Al Qaeda in Afghanistan could regenerate and plot terrorist attacks against the American homeland within two years, possibly sooner if the insurgent Taliban overwhelm a fragile U.S.-backed government and take control of the country, top Pentagon officials warned Thursday.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the worst-case scenario as President Biden’s military withdrawal from Afghanistan was nearing its end.
All American forces are expected to be out of the country within several months, except for a small contingent of Marines tasked with guarding the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The embassy could become a key symbolic target for Taliban fighters and jihadis.
With mounting evidence that the Taliban have maintained close ties with al Qaeda, a collapse of the Afghan government and subsequent Taliban takeover could produce a country that is ground zero for global Islamic terrorism — just as it was in the years leading up to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S.
National security scholars and foreign policy analysts say it appears unlikely that al Qaeda will ever have free rein in Afghanistan the same way it did 20 years ago. Still, U.S. military leaders say the threat must be taken seriously.
Mr. Austin and Gen. Milley were pressed Thursday by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, to define whether the likelihood of an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan should be considered small, medium or large.
“I would assess it as medium. I would also say … it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability” to carry out terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan, Mr. Austin told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Gen. Milley gave a similar assessment, though he warned that the time frame could be much shorter if the Afghan government collapses without U.S. and NATO support.
“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,” he said. “But right now, I’d say ‘medium’ and about two years or so.”
The significance of al Qaeda, the Islamic State group or other extremist organizations gaining a new home base in Afghanistan cannot be overstated, specialists say.
Pockets of insurgents and largely independent terrorist cells can wreak havoc locally in the form of mass shootings or suicide bombings, but having physical territory to train and plan takes the threat to an entirely new level, said Nathan Sales, the State Department counterterrorism coordinator in the Trump administration.
“Our fight against terrorists is not going to culminate in a surrender on the deck of the battleship Missouri. What victory looks like is denying them the ability to control territory, to control the resources that come with territory,” said Mr. Sales, now a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council.
“When terrorist groups control territory, that enables them to plot attacks against the homeland, against Europe, against our allies in the region and around the world,” he said. “Because al Qaeda had safe haven in Afghanistan, we got 9/11. Because ISIS had a so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria, we got [terrorist attacks in] Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016.”
Military leaders said they will use “over the horizon” counterterrorism capabilities such as drone strikes to hit al Qaeda, ISIS and other groups in Afghanistan before they can grow into major fighting forces.
The details of that strategy, however, remain murky. The administration hasn’t announced formal agreements with nearby countries to permanently house American military assets.
Pressed on Afghanistan’s future, Gen. Milley said a “wide range of outcomes” remain. In one scenario, the government in Kabul collapses during a major Taliban military offensive.
That military offensive is already well underway. In the past six weeks, the Taliban have taken control of another 30 districts across Afghanistan, according to figures compiled by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
The insurgent group controls 100 districts, compared with 95 under the Afghan government. The two sides are contesting another 203 districts.
A collapse of the Afghan government and ascension of the Taliban would represent a historic foreign policy disaster for the U.S., which invaded the country nearly 20 years ago to topple the Taliban government after the 9/11 attacks and has been battling the group ever since.
President Trump changed course in 2019 and authorized direct talks between U.S. diplomats and Taliban leaders. Those negotiations produced a February 2020 deal known as the Doha Agreement, which laid out the timetable for America’s military withdrawal in exchange for security guarantees from the Taliban.
Among other things, the Taliban promised a permanent break with groups such as al Qaeda and said Afghanistan would never again become a sanctuary for terrorist organizations.
But a United Nations assessment released on June 1 found that al Qaeda maintains a major presence in Afghanistan and is deeply intertwined with the Taliban.
“Large numbers of al Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda continued to suffer attrition during the period under review, with a number of senior figures killed, often alongside Taliban associates while co-located with them,” the study said.
“Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage,” said the report, produced by the U.N. Security Council. “It is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from al Qaeda in Afghanistan.”
Against that backdrop, specialists say, it’s unclear whether the Taliban and al Qaeda are brazen enough to rebuild their pre-9/11 infrastructure and plan attacks against the U.S. or its European allies.
“This is the million-dollar question,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. “I might think the Taliban and al Qaeda are more cautious.”
The two groups may say, “We don’t have to poke the United States because a lot of what we want to accomplish can be done without that,” Mr. Byman said. “But that [theory] might be wrong.”