A Defense Department official told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday that the U.S. strategy for South Asia “emphasizes regional cooperation to reduce the threat of terrorism, reduce the threat and possibility of nuclear conflict, and to put pressure on the Taliban and other parties to seek reconciliation.”
“We’re in Afghanistan, and we remain engaged with Pakistan to protect Americans, to protect our homeland and to ensure there are no safe havens from which terrorists can plan and operate, and to support attacks,” testified Randall Schriver, assistant secretary of Defense for Asia and Pacific security affairs. “Our strategy focuses on the region as a whole, and shifts from a time-based approach to conditions-on-the-ground approach and promotes political settlement.”
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asked the assistant secretary how many ISIS fighters have set up shop in Afghanistan.
Schriver replied that “it’s certainly something that we’re watching carefully, that to defeat ISIS in one location only to have them reinforce elements in another would be certainly harmful to our interests.”
“So our CT mission, our counterterrorism mission, sometimes in combination with the Afghan forces, sometimes unilateral, is exactly as the deputy secretary said, it’s to prevent Afghanistan from being a place from which terrorist can launch, plan, support in any way at a attack against American citizens, our homeland or our interests,” he added. “Our assessment is walking away would in fact create the potential for such a platform to re-emerge.”
Deputy John Sullivan said the Taliban are wielding control in “unpopulated areas” where opium poppies are grown and processed to bring in funds from the drug trade.
Taliban narcotics production is “skyrocketing,” Sullivan warned, with drug proceeds accounting for an estimated 65 percent of the group’s funding.
“The State Department has got a limited budget for counter-narcotics efforts in Afghanistan,” he said. “There’s a larger effort because of the Taliban’s use of narcotics to fund operations against the U.S. military and the Afghan government. The U.S. military is also committed to the counter-narcotics effort.”
Schriver explained that “there’s a more comprehensive effort at the legal illicit financing,” but “in terms of the drug production and trade, and money that they may make off that, there’s certainly an effort to disrupt particularly storage facilities, distribution points, etc.” Afghan forces are taking lead with U.S. assistance, he noted.
“There are still remnants of al-Qaeda there,” Schriver told the committee. “ISIS has metastasized into Afghanistan with ISIS-K. If the Taliban were to regain control of the country, we would very likely see the same platform for that global reach of terrorists that struck New York, and Washington and Pennsylvania on Sept. 11.”
The terror attacks of 9/11, he stressed, are “still the reason we’re in Afghanistan.”