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Officials: U.S. will be ready for threats after troops leave Afghanistan

U.S. Marines in July 2009 in Afghanistan's Helmand

U.S. Marines in July 2009 in Afghanistan's Helmand province, nearly eight years into the war against the Taliban and al Qaida. Credit: AFP via Getty Images/Manpreet Romana

WASHINGTON — Top administration officials on Sunday defended President Joe Biden’s move to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, maintaining that the U.S. will still have the ability to detect and prevent threats from the region.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appearing on ABC’s "This Week," pushed back on warnings last week by retired Gens. David Petraeus and Joseph Dunford that a complete military exit from Afghanistan could create the conditions for a resurgence of terrorist activity.

Blinken said the objective had been met to "make sure that Afghanistan would not again become a haven for terrorism directed at the United States or any of our allies and partners."

Al-Qaida's capacity "to conduct an attack against the United States now from Afghanistan is not there, and of course, Osama bin Laden was brought to justice 10 years ago," Blinken said. "So the president felt that as we’re looking at the world now, we have to look at it through the prism of 2021, not 2001. The terrorism threat has moved to other places, and we have other very important items on our agenda, including the relationship with China, including dealing with everything from climate change to COVID, and that’s where we have to focus our energy and resources."

Last Wednesday, Biden announced his administration’s plan to pull out all 2,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan starting May 1 and concluding before Sept. 11, when the U.S. will mark 20 years since the deadliest foreign terrorist attack on American soil. The same day, NATO announced its plans to completely withdraw the remaining 7,000 troops from European member states starting May 1.

The Trump administration brokered a deal with the Taliban to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 1, but days after Biden was sworn into office, Pentagon officials indicated the deadline might not be met. The officials said the Taliban had yet to fully meet its part of the deal to forcefully renounce terrorist groups, including al-Qaida.

At an intelligence hearing with lawmakers on Capitol Hill last Wednesday, CIA Director William Burns said "the U.S. government's ability to collect and act on threats will diminish" once it withdraws completely from Afghanistan. Republican lawmakers also have raised concerns about leaving.

Asked about Burns’ remarks regarding potential threats, Blinken said the U.S. is "going to make sure that we have assets appropriately in place to see this coming, if it comes again, to see it and to be able to deal with it."

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, appearing on CNN’s "State of the Union," said the U.S. will "retain sufficient capabilities" to monitor al-Qaida’s movements.

"The terrorist threat has changed dramatically over the last 20 years," Sullivan said. "It's not just about Afghanistan anymore. Al-Qaida is in Yemen. ISIS is in Syria and Iraq. Al-Qaida is in Somalia and Syria and many other places. And so, against that dispersed and distributed terrorist threat, we need to allocate our resources in a way that allows us to protect the homeland against a variety of threats from a variety of countries and continents, not just from Afghanistan."

Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani, in an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria that aired Sunday, said he respected the decision by the U.S. and NATO allies to leave the country.

"A strategic decision has been made," Ghani said.

Asked about the future between Afghanistan’s democratically elected government and the Taliban, Ghani said he hoped both sides could "form a government of peace for a brief period" before holding an election monitored by international observers.

"In order to make sure that the wounds of the past 42 years, particularly [the] past 20 years, are healed, we will need a discussion of a national compact," Ghani said.

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