The Pentagon confirmed that it has not conducted any strikes against the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate since the U.S. exited the country seven months ago, despite a suicide attack that killed Americans at Kabul’s airport.
The Taliban rapidly took over following a chaotic U.S. military withdrawal last year, and an August suicide bombing by ISIS-K killed 13 U.S. service members during evacuation efforts at the airport, with the Taliban providing security outside.
Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, where he said there had been no strikes conducted in Afghanistan since the drawdown. He agreed terrorist groups are more able to plan terrorist attacks when there is no sustained counterterrorism pressure against them.
Sen. Thom Tillis, a North Carolina Republican, asked what the U.S. is doing to overcome the reduction in its counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan since leaving and how ISIS-K and al Qaeda were rebuilding in the country.
“We have not undertaken any strikes in Afghanistan since the 1st of September,” McKenzie said. “We continue to watch carefully as ISIS grows. They’ve gone through the winter. They’ve been able to carry out some high-profile attacks. They still aspire to attack the United States and our partners abroad. So, we’re going to watch very carefully what the Taliban is able to do and not able to do in terms of controlling ISIS. Because as we all know, the Taliban will actually fight ISIS, and they have a theological dispute, and so they are in opposition.”
Sen. Rick Scott, a Florida Republican, asked if ISIS-K was getting stronger or weaker and questioned what CENTCOM has been doing to punish ISIS-K for the airport attack.
“I think we are concerned about the developmental trajectory of ISIS-K in Afghanistan,” McKenzie replied, but he declined to answer the second question publicly.
Sen. Angus King, a Maine Independent, asked if the Taliban was putting pressure on ISIS-K, and McKenzie said it was tough for them.
“The Taliban is attempting to maintain pressure on ISIS,” the CENTCOM commander said. “They’re finding it difficult to do so. ISIS has been able to execute some high-profile attacks even in Kabul over the last several months. We’re coming out of the winter — traditionally, this would now begin the fighting season. It is my expectation that ISIS attacks will ramp up in Afghanistan as we go into the summer. … The Taliban is gonna go after ISIS. They have done so in the past. But it’s gonna be a tough fight.”
The U.S. estimates ISIS-K to have between 3,000 to 5,000 fighters, Christopher Landberg, the acting principal deputy coordinator for the State Department’s bureau of counterterrorism, said last month.
McKenzie said the Taliban “did not help themselves” when they released “over a thousand ISIS fighters” from Pul-e-Charkhi and Parwan prisons, which “significantly empowered the group within Afghanistan, and now they’re gonna reap the results of that action.”
McKenzie claimed the Taliban has “done some things that are very public in order to limit” al Qaeda in Afghanistan and that “they have done some things publicly that would tend to make you think they at least want to send signals that they’re doing.” He said, “It remains to be seen if that is translated into action.” He said the Taliban would be less tough on al Qaeda than on ISIS-K.
McKenzie said the DOD believes ISIS-K will have “external attack capability” between “12 to 18 months” — a longer timeline than the six to 12 months Dr. Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of defense for policy, presented to the committee back in October.
The U.S. government refuses to identify the Kabul airport bomber, despite numerous reports of anonymous officials naming the attacker as Abdul Rehman al Logari, who had been freed from a prison near Bagram Air Base in August when the Taliban took it over.
McKenzie also said he was “tracking” roughly 153 U.S. citizens and 2,100 long-term permanent residents still in Afghanistan. The general said: “It’s my understanding that if someone wants to leave, and they’re a U.S. citizen, they’re going to be able to leave.”