Antony Blinken, U.S. secretary of state. (Bloomberg)

US spies see signs of al Qaeda fighters returning to Afghanistan

“We are already beginning to see some of the indications of some potential movement of al Qaeda to Afghanistan,” David Cohen, deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency, said at a conference. “But it’s early days and we will obviously keep a very close eye on that.”

On Capitol Hill on Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken continued his defense of the Biden administration’s handling of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee repeatedly distinguished between the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan and the chaotic nature of the exit. They acknowledged the scale of the evacuation effort, but said it had been poorly executed.

“Doing the right thing in the wrong way can end up being the wrong thing,” said the committee’s chairman, Sen. Bob Menendez (D., N.J.).

Mr. Menendez also said the State and Defense departments and the White House had provided vague or contradictory information on the crisis.

Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the panel’s ranking Republican, said, “While I supported a responsible end to the war in Afghanistan, no American thinks we should have left this way.”

Members criticized Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for declining to appear before the committee. Mr. Risch faulted the Defense Department for poor record-keeping over the course of the 20-year war, which hindered the efforts of Afghans to verify their eligibility for Special Immigrant Visas.

“The administration patting itself on the back for this evacuation is like an arsonist taking credit for saving people from a burning building, which it set on fire,” Mr. Risch said.

Sen. Marco Rubio (R., Fla.) said that numerous analysts had foreseen the fall of the Kabul government to the Taliban, contrary to Mr. Blinken’s assertion that “the most pessimistic assessments did not predict that government forces in Kabul would collapse while U.S. forces remained.”

Mr. Rubio said the U.S. “had every reason to believe and to plan for the rapid collapse of the Afghan military and the Afghan government.”

Mr. Blinken said intelligence assessments are conducted on a continuing basis, but that as of February, the worst-case scenario assessment involved a Taliban takeover of the country within a year of the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan. He acknowledged that the security situation in the country had deteriorated by July.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D., N.H.) said the factors leading up to the massive evacuation effort were the fault of successive presidential administrations of both parties.

“Let’s stop with the hypocrisy about who’s to blame,” she said. “There are a lot of people to blame, and we all share it.”

At the Intelligence and National Security Summit outside Washington on Tuesday, Mr. Cohen of the CIA acknowledged that the withdrawal from Afghanistan had diminished the agency’s ability to track events there, but said the agency wouldn’t rely solely on so-called over-the-horizon platforms based in other countries.

“We will also look for ways to work from ‘within the horizon,’ to the extent that is possible,’ he said.

The current U.S. intelligence estimate, which officials say may be revised, is that it would take between one and two years for al Qaeda to reconstitute a capability to threaten the U.S.

Mr. Blinken testified Monday before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, where Republicans rejected his argument that the Biden administration was bound by the February 2020 agreement negotiated by the Trump administration, and accused the secretary and the president of dishonesty and malfeasance.

The panel’s Democrats laid much of the blame on former President Donald Trump, while asking Mr. Blinken for assurances on the safety of U.S. citizens and vulnerable Afghans remaining in the country.

Mr. Blinken told the House committee that the U.S. military had long ago achieved its objectives by striking back at the perpetrators of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and killing Osama bin Laden. Remaining in the country would have risked further U.S. casualties without improving the political or security situation there.

“One of the lessons is while we are very effective in dealing with terrorist threats to our country and eliminating them, which we did very successfully in Afghanistan, the idea of using military force to remake a society is something that is beyond our means and capacity,” he said Monday.


This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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