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Pentagon says terrorist threats from Afghanistan could be worse than anticipated

Mohammad Nazir, 38, visits shrine dedicated to Arab Al-Qaeda fighters killed when U.S. forces first invaded Afghanistan in 2001. (Marcus Yam/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
August 18, 2021

The Department of Defense said this week it is studying signs of worsening terrorism potential out of Afghanistan after the Taliban seized near-total control of the country in recent weeks.

Biden administration officials — including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — told senators during a Sunday call that officials now believe terror groups like Al-Qaeda may be able to grow much faster than they expected in June, the Associated Press reported.

In June, Austin had told senators that Pentagon assessments showed a terrorist group like Al-Qaeda may be able to regenerate in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within two years of the American military’s withdrawal from the country. At the time, Austin had called it a “medium” possibility.

Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday that Austin “certainly believes that in light of recent events that a reassessment of the possibilities for reconstitution of terrorist networks inside Afghanistan is warranted,” but added that it’s too early “to make a firm judgment either way” about what the terrorist threat from Afghanistan will look like in the coming weeks and months ahead.

Officials had already indicated military and intelligence capabilities would quickly fall off across Afghanistan as U.S. troops left the country.

“When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That is simply a fact,” CIA Director William Burns said in an April Senate Intelligence Committee hearing.

U.S. intelligence efforts to predict the future of Afghanistan after U.S. forces withdraw have already seen uncertainty. In July, as Biden said a Taliban takeover was highly unlikely, U.S. intelligence reports were seeing signs the Afghan government could collapse, but could not say so with a “high confidence” judgment.

Even in the days before Kabul fell, intelligence assessments predicted the Afghan government still had weeks of time ahead. On Wednesday of last week, Reuters reported a U.S. intelligence analysis projected Kabul wouldn’t fall to the Taliban for another 90 days. A day later, the New York Times reported intelligence expectations that Kabul would hold out against the Taliban for 30 days. By Sunday, when the Taliban arrived on Kabul’s outskirts, those predictions collapsed.

While military and intelligence officials have predicted an increased terrorism threat in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden and members of his administration have insisted they can continue to counteract the terror threats.

On a Sunday appearance with NBC’s Meet the Press, Blinken said, “The Taliban have a certain self-interest in this. They know what happened the last time they harbored a terrorist group that attacked the United States. It’s not in their self-interest to allow a repeat of that.”

On Monday, during his first appearance since the collapse of the U.S.-backed Afghan government in Kabul, Biden said even after withdrawing troops from Afghanistan, the U.S. still has to ability to conduct effective counterterrorism missions.

“We conduct effective counterterrorism missions against terrorist groups in multiple countries where we don’t have a permanent military presence,” Biden said. “If necessary, we will do the same in Afghanistan.  We’ve developed counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region and to act quickly and decisively if needed.”