As the United States prepares to withdraw its last troops from Afghanistan, lawmakers and Defense Department leaders are trying to figure out exactly how to prevent that nation from once again becoming a terrorist haven.
Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the House Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing Tuesday that he's concerned the Taliban could overrun the Afghan government once the U.S. leaves, which would risk Afghanistan once again becoming a "breeding ground" for terrorists.
"I have yet to hear how the president intends to conduct counterterrorism operations without any U.S. troops in the region," Rogers said. "There had better be a plan for that, and I expect the administration to explain it to us as soon as possible."
Amanda Dory, acting undersecretary of defense for policy, testified before the hearing that the military is working to figure out how it will apply counterterrorism pressure to threats that may come from Afghanistan once troops leave.
Surveillance and intelligence will be a key part of this effort, Dory said.
President Joe Biden and his national security team considered a range of scenarios for the future of Afghanistan and the U.S.'s ability to pressure terrorists, Dory said. And she expressed confidence the nation will not fall victim to terrorist attacks after the last few thousand troops leave Afghanistan by Sept. 11.
"The commitment is that there will not be threats emanating from Afghanistan against the U.S. homeland," Dory said.
Marine Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command, told the committee that he is considering options for keeping an "over the horizon" counterterrorism capability to rapidly respond to a terrorist threat in Afghanistan against the United States. He said he will present Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin with the possible options by the end of the month.
But if the U.S. needs to go back into Afghanistan to conduct such operations after it leaves, he said, it will need "heavy intelligence support" to first find and then fix the target.
That will be harder -- but not impossible -- to do, McKenzie said. Currently, an MQ-9 Reaper drone stationed in Afghanistan can take off and be over its target in a matter of minutes, he said.
After the U.S. withdraws, however, MQ-9s will need to be based farther away, he explained. The U.S. is looking at other nations in the region where these sorts of assets can be based, and diplomats will negotiate with those countries, he added.
"Some of them may be very far away," McKenzie said. "And then there would be a significant bill for those types of resources, because you'd have to cycle a lot of them in and out."
Once the U.S. has a target in sight, he said, it will minimize collateral damage and ensure it has a precise target when it strikes. There are several ways to do that, including long-range precision fires, manned raids and manned aircraft strikes, all of which carry their own risks and benefits, he said.
"I don't want to put on rose-colored glasses and say it's going to be easy to do," McKenzie said. "I can tell you that the U.S. military can do about anything, and we're examining this problem with all of our resources right now to find a way to do it in the most intelligent, risk-free manner that we can."
McKenzie told Rogers that while the physical "caliphate" claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria was destroyed, remnants remain in both nations. While it is difficult, if not impossible, for those remaining fighters to hold ground, McKenzie said, they are still conducting small-scale terror attacks.
ISIS is not going away, McKenzie added, and there will continue to be bloodshed in Iraq and Syria. But partner forces in those nations are largely able to handle that threat on their own, without significant assistance from the U.S. or European allies, he said. The U.S. provides support and high-level advice and assistance to Iraqi Security Forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces, he said, but is not patrolling with them on the ground.
The military's significant counterterrorism pressure in Afghanistan in recent years has dealt a serious blow to al-Qaida and ISIS and its offshoot there, McKenzie said.
ISIS probably has several hundred fighters in Afghanistan now, he said. Its branch known as ISIS-Khorasan Province is a little bigger, he explained. But ISIS-K is itself disaggregated and has not been able to successfully hold ground in Afghanistan's east.
The Taliban promised not to allow ISIS to take a stronger presence in Afghanistan, McKenzie said -- but added that he'll believe it when he sees it.
"With the Taliban, I've learned to not listen to what they say, but rather to watch what they do," McKenzie said. "So we will watch closely what they do."
He said that all U.S. contractors will leave Afghanistan along with service members, and most other contractors in the country will leave as well.
The military in recent years has attempted to shift its focus away from fighting terrorists and other violent extremists to a "great power competition" strategy of preparing for a fight against a major nation such as China or Russia.
Those nations are very active in Africa, Army Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, told the committee -- particularly China.
Continuing to assist African countries against terrorists and violent extremists can be a form of engaging in great power competition against major competitors, Townsend said -- though some partners in Africa don't like that term, so AFRICOM describes it as "global power competition," he added.
"What's the purpose of global power competition, but to expand America's access and influence?" Townsend said. "By doing counter [violent extremism], or counterterrorist operations, supporting our African partners, we are gaining access and influence. In Africa, counterterrorism operations are a way of global power competition."