Senior defense officials informed lawmakers Tuesday that the U.S. intelligence agency believes terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan could be able to strike the U.S. and other targets internationally within one year if they are not stopped.
“We could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months,” Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And for al-Qaeda, it would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”
The remarks underscored widespread concerns that the central goal of the 2001 U.S. invasion—to root out and dismantle terror groups inside Afghanistan—could be undermined if the Taliban allows or is incapable of thwarting militant groups from plotting international attacks inside the country. “We’re actually fairly certain that they have the intention to do so,” Kahl said.
This grim assessment highlights the continuing national security concern that Afghanistan faces after two decades of war, and the chaos-stricken withdrawal of American troops on August 30. Despite the Biden Administration’s pledges to stay on top of terrorist threats, the U.S. has yet to firm-up a detailed strategy to pursue the remaining operatives inside the country.
The Biden Administration, however, has failed for months in its efforts to secure nearby bases that could be used to place armed drones or counterterrorism forces so they can quickly enter and exit landlocked Afghanistan. It’s part of the Administration’s so-called “over-the-horizon” approach, which relies on intelligence gathered largely from airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter and other collected information.
These are the two neighboring countries of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Tajikistan that have the most valuable basing areas. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Uzbekistan earlier this month to meet with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to discuss “the way forward in Afghanistan,” according to the State Department. Russia and its allies in the local government have been opposed to any U.S. military presence.
U.S. military now operates drones in the Gulf. This is mainly through al-Dhafra Air Base (United Arab Emirates), and it is carrying out long, dangerous missions that take the U.S. army around Iran, Pakistan, and other countries. Kahl stated that Pakistan had allowed the U.S. overflights to continue, but Islamabad wants a formalized agreement where the U.S. can return access.
The current U.S. anti-terrorism strategy for Afghanistan is hampered by distance. Due to the extended distance required for a drone to reach its target, the time it can stay overhead is limited before the return flight. Military leaders are concerned by the cumbersome arrangement. “We need to build out more capability,” Kahl said.
Kahl acknowledged the prospect that foreign fighters may once again flock to Afghanistan just as they had in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks and noted the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan could result in a “galvanizing effect” that inspires new recruits around the globe. He said that the U.S. was much more prepared than 20 years ago, and that the Taliban might be proactive in keeping the other militant groups under control. “The Taliban is wary about Afghanistan being a springboard for al-Qaeda external attacks,” Kahl said “Not because the Taliban are good guys, but because they fear international retribution if that were to occur.”
An ISIS-K operative killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops at Kabul’s airport during the final stages of the U.S. withdrawal in August. The group, an offshoot of the organization that seized swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, continues to launch a campaign of suicide attacks across Afghanistan, targeting the country’s Shi’a community.
Despite this, Kahl insisted the current risk of a foreign terror attack on the U.S. “is at its lowest point” the 2001 attacks. “The war as we know it isn’t continuing, but the terrorist threat continues,” he said. “What we saw unfold in the last few months would have happened whenever we left Afghanistan.”
President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted since the Aug. 30 withdrawal. Independent reviews have been conducted by the inspectors general of the Departments of Defense, Homeland Security and Health and Human Services and State. They also examined the U.S. Agency for International Development to see if the administration had adequately planned and carried out the mission.
Over two weeks, more than 120,000 Afghans were evacuated from Kabul by the United States after the Taliban invaded the capital in a lightning attack across the country. Nearly 28,000 Afghans, who were on the U.S. Special Immigrant Visa List along with many hundred Americans, are still waiting to be evacuated.
For more than 50,000 Afghan refugees who have been displaced by the war, the Pentagon provides shelter on eight bases. Over 6,000 people have been relocated.