By Jeff Seldin
The plan to pull troops from Afghanistan could give terrorist groups like al-Qaida and Islamic State a chance to regenerate the capabilities they would need to carry out an attack against the United States, according to top U.S. intelligence officials.
Their warning, coming the same day U.S. President Joe Biden formally announced his decision to end America’s longest-running war, touches on the deep-rooted concerns many current and former U.S. officials have voiced about pulling 2,500 to 3,500 troops from Afghanistan, along with thousands of trainers and contractors.
It also may serve to fuel further criticism of the withdrawal, with critics seizing on fears that the conditions that allowed Afghanistan to become a haven for terrorists could soon return, despite nearly two decades of fighting.
“There is a significant risk once the U.S. military and the coalition militaries withdraw,” Bill Burns, recently confirmed director of the CIA, told lawmakers Wednesday.
“The U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact,” he said, cautioning that al-Qaida and IS in Afghanistan “remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets, whether it’s in the region, in the West or ultimately in the homeland.”
But the stark warning was accompanied by a plea for lawmakers to be “clear-eyed.”
No matter how much al-Qaida and IS may want to strike the U.S., Burns said, “the reality is that neither of them have that capacity today.”
Other top intelligence officials also made the case that the terror threat that caused the U.S. to go to war in Afghanistan in the first place is no longer the preeminent danger it was.
“There are terrorist groups, whether it’s al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), in other parts of the world, who represent much more serious threats,” Burns said.
Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines told lawmakers the danger posed by Afghanistan has also been eclipsed by threats from countries such as China — which she called an “unparalleled priority” — as well as Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Even domestic extremists from a “broad range of ideological motivations pose a greater immediate threat,” Haines said.
Lawmakers, however, like Marco Rubio, lead Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, voiced concern.
“There’s a very real possibility in the very near future, sadly, tragically and in a heartbreaking way, the Taliban will regain control of all or substantial portions of Afghanistan,” he said.
“If they do, I think it’s almost certain that al-Qaida will return,” Rubio added. “No one can deny it’s going to have serious security implications for our country for years to come.”
Recent assessments, both from the U.S. and other countries, indicate decades of counterterrorism pressure has significantly degraded al-Qaida’s leadership and its overall numbers in Afghanistan.
While officials believe al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri remains in hiding in Afghanistan, they say he is not in good health, and other high-ranking deputies have been killed, including Zawahiri’s likely successor, Abu Muhammad al-Masri, who was gunned down last August in Iran.
Earlier this year, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency said al-Qaida and its affiliate, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), had fewer than 200 members in Afghanistan and that the groups barely seemed to be active over the last few months of 2020.
The DIA assessment, though, warned that al-Qaida officials would likely welcome the U.S. departure, seeing it as a chance to regenerate. And it cautioned that what al-Qaida operatives remained in Afghanistan appeared to be well-integrated into the Taliban’s command-and-control structure.
Military and intelligence assessments of IS in Afghanistan, known as IS-Khorasan, indicate the group is no longer able to hold territory as it once did. But officials said earlier this year that new leadership has allowed the group, which may have as many as 2,500 fighters, to stabilize.
“We are concerned about the group’s demonstrated interest in conducting external operations,” a U.S. official told VOA on the condition of anonymity, because of the sensitive nature of the intelligence.
Burns, the CIA chief, told lawmakers that much of what happens next will likely depend on how closely the Afghan Taliban adhere to their deal with the U.S., in which they promised to sever ties with al-Qaida and to prevent any terror group from using Afghanistan to launch attacks against the United States.
But even if the Taliban fall short, Burns told lawmakers, U.S. intelligence will be keeping a close watch on al-Qaida and IS.
“The CIA and all of our partners in the U.S. government will retain a suite of capabilities, some of them remaining in place, some of them that we’ll generate, that can help us to anticipate and contest any rebuilding effort,” he said.
U.S. intelligence chiefs Wednesday also voiced growing concerns about Russia’s military buildup in Crimea and along the borders of Ukraine, warning the force could form the basis for a limited military incursion.
“The Russians have positioned themselves to give themselves options,” Lieutenant General Scott Berrier, DIA director, said. “They could actually be going into a series of exercises starting anytime, or they could, if they chose to, perhaps do a limited objective attack.”
Lawmakers also heard concerns about so-called blind spots that are allowing adversaries, including China and Russia, to carry out cyber operations against the U.S.
“They are utilizing U.S. infrastructure,” said General Paul Nakasone, National Security Agency director. “They realize that if they can come into the United States and use an internet service provider in a period of time … we cannot surveil that.”
“They understand the timeline for a warrant to be done,” he added.