Almost two months after the U.S. withdrew all of its troops, the State Department is in touch with hundreds of Americans who want to leave Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s top policy official said Tuesday.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Colin Kahl, the undersecretary of Defense for policy, told lawmakers that 196 Americans are ready to leave Afghanistan now, while another 243 either want to stay or aren’t yet ready to depart.
Republicans on the committee, including ranking member James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, took that as an admission that President Joe Biden had not lived up to his pledge to leave no American citizens behind.
But Kahl defended the administration. “Nobody was abandoned. We continue to get people out of Afghanistan, including American citizens,” he said. Since Sept. 1, the State Department has helped facilitate the departure of 240 U.S. citizens, plus an additional 157 green card holders, Kahl said. Once those who have arranged for their own exodus are counted, a total of 314 Americans and 266 lawful permanent residents have left, he said.
As the administration’s Aug. 31 deadline to withdraw approached, Americans, Afghans and other foreign nationals who wanted to leave braved Taliban checkpoints to crowd outside of Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in hopes of catching an outbound flight. Since then, the administration has struggled to provide an accurate headcount of those who did not make it out.
There are about 28,000 Afghans in the process of applying for a special immigrant visa, or SIV, a program established by Congress to relocate interpreters and others who had helped U.S. forces and organizations and fear retribution from the Taliban as a result of their cooperation. About 8,500 SIV applicants and their families got out before Aug. 31, Kahl said, leaving almost 20,000 still in Afghanistan.
Military advice debated
Kahl, whom the Senate confirmed in April, did not participate in any of the internal discussions within the administration before Biden announced his decision for a complete withdrawal of U.S. troops. In previous hearings, top military leaders, including Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, tacitly acknowledged that they advised the president to keep 2,500 personnel in support of Afghan National Security Forces, but ultimately Biden did not take their advice.
After a suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and scores of Afghans outside Hamid Karzai International Airport during the evacuation operation, many Republicans, and some Democrats, have criticized Biden for not heeding his military advisers.
Kahl pushed back against the assertion that maintaining a force of 2,500 could have maintained the status quo for the foreseeable future. The two-decade conflict with the Taliban had reached a stalemate, but it was an eroding stalemate with the Taliban continuing to make small gains. Biden reasoned that if he kept a small force in place, eventually he would face domestic pressure to reinforce them to stem the tide, as President Barack Obama had before him, Kahl said.
“The president did not believe that 2,500 troops was a stable equilibrium,” Kahl told Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. “If we had kept at that level, he would have been under pressure to put in more.”
Terrorist threat low but growing
King said he supported a proposal from Illinois Democrat Tammy Duckworth to create a nonpartisan Afghanistan war commission to look at lessons learned.
Several lawmakers, including Iowa Republican Joni Ernst, voiced concerns that Afghanistan would now become a safe haven for terrorists and a launching pad for attacks by groups like al-Qaida and ISIS-K, an extremist group that broke off from the Taliban.
“I think the intelligence community assesses that the overall risk to the homeland across the world is at its lowest point since 9/11,” Kahl said.
Kahl noted that intelligence analysts estimate that ISIS-K can reconstitute itself to the point where it could potentially strike targets abroad in six to 12 months, and that it could take al-Qaida between one and two years.
“We need to be vigilant in disrupting that,” he said.
The ‘over-the-horizon’ strategy
Lt. Gen. James Mingus, the Joint Staff’s chief of operations, noted that these projections are based on no intervention by the United States or its coalition partners. While not having local assets and bases will make it harder to conduct surveillance, the U.S. still has the capability to monitor and strike from “over the horizon,” he said.
Additionally, there are some signs that the Taliban is leery of letting terrorist activity flourish in Afghanistan because of the likelihood of international reprisals, Kahl said.
“The Taliban and ISIS-K are mortal enemies, so the Taliban is highly motivated to go after ISIS-K,” he said. Its position toward al-Qaida is more complicated because of al-Qaida’s relationship with the Haqqani network, he said, referencing the militant group based in Pakistan and active in Afghanistan.
In response to questioning from Nebraska Republican Deb Fischer, Kahl acknowledged that the U.S. has not yet reached agreements with any of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries that would allow the U.S. to base personnel and airborne assets there.
“We are in conversation with Pakistan to keep the air line of communication open,” Kahl said, referring to the current arrangement that allows the U.S. to fly through Pakistan’s airspace to access Afghanistan. “We have also had conversations with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.”
And the United States is not alone in its concerns over a possible increase in terrorist activity, Kahl said.
“I think both Russia and China are nervous, frankly,” he told Kirsten Gillibrand, the New York Democrat. “Despite what their propaganda outlets would suggest, Afghanistan is now a problem that’s much more on their doorstep than on ours.”