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US Defense Chief Warns of al-Qaida, IS Rebound in Afghanistan

FILE - U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies on the Pentagon budget request during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 17, 2021.

Top U.S. defense officials are sounding a dire warning about the danger Afghanistan’s top terror groups will pose to America once the last U.S. and coalition troops leave the country in the coming months.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday that it will take groups like al-Qaida or Islamic State “possibly about two years” to regenerate the capability to plan attacks against the United States and its Western allies.

The nation’s top-ranking military officer, Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, further warned that this timeline could be accelerated depending on the fate of the current Afghan government.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley looks on during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in Washington, June 17, 2021.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley looks on during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing in Washington, June 17, 2021.

“If there was a collapse of the government or a dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that risk would obviously increase,” Milley said.

U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April the decision to pull all remaining U.S. forces from Afghanistan, arguing that the United States has already achieved its original goal — to hold al-Qaida and its leader Osama bin Laden to account for carrying out the deadly September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

“We delivered justice to bin Laden," Biden said in a speech to a joint session of Congress. “And we degraded the terror threat of al-Qaida in Afghanistan. … After 20 years of valiant valor and sacrifice, it’s time to bring those troops home.”

But concerns about the potential for al-Qaida and Islamic State in Afghanistan, known as IS-Khorasan, to reemerge without U.S. boots on the ground have persisted.

U.S. military and intelligence officials have warned repeatedly of a possible ripple effect that could destabilize Afghanistan, as well as its neighbors, giving terror groups a long-awaited opening to strengthen and grow their operations.

"Anywhere that we see a significant terror presence, there is a danger of that becoming some kind of platform to threaten the homeland from,” Christine Abizaid, nominated to lead the U.S. National Counterterrorism Center, told lawmakers last week, noting the need for the U.S. to maintain “relentless pressure” on groups like al-Qaida and IS to minimize the danger.

A recent assessment by United Nations member states has likewise raised concern, warning that Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents appear poised to topple the current Afghan government by force if negotiations fail to produce favorable results.

It also warned that contrary to the Taliban’s promise to sever ties with al-Qaida, the relationship “has grown deeper as a consequence of personal bonds of marriage and shared partnership in struggle, now cemented through second-generational ties."

For the most part, officials at the White House and at the Pentagon have sought to assure the public that it will be possible to counter the potential reemergence of al-Qaida and IS, also known as ISIS, with long-range strikes, whether from bases or aircraft carriers in the Middle East.

“We're still going to have the capability to go in over-the-horizon to get after al-Qaida and ISIS should those targets emerge and be ones that we want to take,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, told VOA this past week.

In the case of the several hundred IS fighters in Afghanistan, however, McKenzie warned that “continued CT [counterterrorism] pressure, continued direct pressure,” is all that has stood in the way of the group “coming back together and expanding their numbers.”

And even though the U.S. withdrawal is more than 50% complete, plans for what the “over-the-horizon” capability will look like appear to be in flux.

"We're in the process now of looking at the over-the-horizon architecture that we need to have," Ronald Moultrie, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for intelligence and security, told lawmakers last week.

“We've been having weekly, almost daily discussions on how to do this," Moultrie added. "We're going to have to work very closely with our partners and allies to ensure that it’s a robust architecture."

Time is running out, with U.S. and coalition troops likely to be out of Afghanistan well before the September deadline set by Biden.

"There are no guarantees in any of this," Milley told lawmakers Thursday. "There's a range of outcomes here.”

Carla Babb contributed to this report.