U.S. President Joe Biden has made America less safe and did not listen to his top generals who testified this week that they knew that the Taliban and other terrorist groups would expand their capabilities after the American withdrawal.
That was the assessment after testimony emerged from Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services hearings. Terrorist groups are festering in Afghanistan and have “aspirations” to attack America. The Taliban, al Qaeda and ISIS-K are all alive and well in Afghanistan – a presence that was never in doubt by top military and intelligence officials.
“A reconstituted al Qaeda or ISIS with aspirations to attack the United States is a very real possibility,” Milley said.
“I think al Qaeda is at war with the United States, still,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley said.
“They’re gathering their strength,” Commander of U.S. Central Command General Kenneth McKenzie said of ISIS-K. “We have yet to see how it’s going to manifest itself. We know with certainty that they do aspire to attack us in our homeland.”
Dramatic testimony in Tuesday’s Senate hearings revealed that top U.S. generals recommended that the U.S. maintain a military presence and that they knew terrorism could grow if unchecked after the American withdrawal.
“There is still a threat in Afghanistan. I think we all need to acknowledge that, recognize it. Al Qaeda is not gone,” Iowa Sen. Joni Ernst concluded after questioning the head of the joint chiefs of staff. “I hope we all make that very clear to the president.”
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, Milley and McKenzie contradicted previous claims by Biden that al Qaeda is out of Afghanistan and that no one recommended to him to keep troops in Afghanistan after the Aug. 31 withdrawal.
The American withdrawal from Afghanistan spiraled out of control in the last two weeks of August culminating with a suicide bombing on Aug. 26 that left 13 U.S. servicemen and women and 170 Afghans dead. The Taliban swiftly regained control of Afghanistan after the Biden administration went forward with a full withdrawal of the U.S. military on Aug. 31, ending a 20-year presence.
Both Milley and McKenzie testified that they had recommended maintaining 2,500 to 3,500 troops in Afghanistan, contradicting Biden’s previous media statements that no senior military leadership advised him to do so.
“I recommended we maintain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan,” McKenzie said in testimony today before the Senate Armed Services, otherwise Afghan security forces and the Afghan government would “inevitably” collapse.
Gen. Mark Milley testified that he made a similar recommendation.
“My assessment was back in the fall of ’20 and stayed consistent throughout that we should keep a steady state of 2,500 and it could bounce up to 3,500 – something like that – in order to negotiate a gated solution,” Milley said at the panel.
Biden said in an ABC interview, “No, they didn’t” tell him they wanted troops to stay.
Two weeks ago, CIA officials testified in another Senate hearing that within a year or two al Qaeda would become a threat to the U.S. homeland.
“The current assessment probably conservatively is one to two years for al Qaeda to build some capability to at least threaten the homeland,” Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency Lt. Gen. Scott D. Berrier said.
But, not having boots on the ground will hamper intelligence gathering, Berrier admitted.
“We’re thinking about ways to gain access back into Afghanistan with all kinds of sources,” Berrier said. “We have to be careful to balance these very scarce resources with this pivot to China, and to Russia.”
The Taliban and al Qaeda work together, while ISIS-K tends to work alone but has been active in Afghanistan.
On Sept. 15, Ernst, R-Iowa, led a group of senators in sending a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken asking him to designate the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).
“Since reestablishing control of Afghanistan, the Taliban resumed the same murderous and oppressive habits that characterized their leadership tenure prior to the arrival of U.S. forces in 2001,” the senators wrote. “Even as the administration concluded the withdrawal of U.S. and allied forces from Afghanistan, we saw public attacks on individuals, beatings of women and girls, and search teams actively pursuing allies and partners.”
Here is the full transcript of Ernst’s cross examination of Gen. Milley:
Sen. Joni Ernst: In the previous round, we established that the withdrawal achieved no security conditions other than an unconditional withdrawal. We had to withdraw by a certain time, a certain date. Has the military… And these are yes or no questions, Gen. Milley. Has the military’s task to defeat terror threats from Afghanistan gotten harder?
Gen. Mark Milley: Yes.
Ernst: Does the Taliban and its other terror partners have more ability to train and prepare in Afghanistan now that we’ve left?
Milley: More ability, yes.
Ernst: Has President Biden or his policy staff provided any – any – updated guidance or direction for countering terror from Afghanistan?
Ernst: Are we at a greater or lesser risk of terror attack from Afghanistan as a result of our withdrawal?
Milley: Too early to tell, too early to tell. To elaborate a little bit before I got about six months here to really sort this out to see which direction things are going to go. It’s not much time, but that’s my personal estimate. It could be out to 12, and then we’re going to have some indicators and warnings of what direction this is going to go. But that’s where I’d put it.
Ernst: In the previous round, and this is a comment, but in the previous round, each of you had admitted that your best recommendation was to leave a residual force in Afghanistan. Clearly, the president disregarded that opinion, that recommendation, that advice. And I do believe that this has left us less safe. A number of my colleagues have mentioned “over the horizon,” General McKenzie, you referenced the fact that we don’t know yet how effective that will be. We don’t have partners on the ground, talked about the airspace that would have to be used for over-the-horizon capabilities. There is still a terrorist threat in Afghanistan. Now, on Aug. 20, President Biden had stated, ‘What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?’ First, I didn’t recognize that al Qaeda was gone. General McKenzie, is al Qaeda gone?
Milley: Senator, Al Qaeda still maintains a presence in Afghanistan.
Ernst: And Secretary Blinken had said on Aug. 22 that the threat of terrorism metastasized out of Afghanistan a long time ago. General McKenzie, is there any terrorist threat in Afghanistan now?
Milley: What we see is ISIS newly rejuvenated with the prisoners that came out of Parwan and Polycharki Prison. They’re gathering their strength. We have yet to see how that’s going to manifest itself, but we know for a certainty that they do aspire to attack us in our homeland and we know the same for al Qaeda. So that threat, it has metastasized and it is resident in other parts of the world. In my part of the world, though, it certainly is in Afghanistan.
Ernst: Yes, it has been reported that the top 22 officials of the new Taliban government are known associates of al Qaeda, including five terrorists who were once imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay and 13 more who were sanctioned by the U.N., the United Nations, as terrorists host 9/11. And I’m very alarmed, Secretary Austin, that your undersecretary of defense for policy, Colin Kahl, claims there is a minimal threat. He called the terror threat from Afghanistan insignificant on a call with senators less than a month ago. He’s wrong. I think all of you would admit he’s wrong. The FBI director even said that he was wrong last week. He’s in denial or he’s lying. I would hope that his testimony and comments are not indicative of your own thoughts. And if they are different, I just truly hope they are. Let’s just leave it at that. So if the Department of Defense can’t get their lead policy official off the couch, which is where he told me he was during closed testimony last week, that he was sitting on the couch, he didn’t really care what Gen. Miller’s opinion was. If that’s the type of thought process that we put into decisions that are made at the Department of Defense with this lead policy official, maybe he needs to go back to the couch.
I do think that there is still a threat in Afghanistan. I think we all need to acknowledge that, recognize it. Al Qaeda is not gone. I hope we all make that very clear to the president and we will have to have additional discussions about over-the -horizon as things develop in the upcoming months.