The greatest threat to the US from international terrorists comes from countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Syria and Iraq, with Afghanistan further down the priority list, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines said on Monday.
Speaking at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance conference, Ms Haines said Afghanistan is not a top threat — even though the Taliban are back in control and Al Qaeda operatives are returning to the country.
“In terms of the homeland, the threat right now from terrorist groups, we don’t prioritise — at the top of the list — Afghanistan,” Ms Haines said. “What we’re looking at is Yemen and Somalia, Syria and Iraq. That’s where we see the greatest threat.”
The US intelligence chief stressed, however, that spy agencies “will want to monitor any possible reconstitution of terrorist organisations” inside Afghanistan.
She explained that the intelligence community has established a set of benchmarks and indicators to provide “warning to the policy community”, but admitted the US ability to collect intelligence in Afghanistan is more limited after the US troop withdrawal two weeks ago.
“Our intelligence collection is diminished and that is something that we had to prepare for and had been preparing for frankly quite some time,” she said.
She described events in Afghanistan since last month's Taliban takeover and the chaos engulfing the US withdrawal as “gut-wrenching” and “deeply personal to the intelligence community".
Her assessment came as the Pentagon on Monday defended an August 29 drone strike that reportedly killed Afghan civilians including an aid worker for a US-based non-governmental organisation.
An investigation by The New York Times revealed the strike killed the aid worker and his family, including several young children.
The Pentagon has said the strike killed two ISIS-K bombers but that the military is carrying out its own investigation.
“This strike prevented an imminent attack on the airport,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said on Monday.
Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has described the incident as a “righteous strike".
Mr Kirby said “the assessment by Central Command is ongoing” and promised transparency.
The Pentagon spokesman also said that operations to bring Afghans to the US have been paused for another week due to five cases of measles among the evacuees.
Asked about Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin's change of plans on his Middle East trip and the cancellation of a stop in Riyadh, Mr Kirby said the reason was “scheduling issues” from Saudi Arabia’s side. He said the trip has been “postponed” and not cancelled.