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Afghanistan once again terrorist safe haven as US 'over the horizon' capability faces limitations: expert

A string of Islamic State Khorasan province attacks in recent months has brought renewed attention to the lack of U.S. ability to run counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan since the full military withdrawal in 2021, experts said.

And the lack of “over the horizon” capabilities is contributing to the country once again becoming a breeding ground for ISIS-K and other terrorist organizations.

“Capabilities are very limited,” Bill Roggio, managing editor of Long War Journal, told Fox News Digital.

Among the problems the U.S. is facing in preventing the spread of terrorism in Afghanistan is unreliable intelligence gathering, Roggio said. Just months after the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan, former commander of U.S. Central Command Gen. Kenneth McKenzie Jr. warned that U.S. intelligence-gathering capabilities in Afghanistan was 2% of what it was when American troops were still in the country. In the time since that ominous warning, Roggio said the situation “hasn’t gotten any better.”

Also limiting U.S. counterterrorism capabilities in Afghanistan is distance, with the U.S. only being able to send assets such as drones from faraway places. That gives drones very little time to hover over the battlefield before having to return.

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Taliban fighters celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan. (AP Photo / Ebrahim Noroozi / File)

Despite the limitations, the U.S. has showed the ability to strike in the country when an opportunity presents itself. Nearly a year after the final U.S. troops left Afghanistan, the Department of Defense announced a drone strike in Kabul that killed al Qaeda Leader Ayman al-Zawahri.

The “over the horizon operation” was hailed as a success by the department, which boasted days later that the terrorist leader was the only casualty in the surprising strike.

“We are confident through our intelligence sources and methods — including multiple streams of intelligence — that we killed al-Zawahri and no other individuals,” a senior administration official said at the time. “His death deals a significant blow to [al Qaeda] and will degrade the group’s ability to operate, including against the U.S. homeland.”

Strikes in Afghanistan have been rare ever since, despite the Biden administration’s 2021 promises that the U.S. could maintain over-the-horizon operations. According to Roggio, part of the reason for that is that the administration has allowed itself to be boxed in by the Taliban.

“It’s not that there’s a dearth of targets there,” Roggio said. “It’s the administration.”

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Roggio noted that dozens of Americans are still being held in Taliban captivity, a reality that has put the administration in a difficult position when it comes to targeting terrorists.

“They don’t want to target al Qaeda, they don’t want to tick off the Taliban,” Roggio said. “The administration is allowing itself to be held hostage to Taliban demands.”

Newly recruited personnel for Taliban security forces demonstrate their skills during their graduation ceremony on Feb. 9, 2023.

Newly recruited personnel for Taliban security forces demonstrate their skills during their graduation ceremony on Feb. 9, 2023. (Mohsen Karimi / AFP via Getty Images)

Roggio also said that if the administration were to ramp up strikes against the Taliban and al Qaeda, it would be a “tacit admission by the administration that its policy failed.”

“And for all the talk of the Islamic State, there really isn’t any strategic targets that we are going after that I am aware of that are based in Afghanistan,” Roggio said.

His comments come amid a new wave of ISIS-K attacks in Afghanistan, including multiple attempts by the terrorist organization to assassinate top Taliban leaders.

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Assassinations have become a pillar of the Islamic State’s insurgent strategy, both in Afghanistan and elsewhere, with such attacks serving to help boost morale among its fighters and help recruit new ones. The attacks are especially important to ISIS-K leaders in Afghanistan, who use successful attacks as a means to secure fresh funding from the group’s global leaders.

As ISIS-K continues to test the new Taliban government’s security capabilities in Afghanistan, concerns have grown that the group could become a threat to U.S. interests outside the country. According to a U.S. intelligence report earlier this year, ISIS-K has expressed a clear desire to attack the West.

Less than a month after that report was released, current head of U.S. Central Command Gen. Michael Kurilla warned lawmakers that it was possible ISIS-K could attack targets outside Afghanistan in a matter of months.

Taliban fighters celebrate one year since they seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Taliban fighters celebrate one year since they seized the Afghan capital, Kabul, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP / Ebrahim Noroozi / File)

“They can do external operations against U.S. or Western interests abroad in under six months with little to no warning,” Kurilla said.

However, Roggio cautioned that the biggest threat emanating from Afghanistan remains al Qaeda, which enjoys the safe haven of a country controlled by the Taliban.

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“In my opinion … the real threat from Afghanistan stems from the Taliban and al Qaeda and allied groups, that’s the primary threat,” Roggio said. “The Islamic State is a secondary threat. And the reason for that is the Taliban control the state apparatus, including all those weapons we left behind – ammunition, the bases – and they’re sheltering al Qaeda.”

Meanwhile, Roggio noted that ISIS-K does not have any allies in Afghanistan and is instead in constant conflict with both al Qaeda and the Taliban. Unlike al Qaeda, which essentially enjoys state sponsorship, ISIS-K is forced to operate underground.

The new reality on the ground in Afghanistan is seemingly similar to the picture prior to Sept. 11, 2001, though Roggio says the situation today may be even worse thanks to the Taliban’s control of even more of the country and a lack of a unified fighting force to counter them, such as the Northern Alliance that existed before 2001.

“We put a significant emphasis on fighting the Islamic State toward the end … at the expense of fighting the Taliban and even worked with the Taliban to fight the Islamic State, and that allowed the Taliban to take power in Afghanistan,” Roggio said. “Continuing to emphasize the Islamic State at the expense of that Taliban and al Qaeda alliance is missing the forest for the trees and underplaying the real threat.”

President Biden, right, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin

President Biden, right, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images / File)

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But despite the growing threat in Afghanistan, Roggio doesn’t anticipate U.S. policy changing anytime soon.

“There has to be a political will to do it,” Roggio said of the U.S. increasing operations in Afghanistan. “That’s what this administration doesn’t have.”

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