WATCH: U.S. begins shifting Afghan combat operations outside country

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is telling Congress that the U.S. military has already begun conducting combat operations and surveillance in Afghanistan from outside the country's borders, as the troop withdrawal continues.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. military has already begun conducting combat operations and surveillance in Afghanistan from outside the country's borders, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told Congress on Thursday, as the troop withdrawal continues.

Watch the hearing in the player above.

But Austin declined to specifically address whether the U.S. will provide combat air support to the Afghan forces to prevent them or their major cities from being overrun by the Taliban after the pullout is complete. Austin said he would not "speculate on potential actions" but noted that once troops are fully withdrawn from Afghanistan it will be very difficult to provide such support to the Afghans.

Already, Austin said, the U.S. military is conducting air combat patrols and support from ships in the Gulf, and sending surveillance aircraft to Afghanistan from nations in the Gulf region. And Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that already the "vast majority" of MQ-9 Reaper drone missions are being flown from locations outside Afghanistan.

As of now, Austin said, the U.S. is still looking for options to station troops and aircraft in neighboring countries to make the flight to Afghanistan shorter. But, he said, that effort is still a work in progress and he had no timetable for completion of any negotiations.

Austin and Milley were testifying before the Senate Armed Service Committee on the proposed military budget and were pressed on a wide range of issues, including congressional proposals to change how the military prosecutes major crimes, including sexual assault.

President Joe Biden ordered the complete withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by early September, and that pullout is ahead of schedule, the military has said. But many questions surrounding the withdrawal remain unanswered, including how the U.S. will conduct intelligence operations in Afghanistan after the…
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