General Warns of Challenges to Tracking Terrorist Threats in Afghanistan After U.S. Exits

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch remain very weak inside the country, according to American officials briefed on the intelligence. Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are focused on making local gains, not mounting international attacks. And the Taliban remains hostile to the group.

How well the United States can monitor any changes in these threats will depend on many factors, General McKenzie and other senior military officials said.

The administration currently plans to maintain an embassy in Kabul — but how many personnel, including intelligence analysts, will remain is under debate. “That will be helpful if we maintain an embassy there,” General McKenzie said.

Flying remotely piloted aircraft like the MQ-9 Reaper from the sprawling Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar requires round trips of up to eight hours, leaving much less time for drones to hover over targets in Afghanistan. As a result, the Pentagon would need many more drones to achieve 24-hour coverage in multiple areas of the country at a time when the Defense Department is looking to transfer surveillance aircraft to missions in Asia.

General McKenzie said that the military would not sacrifice precision in its targeting to minimize the risk of civilian casualties. “We’re going to make sure we have a precise target, and that we’re going to be able to control what happens there,” he said.

The implications of Mr. Biden’s decision continued to sink in on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Several top Biden administration officials, including Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the longtime lead U.S. diplomat involved in the Afghan peace process, provided classified briefings on Tuesday to several socially distanced groups of lawmakers, and discussed the president’s decision.

General McKenzie made one point clear in his public testimony: No more combat troops. And no more civilian contractors. (There are more than 16,000 in Afghanistan, including about 6,000 Americans.) “We’re going to go to zero in Afghanistan,” he said.

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