The Afghanistan branch of the Islamic State group, or ISIS-K, might be capable of launching international attacks in six to 12 months, a top Pentagon official told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.
Colin Kahl, the under secretary of defense for policy, also reiterated U.S. officials' assessment that another group, al-Qaida, might regain the ability to launch attacks outside of Afghanistan in one to two years.
"We have considerable evidence that they have the intent; the question at the moment is the capability," Kahl added of al-Qaida and ISIS-K's desire to conduct attacks outside of Afghanistan.
Testifying alongside Kahl, Lt. Gen. James Mingus, director of operations for the Joint Staff, stressed that the intelligence assessments are "based on no U.S. or coalition intervention."
"The goal would be to keep those time horizons where they're at now, if not even further," Mingus added.
Under President Joe Biden's order, U.S. forces fully withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of August, ending a 20-year presence there.
Biden administration officials have said the military can keep terrorist threats in check by using so-called "over-the-horizon" forces, or troops and weapons based outside Afghanistan.
But unlike other countries where the American military conducts over-the-horizon operations, Afghanistan is landlocked and the United States does not have basing agreements with any neighboring nations.
Barring basing agreements being reached, that means any strikes will have to rely on military hardware based in the Persian Gulf region. That poses more difficulties than being in a neighboring country since aircraft have to fly further and thus can't stay over Afghanistan as long, the Pentagon has said.
On Tuesday, Kahl confirmed U.S. officials have had "extensive conversations" with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan on basing agreements, but said no deals have been reached.
The administration has "some very specific ideas" on how to win those countries' support for housing U.S. troops, Kahl said, but he declined to give specifics during the open session since the issue is "very sensitive." The committee held a classified session with Kahl and Mingus immediately after the open hearing.
The administration also has had conversations with Pakistan about using its airspace, Kahl said.
Right now, ISIS-K is mainly focused on "creating havoc" inside of Afghanistan, Kahl explained. The terrorist group has claimed responsibility for a number of high-profile attacks within Afghanistan in recent months, including August's Kabul airport bombing that killed 13 U.S. troops during the military's evacuation operations.
But, Kahl warned that there are some members of the group who "would love to conduct external attacks."
The Taliban and ISIS-K are sworn enemies, competing for territory and fighters, but U.S. officials have questioned the Taliban's ability to effectively contain the threat from ISIS.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has maintained close ties with al-Qaida, particularly the Haqqani network, despite agreeing in February 2020 to cut ties with the terrorist group as a condition of the U.S. withdrawal, U.S. and U.N. officials have said.
"We have seen signs ... that the Taliban is wary of Afghanistan being a springboard for al-Qaida external attacks," Kahl said, deferring further details on what those signs are to the classified session. "Not because the Taliban are good guys, but because they fear international retribution if that were to occur."
-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.