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Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan Could Be Able to Launch Attack Next Year, Pentagon Says

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The U.S. intelligence community believes terrorist groups operating inside Afghanistan may have the ability to attack the U.S. or other international targets within a year or less if left unchecked, senior defense officials told lawmakers on Tuesday.

“We could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months,” Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “And for al-Qaeda, it would take a year or two to reconstitute that capability.”

The remarks underscored widespread concerns that the central goal of the 2001 U.S. invasion—to root out and dismantle terror groups inside Afghanistan—could be undermined if the Taliban allows or is incapable of thwarting militant groups from plotting international attacks inside the country. “We’re actually fairly certain that they have the intention to do so,” Kahl said.

The bleak assessment demonstrates the enduring national security concerns emanating from Afghanistan following two decades of war and the chaotic withdrawal of American forces on Aug. 30. Despite the Biden Administration’s pledges to stay on top of terrorist threats, the U.S. has yet to firm-up a detailed strategy to pursue the remaining operatives inside the country.

Instead, the Biden Administration has unsuccessfully tried for several months to secure nearby bases to position armed drones and counterterrorism forces to quickly move in and out of land-locked Afghanistan when necessary. It’s part of the Administration’s so-called “over-the-horizon” approach, which relies on intelligence gathered largely from airborne surveillance, captured communications chatter and other collected information.

The most prized basing locations are in the neighboring nations of Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Uzbekistan earlier this month to meet with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev to discuss “the way forward in Afghanistan,” according to the State Department. However, the idea of a U.S. military presence in either former Soviet country has run into stiff opposition from Russia and its allies in local government.

With no other option, the U.S. military is now flying drones from the Gulf, mainly via al-Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates, on long missions veering around Iran and through Pakistan. While Pakistan has permitted the U.S. to conduct the overflights thus far, Kahl said, Islamabad is seeking a more formalized memorandum of understanding where it can obtain something in return for the access.

Regardless, the current U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan is hobbled by distance. The extended travel time to reach a target in the country limits the number of hours a drone can remain overhead before returning for the long-flight back. The cumbersome arrangement concerns military leaders. “We need to build out more capability,” Kahl said.

Kahl acknowledged the prospect that foreign fighters may once again flock to Afghanistan just as they had in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks and noted the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan could result in a “galvanizing effect” that inspires new recruits around the globe. But, he added, the U.S. is much better prepared than it was 20 years ago and the Taliban could be more proactive in keeping other militant groups in check. “The Taliban is wary about Afghanistan being a springboard for al-Qaeda external attacks,” Kahl said. “Not because the Taliban are good guys, but because they fear international retribution if that were to occur.”

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An ISIS-K operative killed more than 100 Afghans and 13 U.S. troops at Kabul’s airport during the final stages of the U.S. withdrawal in August. The group, an offshoot of the organization that seized swathes of Iraq and Syria in 2014, continues to launch a campaign of suicide attacks across Afghanistan, targeting the country’s Shi’a community.

Despite this, Kahl insisted the current risk of a foreign terror attack on the U.S. “is at its lowest point” the 2001 attacks. “The war as we know it isn’t continuing, but the terrorist threat continues,” he said. “What we saw unfold in the last few months would have happened whenever we left Afghanistan.”

President Joe Biden’s approval ratings have plummeted since the Aug. 30 withdrawal. The offices of inspectors general at the departments of Defense, Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, State, and at the U.S. Agency for International Development, have all launched independent reviews to determine whether his administration adequately planned and executed the mission.

The U.S. evacuated more than 120,000 people from Kabul over two chaotic weeks after the Taliban entered the capital following its lightning offensive across the country. About 28,000 Afghans who are on the U.S. special immigrant visa list along with several hundred Americans are still awaiting evacuation.

The Pentagon is now providing shelter at eight military bases for more than 50,000 Afghan evacuees who are awaiting processing in the United States. More than 6,000 have already been resettled.

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Write to W.J. Hennigan at william.hennigan@time.com