Pentagon chief: al-Qaida may seek comeback in Afghanistan

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin stated Thursday that the al-Qaida terrorist group that used Afghanistan 20 years ago as a base for attacks on the United States may try to reorganize there after the American withdrawal has ended the Taliban's rule.

Pentagon chief: al-Qaida may seek comeback in Afghanistan

Austin spoke with a small group in Kuwait City to report on the end of a four day tour through the Persian Gulf states. He stated that the United States was ready to stop an al-Qaida return in Afghanistan, which would be a threat to the United States.

He said that the whole community was watching to see what happened and whether or not al Qaida can regenerate in Afghanistan. Al-Qaida (the Islamic State group), is a group that will always seek out space to grow and regenerate. That's my opinion.

Al-Qaida had been provided sanctuary by the Taliban during its rule of Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. After the September 11, 2001 attack by the United States, the Taliban refused to hand over its leaders, the U.S. invaded the country and overthrew it. Al-Qaida's strength was greatly diminished over the course of the twenty-year U.S. war. However, questions remain about its future with the Taliban in Kabul.

Austin stated, "We put the Taliban under notice that we expect that they will not allow that to occur," referring to al-Qaida's possible use of Afghanistan as a future staging ground.

Taliban leaders agreed to not support al-Qaida and other extremist groups in a February 2020 deal with Trump's administration. Officials in the United States believe that the Taliban still have ties to al Qaida. Many nations, including the Gulf Arab states are concerned about the possibility of al Qaida's return to power.

Austin asserted that the U.S. military can contain al-Qaida and any other extremist threat emanating from Afghanistan using surveillance and strike planes based elsewhere. This includes the Persian Gulf. It will be difficult without U.S. intelligence and troops based in Afghanistan.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Austin met in Qatar as a sign of gratitude for the Gulf state's assistance in transiting tens to thousands of Afghans and other refugees from Kabul. Blinken visited a German evacuee transit station, while Austin visited Kuwait and Bahrain.

The Austin and Blinken visits were intended to reassure Gulf allies about President Joe Biden’s decision to end U.S. military operations in Afghanistan to concentrate on other security issues like China and Russia. This does not mean that the U.S. will abandon its partners in the Middle East. For decades, the U.S. military has been present in the Gulf. This includes the headquarters of the Navy's 5th Fleet in Bahrain. Biden has not spoken out against this presence but, like the Trump administration, he has called China the No. Along with the strategic challenges from Russia, security is Biden's number one priority.

Austin, a former Army general, has a strong network of contacts in the Gulf. This is partly due to his years as a commander of U.S. Central Command which oversees U.S. military operations throughout the Middle East. However, this week's visit was his first to the Gulf region since January when he took office.

As the last stop on his Gulf tour, Austin was scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia on Friday. John Kirby, Austin's spokesman, informed him that the visit was cancelled due to scheduling issues. Kirby did not provide any further details, but stated that Austin would be happy to reschedule.

Austin stated that his Saudi request had caused Austin to postpone his visit. He said that the Saudis had some scheduling problems and that he couldn't tell you exactly what they were.

Notably, the Saudi stop was made just two days before the 20th anniversary the terrorist attacks against the United States that claimed nearly 3,000 lives. 15 hijacked commercial planes and crashed them into twin towers at the Pentagon, World Trade Center and Pennsylvania fields on September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden was also a Saudi. The al-Qaida network planned the attack from Afghanistan. This attack led to the U.S. invading Afghanistan, a war that lasted 20 years.

In the years that have followed, relations between the U.S. and the Saudi government has been troubled at times. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman led a unprecedented crackdown on activists, rivals, and suspected critics in 2018. Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post columnist and dissident, was brutally murdered by Saudi agents at the Saudi Consulate in Turkey.

This month, President Joe Biden ordered the declassification certain documents related the 9/11 attacks. This was a gesture to the families of victims who had long sought these records in the hope of implicating the Saudi government. The 9/11 Commission has released a number of documents that detail Saudi entanglements, but they have not proven government complicity.

Saudi Arabia denies any responsibility. The Saudi Embassy in Washington issued a statement on Wednesday, expressing gratitude for the decision to release and declassify more documents about 9/11. It stated that "no evidence has ever been found to suggest that the Saudi government, its officials, or any other party, knew of the terrorist attack, or were involved in its planning, execution, or preparation."

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