chose to target the forces as they withdraw.

"I'm confident that we will have the forces necessary to protect our forces should the Taliban decide to begin attacking us on [May 1] or any other date," he said.

He added: “We will defend ourselves . ... We are ready for whatever they choose to do.”

If a carrier is ordered in, the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower and the USS Theodore Roosevelt would be likely candidates. The Eisenhower is currently deployed in the Mediterranean Sea and the Roosevelt is homeported in San Diego after its last deployment was cut short by an outbreak of Covid-19 aboard the ship.