The terrorist group ISIS-K wants to use its home base in Afghanistan to launch attacks against the U.S. and could have the ability to do so within six months, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on Tuesday.
The dire warning from Colin Kahl, the Defense Department’s undersecretary for policy, comes less than two months after the final U.S. troops exited Afghanistan and underscores deep concern within national security circles that the country is set to once again become a global hub for Islamist terror networks. Many foreign policy specialists believe ISIS-K, al Qaeda and other organizations will thrive inside Afghanistan under a second round of Taliban rule, but there are still questions about whether those groups have the will or ability to launch attacks outside the country against Western targets.
Mr. Kahl provided a grim answer in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I think the intelligence community currently assesses that both ISIS-K and al Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the United States, but neither currently has the capability to do so,” he said. “We could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months. I think the current assessments by the intelligence community is that al Qaeda would take a year or two to constitute that capability.”
ISIS-K, an offshoot of Islamic State with an estimated 2,000 fighters inside Afghanistan, already has shown its desire to kill Americans.
In the midst of the U.S.-led airlift out of Kabul on Aug. 26, ISIS-K suicide bombers and gunmen attacked the Kabul airport, killing 13 American service members and more than 160 Afghan civilians. The U.S. responded with airstrikes against ISIS-K targets across Afghanistan.
The Taliban has fought with ISIS-K as the insurgency tries to establish control following its takeover of Kabul in late August, but private analysts say it’s an open question whether the Taliban have the firepower and the will to defeat ISIS-K and other jihadist movements operating inside the country.
Pentagon officials insist that they have the ability to strike terrorist targets “over the horizon” in Afghanistan with drone strikes launched from elsewhere in the region. Such strikes could be crucial to containing ISIS-K and al Qaeda.
But those officials concede that such missions will be much more difficult without American military personnel on the ground in the country. Mr. Kahl acknowledged Tuesday in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee that efforts to secure U.S. basing rights in neighboring Central Asian states such as Uzbekistan have so far been unsuccessful, in the face of outspoken opposition to an American military presence from Russia.
There are also questions about the long-term effectiveness of the over-the-horizon approach.
Days after the Kabul airport attack, for example, an American drone in late August inadvertently killed an aid worker and seven children traveling in the Afghan capital. Military officials initially said the operation was based on faulty intelligence that the target was an ISIS-K fighter driving a car filled with explosives.