Implications of Afghanistan Withdrawal Mulled in Senate

A Defense Department official told senators the terrorist threat from Afghanistan is minimal.

American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan, in 2017. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) — An acting assistant secretary for the Department of Defense who oversees Indo-Pacific security for the U.S. told a Senate committee Thursday that terrorist threats against Americans are minimal in Afghanistan.

Lawmakers met to discuss the global, national and local implications of withdrawing U.S. security forces from Afghanistan, a move President Joe Biden announced in April. Some 13,000 U.S. troops in the country are set to complete their withdrawal by the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and already began moving out at the beginning of May.

David Helvey told the Senate Armed Services Committee the threat in Afghanistan had been assessed by administration officials, who determined the situation there could be monitored without boots on the ground.

“As a part of the interagency review of U.S.-Afghanistan policy, the administration has assessed that the threat from violent extremist organizations against the U.S. homeland from Afghanistan can be addressed without a persistence presence in the country,” Helvey testified.

Helvey reiterated that terrorist activity and the ability of opposing forces has been significantly denigrated since the U.S. first invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Groups like the Taliban have been significantly impacted by the decades-long conflict, he said.

“Their ability today has been significantly degraded,” Helvey said. “And that degradation is due in large part due to the presence that we’ve had in that country. … I can say with confidence that the ability of international terrorist groups to plan, recruit, train, organize and execute attacks against the United States from Afghanistan has been significantly reduced.”

Part of that, Helvey said, is because the nature of the international terrorist threat to Americans has changed. While the U.S. military presence has impacted terrorists’ ability to organize in the Middle East, some groups have relocated to parts of Africa.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, noted the expanse of Afghanistan security forces that the U.S. has trained in order to provide its citizens security. That security apparatus was essentially nonexistent when the U.S. entered the country in 2001, he said.

About 180,000 troops now make up the Afghan army, Kaine noted, with another 7,000 Afghan Air Force members, several hundred planes and a police force of nearly 16,000. These resources have been funded by American defense, he said, meaning it now up to Afghanistan to determine its freedom.

“What is the ingredient that will determine success or failure in Afghanistan going forward? It’s the Afghan people,” Kaine said. “The Afghan people who have experienced a significant increase in life expectancy, who’ve experienced a significant increase in the education of their young, including the education of young women, a dramatic improvement in public health infrastructure, in other elements of civil government. The Afghan people will have to decide, is it worth fighting for?”

Brigadier General Matthew Trollinger also fielded questions from the committee Thursday. He said it was in the range of potential scenarios for the Taliban to reconstitute and once again take control of Afghanistan. Retrograding equipment out of the country will include the transfer of American facilities, some vehicles and other equipment necessary to the Afghan National Defense Forces’ protection. The Defense Department will be disposing of inoperable equipment and reintegrating other facilities to retain U.S. defense continuity, he said.

Senator Joe Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat, was particularly interested in a guarantee that equipment left behind couldn’t fall into the hands of terrorist control. But Trollinger had no reassurances for the lawmaker.  

“Senator, I don’t think there are any guarantees,” Trollinger said. “I would acknowledge the range of possible outcomes over the coming months, from the dire certainly to the positive, so I couldn’t offer any guarantees on that.”

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