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Pentagon officials claim renewed militant threat possible within 2 years of U.S. leaving Afghanistan

An extremist 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 U.S. military's withdrawal from the country, the Pentagon's top leaders said Thursday.

Top Pentagon leaders tell U.S. Senate hearing they foresee 'medium' risk after exit from Afghanistan

Afghan security personnel search a car at a checkpoint around the Green Zone, which houses embassies, in Kabul, Afghanistan on May 25, 2021. Pentagon leaders said Thursday extremist groups may be able to regenerate in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the U.S. within two years of the U.S. military's withdrawal. (Rahmat Gul/The Associated Press)

An extremist 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 U.S. military's withdrawal from the country, the Pentagon's top leaders said Thursday.

It was the most specific public forecast of the prospects for a renewed international militant threat from Afghanistan since U.S. President Joe Biden announced in April that all U.S. troops would withdraw from the country by Sept. 11.

At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham asked U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and U.S. Gen. Mark Milley whether they rated the likelihood of a regeneration of al-Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan as small, medium or large.

"I would assess it as medium," Austin replied. "I would also say, senator, that it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability."

Milley, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, said he agreed.

"I think that if certain other things happen — if there was a collapse of the government or the dissolution of the Afghan security forces — that risk would obviously increase, but right now I would say 'medium' and about two years or so," he said.

Prior pushback on Afghan exit

Their responses underscored the overall U.S. military fears about the consequences of a complete, unconditional withdrawal.

Military leaders over the past few years have pushed back against administration efforts — including at times by then-U.S. president Donald Trump — to pull out of Afghanistan by a certain date, rather than basing troop numbers on the security conditions on the ground.

A U.S. soldier looks at a mountain range in Afghanistan's Logar province from a helicopter on May 28, 2014. U.S. military leaders on Thursday assessed the likelihood of a regeneration of al-Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan as medium. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Milley also acknowledged that a collapse of the Afghan government or takeover by the Taliban could have broader impacts on the strides women have made in Afghanistan.

And the U.S. military has said it will be far more difficult to collect intelligence in the country if there is no American presence there.

Once the withdrawal is complete, U.S. military and intelligence agencies' ability to monitor and counter extremist groups inside Afghanistan will be limited, but the Pentagon says it will use "over-the-horizon" forces to keep a lid on the threat.

A related concern is that the Taliban, which is seeking greater political leverage in Kabul and could attempt to take power, may retain its associations with al-Qaeda, whose presence in Afghanistan was the reason the U.S. invaded in the first place.

U.S. officials have questioned whether the Taliban will fulfil a promise made in a February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration to disassociate itself from al-Qaeda and to prevent any extremist group from launching attacks on the U.S. from Afghan soil.

U.S. President Joe Biden, shown during a summit in Brussels this week, has ordered the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, 2021. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

Biden administration committed to exit

The Biden administration has acknowledged that a full U.S. troop withdrawal is not without risks, but argued that waiting for a better time to end U.S. involvement in the war is a recipe for never leaving, while extremist threats fester elsewhere.

"We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal and expecting a different result," Biden said, when announcing the withdrawal plan in April.

Austin and Milley's warnings about a possible resurgence of militant groups in Afghanistan echo those of some outside analysts.

A group of experts on Afghanistan, including retired U.S. general Joseph Dunford, who served as the top commander in Afghanistan before becoming chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2015, said in a report published in February that a "precipitous withdrawal" from Afghanistan could lead to a reconstitution of the militant threat to the U.S. homeland within 18 months to three years.

An Afghan National Army soldier sits at a road checkpoint near a U.S. military base in Bagram, north of Kabul, Afghanistan, on April 29, 2021. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff said Thursday a government collapse or the dissolution of Afghan security forces would increase the risk of extremist groups regenerating. (Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images)

The group, whose study was mandated by the U.S. Congress, said the U.S. should keep troops in Afghanistan until tangible progress is made toward a peace settlement between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

The Pentagon has said after nearly 20 years in Afghanistan the U.S. withdrawal is a little more than half completed, and U.S.-led coalition partners also are leaving.

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