U.S. officials are acknowledging that the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spread into Afghanistan, where President Obama is on track to draw down all but 1,000 U.S. troops by the end of the year.
“We believe this group is nascent, relatively small, but maintains aspirations for the region,” added Army Col. Brian Tribus, a spokesman for the coalition’s Resolute Support mission in Afghanistan.
“We have also seen a few Taliban rebrand themselves as Daesh, likely in an attempt to garner resources and attention,” Tribus said in an email, using a derogatory Arabic name for ISIS.
The acknowledgment came after the Pentagon confirmed it had conducted a drone strike in Afghanistan’s Helmand province earlier this week, killing former Taliban member and Guantánamo Bay detainee Abdul Rauf, who had become an ISIS leader and recruiter. Seven of his associates were also killed.
Pentagon officials played down ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan, calling it “nascent at best” and “aspirational.” They noted, however, that Rauf and “his associates” were a threat to U.S. forces that needed to be taken out.
“He and his associates were targeted, because we had information that they were planning operations against U.S. and Afghan personnel there in Afghanistan,” Pentagon press secretary Rear Adm. Kirby said on Wednesday.
ISIS’s emergence in Afghanistan comes as the U.S. military is reducing its footprint in the country.
Roughly 10,000 U.S. troops are currently in Afghanistan. The Pentagon plans to reduce that number to 5,500 by the end of the year, consolidating operations at two bases.
The number of U.S. forces will then shrink to 1,000 by the end of 2016, mostly stationed in Kabul, leaving less ability to counter ISIS.
Lawmakers say they are worried that ISIS could establish a foothold after U.S. troops leave, which happened in Iraq in 2011.
“In Afghanistan, we see an initial emergence of ISIS,” Sen. John McCainJohn McCainFree speech is a right, not a political weapon The trouble with Rex Tillerson Senate: Act now to save Ukraine MORE (R-Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a hearing on Afghanistan on Wednesday.
“The threats are real, and the stakes are high. We cannot let Afghanistan become a sanctuary for al Qaeda or ISIS,” he said.
Lawmakers — mostly Republicans — have expressed worry over Obama’s troop drawdown schedule, and pressed nominee for Defense secretary Ashton Carter recommend modifications if necessary.
“The president has a plan. I support that plan. At the same time, it's a plan. And if I'm confirmed, and I ascertain as the years go by that we need to change that plan, I will recommend those changes to the president,” Carter told lawmakers at his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, U.S. commanders say they are keeping a close eye on terrorists in the country, as troops carry out their main mission to train, advise and assist Afghan forces.
“The potential emergence of Daesh in Afghanistan is something we monitor closely. This issue has [top U.S. commander Gen. John] Campbell’s attention and we remain vigilant,” Tribus said.
Although troop numbers have gone down, commanders have left intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, such as spy drones, largely in place.
“We have not brought down the number of ISR orbits commensurate with the number of troops,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Mark Ramsay, who’s in charge of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Force Structure, Resource and Assessment Directorate, at a recent Pentagon briefing.
“Because even though our troops are inside the wire doing train, advise and assist, and helping them build their force, we're still out there trying to make sure that those troops inside the garrison are safe,” Ramsey said last week.
Officials insist they have the resources they need to go after terrorists in Afghanistan.
But even a former top Obama defense official recently said it’s time to stop and think about what kind of troop presence and intelligence assets are necessary to prevent al Qaeda and associated groups from moving back in.
“We need to re-examine the pace and scope of the drawdown, in light of what we're going to need in the future,” Michèle Flournoy, former undersecretary of Defense for policy during the Obama administration, told lawmakers at an Afghanistan hearing on Wednesday.
“I don't believe a zero posture in Afghanistan is going to serve our interests in the long term, given the continued terrorism threats that we face, given the continued importance of our support,” Flournoy said.