KABUL, Afghanistan — The general who oversees the U.S. presence in Afghanistan warned that collecting intelligence was more challenging now that most U.S. troops have left and as the Taliban takes control of more parts of the country.
“My knowledge of what’s going on in Afghanistan is not nearly what it was 180 days ago,” said Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie while traveling to Kabul on Sunday.
“Most of our intelligence about the Taliban is derived from the Afghan government. They’ve got a pretty good intelligence system themselves. They’re going to continue to have a pretty good intelligence architecture in place.”
U.S. forces have largely departed from Afghanistan, more than two months ahead of the Sept. 11 deadline set by President Joe Biden this year. While U.S. forces toppled the Taliban 20 years ago after the group sheltered Osama bin Laden as he plotted the 9/11 attacks, experts warn that militants are still active in the country.
The war, America’s longest, has claimed the lives of around 2,300 American troops. More than 100,000 Afghans are estimated to have been killed or wounded in the conflict in the decade that the U.N. tracked civilian casualties, a report published in 2020 found.
McKenzie acknowledged that Afghan intelligence networks are being undermined as Afghan forces lose districts to the Taliban and as U.S. troops are no longer partnered with Afghans. The Taliban have made significant gains around the country, taking control of more territory in recent weeks, including in the north and they are inching closer to the capital, Kabul.
“As our advisers pull out, and they either have or are pulling out right now, we lose a little bit of that visibility. So, we depend increasingly on the Afghans, and as they lose the territory, certainly they lose some of that, as well,” he said.
Those losses will also make intelligence collection in the future difficult, too, though not impossible, McKenzie said.
“Over the last couple of weeks, the trend has been on the Taliban side. They have seized a number of district centers,” McKenzie said. He added that they have not been able to maintain control of any provincial capitals but warned that could be a goal in the coming weeks.
“Certainly, provincial capitals are at risk and we’ll see how that shakes out over the next few weeks. I think the Afghans are determined to fight very hard for those provincial capitals.”
According to a February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is dependent on the Taliban meeting its commitments, including cutting any ties to terrorist groups.
However, despite the Taliban's pledge to stop coordinating with terrorist groups, it has kept up a close relationship with al-Qaeda, according to the coordinator of the U.N. panel responsible for tracking the Taliban and terrorist groups in Afghanistan, Edmund Fitton-Brown. This has enabled the militants to conduct training in Afghanistan and deploy fighters alongside Taliban forces.
Al-Qaeda is now resident in at least 15 Afghan provinces and a significant part of the group's leadership resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region, according to an April letter from Fitton-Brown to the U.N. Security Council. The Islamic State, meanwhile, is trying to rebuild its ranks, according to experts.
According to Sayed Abdul Wasi Motasim, a former Taliban leader who knew Osama Bin Laden and still has close ties with the Taliban leadership, the U.S. has a key role to play in ensuring that Afghanistan doesn't once again become a base for international terrorist attacks.
“Without the support of the international community, terrorist groups could become more active in Afghanistan,” Motasim said. “But if the Taliban has support from the United States, they will be able to prevent this and stand by their promise.”
The Taliban are seeking a military victory, McKenzie said, and “at some point to finalize that military operation they’d have to have control of Kabul.”
Afghan security forces are vowing to reclaim the lost territories from the Taliban and turn the tide. One asset the Afghan military has that the Taliban lacks is an air force.
“We’re actually pretty aggressively pushing aircraft into there,” McKenzie said. This month, seven UH60 helicopters and four MD 530 gunships will be delivered, and nine Mi-17 helicopters will arrive before the end of September.
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On Sunday, Afghan security forces, with the help of air strikes, repelled an assault by Taliban fighters on the provincial center of a key northern province bordering Tajikistan on Sunday, Reuters reported.
In an agreement between the Taliban and the United States negotiated by the previous administration, the U.S. had committed to withdraw all its forces by May. Biden said that was too quick and said it would happen by Sept. 11.
The U.S. had 2,500 to 3,500 troops deployed when Biden announced the decision, but more than 90 percent of the U.S. personnel and equipment had left by the beginning of July. The U.S. will keep about 650 troops in Kabul for embassy security and several hundred more to help with security at Hamid Karzai International Airport.
McKenzie, the commander of U.S. Central Command, traveled to Kabul to assume the role of commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan. The role is largely symbolic though, as McKenzie already had overall authority over the military mission in Afghanistan.
He takes over as Gen. Austin Scott Miller steps down as commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan on Monday, nearly three years after he took over the war, longer than any previous commanding general.
McKenzie said that success in Afghanistan would be the prevention of another terror attack against U.S. from originating there.
“Are attacks against the United States being generated in ungoverned spaces in eastern Afghanistan, initiated by al-Qaeda and ISIS? There is no other metric,” he said.
“Al-Qaeda maintains an aspirational desire to attack the United States and other Western targets. The fact that they have not been able to do so effectively over the past few years is because of the counterterrorism pressure that’s been on them,” he said.
If the pressure comes off, McKenzie said, it is only reasonable that they would try to attack Western targets again.
“How fast they can rebuild? We don’t know. There are lot of intelligence estimates out there, a year or two years, just don’t know how long that would be.”
“The Taliban have said they’re going to not let them do that. I don’t believe that, but they said they won’t let them do that. So, we’ll observe, we’ll see from a distance. It won’t be what we had before, but we do have capabilities and we’ll deploy all the capabilities we have.”