President Joe Biden’s nominee to oversee US forces in the Middle East and Central Asia is floating the possibility of co-operating with the Taliban in certain instances to take out ISIS targets in Afghanistan.
Lt Gen Erik Kurilla — who is the Biden administration's pick to head US Central Command, or Centcom — raised the idea during his nomination hearing before the Senate on Tuesday.
“In my personal opinion, there are pragmatic instances where we could come together going after [ISIS-Khorasan] based on the threat to the homeland,” Lt Gen Kurilla said in response to a question from Angus King, an independent senator who votes with the Democrats.
ISIS-K has stepped up attacks against Taliban targets in the months following the US withdrawal.
Lt Gen Kurilla assessed that “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism operations — strikes launched from another country or an aircraft carrier — in Afghanistan against ISIS and Al Qaeda targets are “difficult, but not impossible” after the US drawdown.
Mr King noted that the US has not conducted a single strike in Afghanistan since the full US military withdrawal in August.
The Biden administration has repeatedly assured Congress it will retain strike capabilities against ISIS and Al Qaeda targets using US assets based in the Gulf.
But the Centcom nominee laid out some of the limitations hindering the US ability to make such strikes. At least two MQ-9 reaper drones would need to take off every 10 hours to place only one sensor on a target, he said.
This is in contrast to the numerous sensors US forces were able to place over targets before the withdrawal.
“In Afghanistan, when we were doing operations, sometimes they would have up to 12 sensors on a target to be able to follow individuals, develop the target,” Lt Gen Kurilla said.
“And it’s also used in civilian casualty mitigation because you’re watching all the approaches to that target when you’re taking a strike. So, it can be very resource intensive.”
He also said that flying through Pakistani airspace to conduct strikes in Afghanistan presents a “challenge”, but he noted Islamabad has several incentives to co-operate with the US on several issues.
“They are concerned about the regional stability in the area and the violent extremist organisations inside of Afghanistan,” Lt Gen Kurilla said.
“The Tehriki-i-Taliban in Pakistan, the TTP, is a very violent organisation that has killed tens of thousands of Pakistanis. So, they have a vested security interest with us on that as well as the humanitarian crisis inside of Afghanistan.”
No senator expressed any objections to the nomination during Lt Gen Kurilla's hearing, indicating he can likely expect a smooth Senate confirmation process before the current Centcom commander, Gen Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, leaves his post on April 1.
Still, numerous senators — especially Republicans — have continued to lambast Mr Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefed senators on the topic behind closed doors last week, prompting Republicans to call for an open hearing.
A 2,000-page US Army investigation found that White House and State Department officials resisted Pentagon efforts to begin evacuation preparations for Americans and Afghan Special Immigration Visa holders in the weeks before Kabul fell, The Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
James Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, noted that the report mirrored similar findings in a report his office released last week.
“While this administration continues to try to put its botched withdrawal in the rear-view mirror, it is important to examine the failures of leadership so they will not be repeated,” Mr Risch said in a statement on the investigation.