The international community needs to be “vigilant” about the “possibility” of reconstituting terror groups in Afghanistan drawing a surge of foreign fighters to the region, the Senate Armed Services Committee heard during a hearing last week on security in the region after withdrawal.
“We are examining and learning from the past, reckoning with the uncomfortable truth that despite decades and billions of dollars of U.S. investment, the Afghan military evaporated in the face of the Taliban assault,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl said. “Additionally, we are turning to the future, bolstering our capacity to engage in over-the- horizon counterterrorism operations to ensure that no threat emanating from Afghanistan can harm our homeland or our interests even as we refocus the department on the challenges posed by China, Russia, and other competitors and adversaries.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley earlier told the committee that there could be a resurgence of international terrorism coming from the region within 12 to 36 months. Kahl said the assessment “depends on which group we’re talking about.”
“I think the intelligence community currently assesses that both ISIS-K and al-Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the United States. But neither currently has the capability to do so. We could see ISIS-K generate that capability and somewhere between six or 12 months,” he said. “I think the current assessments by the intelligence community is that al-Qaeda would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”
“We have considerable evidence that they have the intent… the question at the moment is the capability.”
The U.S. has had conversations with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan but has not yet secured base arrangements closer to Afghanistan. Kahl characterized the counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan as “pretty good.”
“Pakistan is a challenging actor, but they don’t want Afghanistan to be a safe haven for terrorist attacks, external attacks, not just against Pakistan but against others,” he said. “They continue to give us access to Pakistani airspace and we’re in conversations about keeping that airspace open.”
Asked whether the Taliban can defeat ISIS in Afghanistan, Kahl replied that “the Taliban is highly motivated to go after ISIS-K,” but “their ability to do so, I think, is to be determined.” ISIS Khorasan, he said, has unknown assets but is believed to be not “nearly as well-resourced as ISIS in Iraq and Syria were back at the heyday” — yet “ISIS-K is obviously linked to the broader ISIS network globally.”
“We are deploying ISR over Afghanistan every single day,” he later added. “…We are sharing intelligence with regional partners and with our other partners, the UK and others, who are very focused on this problem set. So we will get after this challenge and we will try to grow our capability to get after it.”
After the Afghan withdrawal and evacuation, the Defense Department “remains focused on counterterrorism threats to the homeland,” J3 Joint Staff Director for Operations Lt. Gen. James Mingus testified. “While we reprioritize following the withdrawal in the short term, we are actively setting the conditions to ensure we remain situationally aware in our posture to mitigate and neutralize developing terrorist threats and streams.”
Counterterrorism resources for the region are now going to come from the Gulf region. “We’re able to project assets from the Gulf. We’re able to collect across all the sources of intelligence, fuse that and continue to analyze,” Mingus said. “And if necessary, take action in Afghanistan. As General McKenzie and the Chairman both indicated, it is harder, but we believe we have the assets in place right now, if necessary to disrupt and/or degrade the terrorist networks in Afghanistan.”
Mingus noted that the estimates of the timeframe it would take for ISIS and al-Qaeda to rebuild attack capability are “based on no U.S. or coalition intervention.”
Kahl stressed that that Taliban are “a ruthless authoritarian band” that should not get recognition as a legitimate government from the international community “unless they are a very different government than the one than they have — that they are now.” Their willingness to tamp down the activity of al-Qaeda, a longtime ally, is also yet to be determined.
Kahl reminded senators that “there are terrorist threats all over the globe,” with “the biggest ones” in Somalia, Yemen, and Syria. “I think the war as we know it isn’t continuing, but the terrorist threat continues,” he said.
“Frankly, for either al-Qaeda or ISIS-K, I do think we have to look about how events in Afghanistan, or anywhere else in the world, could be Nigeria, could be Somalia, could be Yemen, could be Syria, can have a galvanizing effect on the internet and elsewhere that inspires recruits,” he said. “And I know that the Department of Homeland Security and our Intelligence Community is pretty focused on that.”