Three months after the United States withdrawal from Afghanistan, the top commander of U.S. special operations forces said he does not see the new Taliban government as a partner against the terrorist threat from ISIS, but rather he urged the United States to continue working with other Afghans and foreign governments there.
Since President Joe Biden announced in May that he would end the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, he and Defense Department leaders have claimed that U.S. forces could continue to hit key targets there via “over the horizon” operations without ground troops like forward observers or joint terminal attack controllers. On Friday, U.S. Special Operations Command’s Gen. Richard Clarke said that in that time it has become more difficult to hunt and find terrorists from afar. And while natural enmity between the Taliban and ISIS suggested to some that the United States may be able to work with the new Afghan government on counterterrorism operations, Clarke disagreed.
“I don’t see them as a partner,” Clarke said of the Taliban. In fact, the threat of terrorism across the region “still exists,” and is growing, he said.
“In some ways it’s metastasized. It’s actually harder to track,” Clarke said, in an appearance at the Halifax International Security Forum, in Canada.
Since August, ISIS-K, the Afghanistan-specific incarnation of the terrorist group that emanated from Jordan, Syria and Iraq, has grown more bold, striking Hamid Karzai International Airport in August, killing U.S. personnel, Afghan civilians, and Taliban fighters.
Clarke suggested that the United States may still be able to collect intelligence from on-the-ground sources within Afghanistan in order to strike ISIS-K targets or disrupt the group’s activities.
“We’ve built amazing counterterrorism capabilities over the last 20 years. Some of those capabilities can still be used in Afghanistan today. We have to work with Afghans that remain in Afghanistan to see and sense and we have to work with regional allies. There are still other embassies that remain in Afghanistan. There are still other intel threads. But the most important thing for us in Afghanistan is to understand the intel picture of where ISIS-K exists there today.”
Without U.S. boots on the ground, however, the job won’t come as easy, Clarke said. “It’s going to be harder. Anytime you have a physical presence on the ground it stimulates the enemy forces. You see and sense with partner forces. So it is going to be harder.”
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