President Joe Biden’s administration wants the legal authority for military counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan “if necessary” in light of the withdrawal of U.S. forces and the Taliban’s victory over the U.S.-backed government in Kabul.
“We need to look to make sure that we have all the authorities that we would need for any potential contingency, including the reemergence, as a threat, of al Qaeda,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. “If we don’t have those authorities, we should get them — whether that means re-looking at those authorizations or writing new ones, which I think would be the most appropriate thing to do, if necessary. We need to look at that.”
That recognition could complicate a broad political debate about the legal basis for the so-called “forever war” that Biden hoped to end by withdrawing U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Blinken emphasized in a Monday hearing that “the terrorist threat has metastasized” beyond Afghanistan, but U.S. intelligence officials acknowledge that al Qaeda stands to gain from the Taliban’s resurgence.
“The current assessment, probably conservatively, is one to two years for al Qaeda to build some capability to at least threaten the homeland,” Defense Intelligence Agency Director Scott Berrier, an Army lieutenant general, said Tuesday during an annual Intelligence and National Security Summit.
Blinken acknowledged that the Taliban have not “severed” ties with al Qaeda but suggested that the militants might be chastened by their experience over the last 20 years.
“Whatever the Taliban’s views on al Qaeda, they do know that the last time they harbored al Qaeda and engaged in an outwardly directed attack, an attack on our homeland, certain things followed, which I believe they would have an interest in not seeing repeated,” he told Sen. Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican.
A top Taliban official pledged Monday that the new regime will not allow terrorists to use Afghanistan as a base for foreign operations. “We will not allow anyone or any groups to use our soil against any other countries,” Taliban foreign minister Amir Khan Mutaqi said .
Yet the latest slate of Taliban leaders features Sirajuddin Haqqani, a terrorist chief who emerged from the militants’ power-sharing talks as the head of Afghanistan’s security services. “We will be going back into Afghanistan,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, predicted last week. “We’ll have to because the threat will be so large.”
Blinken argued the Taliban should feel “a strong disincentive” to allowing al Qaeda to attack the United States, but he acknowledged that the militants might not have enough control over the country to prevent other terrorists, such as the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan, from doing so.
“ISIS-K, the other main group, that’s a different thing, as you know, because the Taliban and ISIS-K are sworn enemies,” Blinken said. “The question there, I think, is less whether they have the will to deal with ISIS-K and more whether they have the capacity.”