US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday the al-Qaeda extremist group that used Afghanistan as a staging base to attack US 20 years ago may attempt to regenerate there following an American withdrawal that has left the Taliban in power.
Austin spoke to a small group of reporters in Kuwait City at the conclusion of a four-day tour of Arabian Gulf states. He said the US is prepared to prevent an al-Qaeda comeback in Afghanistan that would threaten the US.
“The whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaeda has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan,” he said.
“The nature of al-Qaeda and [ISIS] is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate, whether it’s there, whether it’s in Somalia, or whether it’s in any other ungoverned space. I think that’s the nature of the organization.”
The Taliban had provided al-Qaeda with sanctuary while it ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The US invaded and overthrew the Taliban after it refused to turn over al-Qaeda leaders following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the US.
During the course of the 20-year US war, al-Qaeda was vastly diminished, but questions have arisen about its future prospects with the Taliban back in Kabul.
“We put the Taliban on notice that we expect them to not allow that to happen,” Austin said, referring to the possibility of al-Qaeda using Afghanistan as a staging base in the future.
Taliban pledge to cut ties with al-Qaeda
In a February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, Taliban leaders pledged not to support al-Qaeda or other extremist groups that would threaten the United States. But US officials believe the Taliban maintain ties to al-Qaeda, and many nations, including Gulf Arab states, are concerned that the Taliban’s return to power could open the door to a resurgence of al-Qaeda influence.
Austin has asserted that the US military is capable of containing al-Qaeda or any other extremist threat to the US emanating from Afghanistan by using surveillance and strike aircraft based elsewhere, including in the Arabian Gulf.
He also has acknowledged that it will be more difficult without US troops and intelligence teams based in Afghanistan.
US ties with Gulf states
Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken appeared together in Qatar on Tuesday in a show of US gratitude for that Gulf state’s help with the transit of tens of thousands of Afghans and others evacuated from Kabul. Blinken also visited an evacuee transit site in Germany, and Austin visited Bahrain and Kuwait.
One of the highlights of my day was meeting and hearing the stories of our incredible servicewomen and men at @NSA_Bahrain. You all have done heroic work to support the Afghanistan evacuation mission — the largest military airlift mission in history. pic.twitter.com/BT4IifWMO7— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) September 8, 2021
Together, the Austin and Blinken trips were meant to reassure Gulf allies that President Joe Biden’s decision to end the US war in Afghanistan in order to focus more on other security challenges like China and Russia does not foretell an abandonment of US partners in the Middle East.