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October 04, 2021

Inhofe Shares Lessons Learned About the Path Forward in Afghanistan

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, last week led Republicans at two open hearings on the situation in Afghanistan and the path forward for counterterrorism. Inhofe has iterated that these hearings were just the beginning, and he hopes to have additional oversight hearings on Afghanistan in October. 

After detailed questioning of America’s top defense officials and leading Afghanistan experts, Inhofe is sharing what he has learned so far.

Key Takeaways from First Two Open Hearings of Senate Armed Services Committee Afghanistan Oversight

  • Afghanistan is now the safest place for radical Islamist terrorists in the world.
  • Our ability to combat terrorist organizations in Afghanistan has been significantly diminished.
  • As a result of President Biden’s surrender in Afghanistan, our adversaries question America’s resolve and see an opportunity to exploit a weak administration.

Fact: The Taliban government is filled with terrorists.

  • Just look at who serves in senior-most positions in the new Taliban regime.
    • Mullah Zakir, deputy defense minister, was at Guantanamo for years, and he studied insurgency warfare there.
    • Four of the five ex-Guantanamo detainees, each with ties to al-Qaeda, who were traded for Bowe Bergdahl in 2014 are now ministers in the Taliban's government, including the director of intelligence Abdul Haq Wasiq.
    • Sirajuddin Haqqani, Minister of Interior, was a key figure coordinating with al-Qaeda throughout the insurgency and is wanted by the FBI with a $10 million reward for information about his location.
  •  As terrorism expert Tom Joscelyn, Senior Fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, reminded the Senate Armed Services Committee on September 30, “The new Taliban is the same old Taliban.” Joscelyn’s opening statement noted that the Taliban aired a video on Afghan national TV stating that the United States deserved the 9/11 attacks and denying responsibility for harboring Osama bin Laden.
  • Dr. Vali Nasr, former senior advisor to the U.S. Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, stated at the same hearing, “We are right to be worried about terrorism in Afghanistan. We are right to be worried about how the Taliban will govern.”

Fact: The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan was not just a win for the Taliban, but for al-Qaeda as well.

  • Osama bin Laden first pledged al-Qaeda’s allegiance to the Taliban in the 1990s and its current leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has reaffirmed the group’s allegiance to the Taliban multiple times since. The decades-long ties between the two organizations remain strong, with senior officials in the new Taliban government having trained with or fought alongside al-Qaeda against the United States, the West and the Afghan government for years, most notably Sirajuddin Haqqani, who serves as the Taliban’s Interior Minister. Just this week, General Milley told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the Taliban has never renounced al-Qaeda or broke its affiliation with them,” and Joscelyn testified that al-Qaeda played a prominent military role in the Taliban's victory in Afghanistan.
  • General Milley has described the withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban takeover of Kabul as putting “a shot of adrenaline” into the arm of the global jihadist movement.
  • Experts reiterated that point on September 30. “Afghanistan is a special safe haven for al-Qaeda because the Taliban is their ally…The jihadis have a strategic, ideological problem, which is they weren’t able to win anywhere. Now they’ve won. Now they have a victory message,” Joscelyn said at the September 30 hearing.

Fact: Over-the-horizon counterterrorism in Afghanistan is more difficult and costly, and less effective.

  • Congress has not yet seen a counterterrorism plan from the Biden Administration. That is why we have requested further open hearings from the Department of Defense on this topic.
  • Because of its landlocked nature, Afghanistan poses a unique set of challenges that make it fundamentally different from other countries where we conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism. As General McKenzie stated on September 28, “It is the finding and fixing the target that where we run into great difficulties, particularly associated with Afghanistan because of as you noted its landlocked location, its great range from our bases. And while we do have platforms that can fly in there, it eats up a lot of time and a lot of platforms to conduct that mission.”
  • We have no reliable partners in the region. At the same hearing, General McKenzie confirmed that the U.S. is reliant on the continued use of Pakistani airspace for our over-the-horizon strategy — but Pakistani officials have told us we won’t be able to use their airspace.
  • Gathering intelligence is going to be more challenging. As Joscelyn pointed out on September 30, the U.S. had significant gaps in intelligence about al-Qaeda even when we had boots on the ground — for instance, they were operating large training camps we didn’t even know about. On September 28, General Milley confirmed that over-the-horizon counterterrorism “makes it much more difficult for us to conduct intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance.”

Fact: Our allies are questioning our credibility and resolve.

  • General Milley said clearly on September 28 that our credibility has been damaged with allies, partners and adversaries.
  • On September 30, Nasr confirmed that the Biden Administration’s disastrous drawdown harmed our standing on the world stage. “The entire endgame in Afghanistan has damaged American credibility. We are in a position where our ability to see through our projects are suspect, our ability to stick with our strategies are suspect, and also our ability to execute our policies are suspect.”

Fact: China is watching very closely.

  • At the September 30 hearing, Nasr said: “To our…adversaries, it looks generally that the United States will tire of its strategies, that it ultimately did not win this war, that ultimately it said it would not talk to the Taliban, it talked to the Taliban, and when it came to the endgame that it didn’t manage its own exit well and there was more damage done on the way out than when we were in…I would say our enemies may look and say they can wait out our strategies ultimately that we can be pushed out of regions in the world if they have the time and the effort.”
  • Joscelyn echoed that point at the same hearing, saying because of the “debacle” drawdown, China is questioning us on Taiwan. “We will be tested across the board in the coming months and years. We are at one of our weakest points.”
  • Nasr also asked the question many of us are thinking: “How can we get China right if we didn't get this easy counterterrorism right?”

Don’t forget: The 2018 National Defense Strategy says that our focus should be on strategic competition with China and Russia. It did not discount the threat from radical Islamist terrorism, instead describing counter-terrorism as an “economy of force” mission. “Economy of force” does not mean “no force.” Leaving a small presence of troops on the ground in Afghanistan to deter terrorist organizations – like we have in many other parts of the world – would have both kept the Afghan National Security Forces from falling apart and provided an economy of force to enables us to focus on these other challenges.

Click here to see Inhofe’s seven top takeaways from the September 29 hearing with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and General Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of U.S. Central Command.

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