Afghanistan’s ISIS-K could be ready to strike US in six months, Pentagon says

Colin Kahl says ISIS-K’s strength does not match that of its affiliates in Iraq and Syria when they established 'caliphate' in 2014

An ISIS supporter waves the group's flag in Raqqa, Syria, in 2014. Reuters
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The Afghan branch of ISIS could be ready to strike the US in six months, a senior defence official told the Senate on Monday.

“The intelligence community currently assesses that both ISIS-K [ISIS-Khorasan Province] and Al Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations, including against the United States,” the Pentagon's undersecretary of defence for policy, Colin Kahl, warned the Senate armed services committee.

“We could see ISIS-K generate that capability in somewhere between six or 12 months."

Al Qaeda would need another year or two, Mr Kahl said.

The strength of ISIS-K does not match that of its affiliates in Iraq and Syria when they established a self-declared caliphate in 2014.

“For the moment, ISIS-K is mostly focused on creating havoc within Afghanistan,” he said.

Mr Kahl, who is the third highest-ranking official at the Pentagon, expressed confidence in US intelligence assessment and capabilities in Afghanistan, even after Washington ended its military operations in the country in August.

At the same time, he admitted the US has “never known as much about Afghanistan as we thought we did".

The senior US official praised joint counter-terrorism efforts with Pakistan, despite other challenging aspects of the relationship.

“Right now, the counter-terrorism co-operation with Pakistan is pretty good,” he said.

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President Joe Biden speaks about the bombings at the Kabul airport that killed at least 12 U. S.  service members, from the East Room of the White House, Thursday, Aug.  26, 2021, in Washington.  (AP Photo / Evan Vucci)

He added that the US is holding conversations with Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan to keep airspace open for American counter-terrorism operations in Afghanistan.

Asked about evacuation efforts, Mr Kahl told Congress that about 450 Americans are still in Afghanistan, and that 243 of them have chosen not to leave.

The official said tens of thousands of Afghan evacuees are now in the US.

“We have welcomed 65,002 Afghan evacuees to eight safe haven sites located on domestic military installations as they complete the necessary steps to be resettled into the United States.”

He described Russia and China as being concerned over the Taliban takeover.

“Both Russia and China are nervous, despite what their propaganda outlets would suggest,” Mr Kahl said, noting that both countries are more willing to work with the Taliban than America is.

Russia hosted the group at an international conference last week, with China, India and other neighbouring countries also in attendance. The US skipped that meeting, citing “technical difficulties".

On Sunday, the former US envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, cast doubts on Washington’s intelligence estimates when it came to the future capabilities of both Al Qaeda and ISIS-K over the next year.

“Our record of predicting things, unfortunately — we need to be a little humble in this regard,” he told CBS.

The former envoy insisted that the US is “much safer than we were before we went to Afghanistan [in 2001], when Al Qaeda was running camps".

Updated: October 26, 2021, 9:09 PM