Al-Qaida Attempting to Rebuild Presence in Afghanistan With U.S. Out, Commander Says

The al-Qaida extremist group has been working to rebuild its presence in Afghanistan since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the nation in August, according to the head of U.S. Central Command.

Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie told the Associated Press in an interview that the absence of American forces in Afghanistan has complicated efforts to monitor groups like al-Qaida, which he said has already grown slightly since August.

"We're probably at about 1 or 2 percent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan," McKenzie said.

This makes it "very hard," but "not impossible" to gauge whether al-Qaida and other groups in Afghanistan like the Islamic State are a threat to the U.S, he added.

Al-Qaida used Afghanistan as a base to plan the deadly Sept. 11 attacks that spurred the U.S. invasion and ensuing 20-year war that ended this past summer. In addition to losing on-the-ground access to monitor Afghanistan upon withdrawing, the U.S.-friendly government installed in the country was overthrown by the Taliban during the mass airlift and Afghanistan's capital of Kabul was seized.

McKenzie said that some militants have been entering Afghanistan through its borders, but the exact numbers remain unknown because of the tracking difficulties. If any extremist threats to the U.S. emerged in the nation, the U.S. has said that it will use airstrikes from drones and other aircrafts to respond to those threats.

Al-Qaida Growth
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie says the al-Qaida extremist group has grown slightly inside Afghanistan since U.S. forces left in late August. McKenzie, the head of U.S. Central Command, arrives in Baghdad on May 20, 2021. Lolita C. Baldor/AP Photo

McKenzie said no such strikes have been conducted since the U.S. completed its withdrawal from Afghanistan on Aug. 30. He added that America's ability to conduct such strikes is based on the availability of intelligence, overhead imagery and other information and communications, "and that architecture is still being developed right now."

Al-Qaida is among numerous extremist groups inside Afghanistan. After 2001, it lost most of its numbers and its ability to directly threaten U.S. territory, but McKenzie said it retains "an aspirational desire" to attack the United States. During their first period of rule in Kabul, from 1996 to 2001, the Taliban gave haven to al-Qaida and refused Washington's demand after 9/11 to expel the group and turn over its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Taliban and al-Qaida have maintained ties ever since.

"So we're still trying to sort out exactly how the Taliban is going to proceed against them, and I think over the month or two it'll become a little more apparent to us," he said.

Similarly, McKenzie said it's not yet clear how strongly the Taliban will go after the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, which has violently attacked the Taliban across the country. The United States blamed ISIS for an Aug. 26 suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 13 American service members and at least 169 Afghan civilians in the final days of the U.S. evacuation.

ISIS was "reinvigorated," McKenzie said, by the release of numerous ISIS fighters from Afghan prisons in mid-August. He said both ISIS and al-Qaida are recruiting from inside and outside Afghanistan.

"So certainly we should expect a resurgent ISIS. It would be very surprising if that weren't the case," he said, adding, "It remains to be seen that the Taliban are going to be able to take effective action against them."

He called al-Qaida a more difficult problem for the Taliban because of their longstanding ties.

"So I think there are internal arguments inside the Taliban about the way forward," he said. "What we would like to see from the Taliban would be a strong position against al-Qaida," which they promised as part of the February 2020 Doha agreement that committed the United States to fully withdrawing from Afghanistan. "But I don't believe that's yet been fully realized."

McKenzie declined to provide an estimate of the number of al-Qaida operatives inside Afghanistan.

"I think it's probably slightly increased," he said. "There's a presence. We thought it was down pretty small, you know, toward the end of the conflict. I think some people have probably come back in. But it's one of the things we look at, but I wouldn't be confident giving you a number right now."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Al-Qaida Growth
The al-Qaida extremist group has been working to rebuild its presence in Afghanistan since the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the nation in August, according to the head of U.S. Central Command. A boy pushes a wheelbarrow with canisters and his younger brother, on their way to collect water from a stagnant pool, about 3 kilometers (2 miles) from their home in Kamar Kalagh village outside Herat, Afghanistan, Friday, Nov. 26, 2021. Petros Giannakouris/AP Photo