Top US General Mark Milley has warned al-Qaeda terrorists in Afghanistan could threaten the US in as little as 12 months.
He and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin were questioned in Congress on Tuesday about last month’s Afghanistan pullout.
The US has said it will now move towards counter-terrorism missions.
The hearing, held by the Senate armed services committee, comes weeks after a chaotic withdrawal at Kabul airport as foreign powers sought to get their citizens home and thousands of desperate Afghans begged for rescue.
Tuesday’s hearing began with opening testimony from Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, followed by Gen Milley. This was followed with questioning by senators, which continues on Wednesday.
Gen Milley said it would now be harder to protect Americans from terrorist attacks from Afghanistan.
“The Taliban was and remains a terrorist organisation and still has not broken ties with al-Qaeda,” he said.
“A reconstituted al-Qaeda or ISIS [Islamic State group] with aspirations to attack the US is a very real possibility, and those conditions to include activity in ungoverned spaces could present themselves in the next 12-36 months.”
Gen Milley said he made an assessment in late 2020 that an accelerated troop withdrawal from Afghanistan could precipitate the government’s collapse.
“We helped build a state, but we could not forge a nation,” Mr Austin said.
Keeping troops on the ground
Another general, Kenneth McKenzie, who as head of US Central Command oversaw the withdrawal from Afghanistan, said under questioning he recommended keeping a small force of 2,500 troops in Afghanistan.
This appears to contradict President Joe Biden’s assertion to an ABC journalist that he did not recall anyone giving him such advice.
Later White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki addressed the issue.
US troops first entered Afghanistan in late 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks. By the time they left, the US had spent about $985bn (£724bn) and deployed tens of thousands of troops, peaking at 110,000 in 2011.
In the weeks between the fall of Kabul and the withdrawal deadline of 31 August, the US evacuated its remaining 4,000 troops. It is also taking about 50,000 Afghan refugees who were airlifted out of Kabul.
Who is Gen Mark Milley?
- He’s Joe Biden’s top military adviser – the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (the committee of the eight highest-ranking military officials)
- He’s not part of the chain of command with the military and does not order US forces
- However, he is the link between the White House and the Pentagon
- He was a four-star officer and the Army Chief of Staff before being appointed to lead the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 2019
‘We are not going to attack China’
The phone calls were revealed in a book by journalist Bob Woodward, who also said Gen Milley had told his staff that if Mr Trump ordered a nuclear strike, then he would have to confirm it before it was carried out.
Top Republican Senator Marco Rubio has described this as “treasonous”.
“My task at that time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: ‘Stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.'”