Pentagon leaders see 'medium' risk of terrorists regrouping in Afghanistan

Pentagon leaders see 'medium' risk of terrorists regrouping in Afghanistan
© Greg Nash

Pentagon leaders on Thursday put the risk of terrorist groups reconstituting in Afghanistan at “medium” based on current conditions in the country.

“I would assess it as medium,” Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense & National Security — Presented by Raytheon Technologies — Navy probe reveals disastrous ship fire response Pentagon says almost half of Afghan evacuees at US bases are children Russian fighters escort US bombers over Black Sea MORE told the Senate Appropriations Committee, predicting "it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability.”

Testifying alongside Austin, Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyPoll: New Hampshire Senate race tight Republicans would need a promotion to be 'paper tigers' We've left Afghanistan — but its consequences are just starting to arrive MORE, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he agreed.

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“If certain other things happen, if there was a collapse of the government or dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that risk would obviously increase, but right now I’d say medium and about two years or so,” Milley said.

Austin and Milley were testifying as the U.S. military is more than halfway done with fully withdrawing from Afghanistan after a nearly 20-year war.

Critics of President BidenJoe BidenBiden: Democrats' spending plan is 'a bigger darn deal' than Obamacare Biden says he's open to altering, eliminating filibuster to advance voting rights Biden: Comment that DOJ should prosecute those who defy subpoenas 'not appropriate' MORE’s order to withdraw have warned the Taliban could overrun the Afghan government and allow threats to the United States from groups such as al Qaeda to flourish anew.

U.S. officials have said they plan to keep terrorist threats in check using so-called over-the-horizon capabilities, or forces based outside of Afghanistan that could carry out strikes in the country when needed. But plans remain murky for how exactly that will be done.

Lawmakers have also been expressing increasing alarm over the fate of Afghans who helped U.S. troops during the war, warning the United States must evacuate them before the withdrawal is complete or else they risk being executed by the Taliban.

Several lawmakers have compared the situation to the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the United States evacuated thousands of Vietnamese refugees. 

But on Thursday, Milley rejected those comparisons.

“My professional opinion, I do not see that unfolding,” Milley said. “I may be wrong, who knows, you can't predict the future, but I don't see Saigon 1975 in Afghanistan. The Taliban just aren't the North Vietnamese Army. It's not that kind of situation.”

While Austin and Milley have stressed the importance of keeping faith with Afghans who helped the United States and said the Pentagon is prepared to help in any way, they have also underlined the State Department is in charge of processing visas.

“You have our commitment, senator, that this department will do everything within our power to, No. 1, support the State Department's efforts,” Austin said. “If we're required to generate capabilities like transportation, whatever we're required to do, we'll be fully behind this effort.”