By Kristina Wong
The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has made inroads in Afghanistan as U.S. troops have drawn back from remote areas of the country to larger bases near major cities.
U.S. and Afghan officials say ISIS is now in three provinces in Afghanistan, and over the weekend, Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar announced he would support ISIS.
The U.S. is poised to reduce its troops levels from 9,800 to an embassy presence of about 1,000 by the end of next year.Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who visited Afghanistan over the Fourth of July weekend, urged that the timeline be reassessed after meeting with Gen. John Campbell, the top U.S. commander in the country.
“With the rise of [ISIS] and the distinct fighting season that is marked this year, the threat environment continues to evolve in ways that clearly, in my view, demands a reassessment of the administration’s current calendar-driven drawdown of U.S. forces with a plan that must be based on conditions on the ground,” he said Saturday.
The Obama administration and its allies have signaled growing worries about ISIS.
Three recent terrorist attacks, in France, Kuwait and Tunisia, suggest the group’s influence is growing, and defense officials earlier this year said ISIS had gained a “toehold” in Libya.
President Obama signaled his concerns by making a rare visit to the Pentagon on Monday to get an update on military operations against ISIS.
“From Libya and Tunisia, to Afghanistan, ISIL continues to advance while we lose ground and time,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said in a statement Monday, using an alternate acronym.
Defense officials have downplayed the ISIS presence in Afghanistan, saying it mostly consists of disgruntled Taliban members rebranding themselves as ISIS.
“What’s different is that people are using the ISIS name. But what we don’t see is growth in their numbers,” said one defense official.
However, some former members of the administration — and privately, some current military officials — disagree.
David Sedney, a former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Afghanistan, Pakistan and Central Asia from 2009 to 2013, said it did not matter that ISIS was “rebranded” Taliban.
“When they join ISIS, they make ISIS stronger. And our narrative that we’re defeating it is not actually true,” Sedney said in a phone interview on Monday.
“We’re not taking it seriously,” he said. “There’s more ISIS in Afghanistan today than a year ago, and a year from now it’s going to be even bigger than now if we don’t change our strategy.”
Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, said in a PBS interview last month that ISIS fighters “are gaining ground even in Afghanistan.”
More recently, she called for the president to rethink his drawdown plan in a recent op-ed.
“The rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan also offers one more reason to abandon the calendar-based withdrawal of U.S. forces from that country by the end of 2016,” she wrote in The Washington Post on June 24.
“Instead, the United States should adopt a more forward-looking approach that would keep a modest force in place to advise and assist the Afghan national security forces and conduct joint counterterrorism operations to safeguard both countries,” she added.
McCain will have an opportunity to press members of the Obama administration on Tuesday when Pentagon leaders testify on the ISIS strategy.
The administration has already slowed the pace this year, which was scheduled to go down to about 4,500, but administration officials insist they will stick to the current timeline.
“But the President’s been very clear that even as we stay at around 10,000 forces through this year, by the end of 2016 we want to get down to a Kabul-centered, embassy-focused presence and whatever goes along with that in terms of the security requirement,” Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said at the Center for a New American Security on June 26.
“We cannot and we should not be the guarantor of Afghan security in perpetuity,” he added.
Sedney said the administration has recklessly pulled out intelligence assets from the country, leaving the Afghan security forces “blind” against the Taliban and ISIS.
He also slammed the administration’s plans to withdraw all troops next year in an interview on Monday.
“We need to get rid of these silly deadlines and base our troop decisions on the security threat, not these silly political deadlines,” he said.
“We should keep troops there as long as we need to keep them,” he said. “Things aren’t going to fall apart tomorrow, but there is a crescendo building of threat.”