Key U.S. diplomats and defense officials are pushing back against concerns that the withdrawal of American and coalition troops from Afghanistan could backfire, telling lawmakers there is reason to believe that the country will never again become the launching pad for terrorist attacks against the United States.
In testimony Thursday before lawmakers in Washington, the officials acknowledged that while some critical details of the U.S. military's post-withdrawal posture remain uncertain, efforts behind the scenes appear to be paying off.
"There is progress," Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, told members of the House Oversight Committee's national security subcommittee, declining to share details in an unclassified setting.
At a separate hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, defense officials offered assurances of their own.
"We're working to reposition our counterterrorism capabilities, including by retaining assets in the region," David Helvey, acting assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific affairs, told lawmakers.
"We're looking at options within the region," Helvey added. "The planning for that is ongoing."
In the month since U.S. President Joe Biden announced he would go ahead with the withdrawal, first agreed to under a deal last year between the Taliban and the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, top lawmakers from both parties have repeatedly voiced concerns — and not just about the ability of U.S. forces to reach back into Afghanistan to deal with terror groups such as al-Qaida and Islamic State.
Many have expressed fears about the ability of Afghan security forces to function without in-person U.S. support and about the wisdom of trusting the Taliban.
Despite the latest assurances, many remained skeptical.
"We've invested a huge amount in Afghanistan in terms of dollars, lives, tens of thousands of people wounded. And yet, here we are," Senator Angus King, a registered independent, said Tuesday, describing the security situation as "debatable."
"We'll know in a year or so," King added, saying it is possible the U.S. would be "right back where we were in 2001."
The committee's lead Republican, Senator Jim Inhofe, was more pointed in his criticism.
"The fact that the president chose this date, the 20th anniversary of the most horrific terrorist attacks in our nation's history, indicates that this was a calendar-based political decision," Inhofe said. "It was not based on conditions on the ground, which is the strong bipartisan recommendation Congress has given to both Republican and Democratic presidents over the last decade."
Fueling such concerns, recent defense and intelligence assessments point to a deteriorating situation on the ground in Afghanistan.
According to U.S. Forces-Afghanistan, attacks on Afghan security forces jumped by 37% over the first three months of 2021 compared with the same period a year ago — an increase the Defense Department's inspector general described as "historic" in a report released Tuesday.
Assessments from the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency further said that Taliban forces spent the early part of the year preparing for large-scale offensives against Afghan government forces, and as of February had surrounded five provincial capitals.
And what action Afghan security forces did take in response to Taliban attacks was ineffective.
"The DIA reported that these attacks did not accomplish anything of strategic value," the newly released report said of the government offensives.
Just as worrisome for some lawmakers, the most recent intelligence suggests the Taliban have yet to make good on their commitment to cut ties with al-Qaida.
On Thursday, Helvey admitted the Taliban's compliance with the deal "has been uneven over time."
But Khalilzad, who helped negotiate the agreement, hinted that when it comes to the Taliban and al-Qaida, things may be changing.
"There has been further progress by the Talibs," he told lawmakers, echoing comments he made earlier in the week when he assured lawmakers that although more was needed, the Taliban "have delivered significantly, substantially on their commitments."
"But we are still not satisfied and are pressing [them for] more," Khalilzad said. "We can't be driven by wishful thinking that they will make the right choice that we would like. But at the same time, we shouldn't close the door to that possibility."