Al Qaeda has grown slightly inside Afghanistan since US forces left in late August, and the country's new Taliban leaders are divided over whether to fulfill their pledge to break ties with the terror group, the top US military commander in the region has said.
Gen Frank McKenzie, head of US Central Command, said the withdrawal of US military and intelligence assets from the country had made it much harder to track Al Qaeda and other extremist groups inside Afghanistan.
“We’re probably at about 1 or 2 per cent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan,” Gen McKenzie said in an interview at the Pentagon.
This makes it “very hard, not impossible” to ensure that neither Al Qaeda nor the Afghan affiliate of ISIS can pose a threat to the United States.
Gen McKenzie said it was clear Al Qaeda is attempting to rebuild its presence inside Afghanistan, which was the base from which it planned the September 11 attacks in the United States. Some militants are coming into the country through its porous borders, but it is hard for the US to track numbers, he said.
The US invasion that followed the 2001 attacks led to a 20-year war that succeeded initially by removing the Taliban from power but ultimately failed. After President Joe Biden announced in April that he was withdrawing completely from Afghanistan, the Taliban systematically overpowered Afghan government defences and seized Kabul, the capital, in August.
Gen McKenzie and other senior US military and national security officials had said the US withdrawal would complicate efforts to contain the threat from Al Qaeda, in part because of the loss of on-the-ground intelligence information and the absence of a US-friendly government in Kabul. The US says it will rely on air strikes from drones and other aircraft based outside Afghanistan to respond to any extremist threats.
The Centcom chief said no such strikes had been conducted since the US completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on August 30. The ability to conduct such strikes is based on the availability of intelligence, overhead imagery and other information and communications, “and that architecture is still being developed right now”, he said.
Al Qaeda is one of numerous extremist groups in Afghanistan. After 2001, it lost most of its numbers and its ability to directly threaten US territory, but Gen McKenzie said it retained “an aspirational desire” to attack the United States.
During their first period of rule in Kabul, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban gave haven to Al Qaeda and refused Washington's demand after 9/11 to expel the group and turn over its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban and Al Qaeda have maintained ties ever since.
“So we're still trying to sort out exactly how the Taliban is going to proceed against them, and I think over the month or two it'll become a little more apparent to us,” Gen McKenzie said.
Similarly, it is not yet clear how strongly Taliban will go after ISIS, which has attacked the Taliban across the country. The United States blamed ISIS for the August 26 suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 13 American service members.
Gen McKenzie said ISIS was “reinvigorated" by the release of numerous ISIS fighters from Afghan prisons in mid-August. He said both ISIS and Al Qaeda are recruiting from inside and outside Afghanistan.
“So certainly we should expect a resurgent ISIS. It would be very surprising if that weren't the case,” he said. “It remains to be seen that the Taliban are going to be able to take effective action against them.”
He said Al Qaeda was a more difficult problem for the Taliban because of their longstanding ties.
“So I think there are internal arguments inside the Taliban about the way forward,” he said. “What we would like to see from the Taliban would be a strong position against Al Qaeda”, which they promised as part of the February 2020 Doha agreement that committed the United States to fully withdrawing from Afghanistan. “But I don’t believe that’s yet been fully realised.”
Gen McKenzie declined to provide an estimate of the number of Al Qaeda operatives inside Afghanistan.
“I think it's probably slightly increased,” he said. “There’s a presence. We thought it was down pretty small, you know, toward the end of the conflict. I think some people have probably come back in. But it’s one of the things we look at, but I wouldn’t be confident giving you a number right now.”