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U.S. less effective at countering terrorist threats in Afghanistan and Somalia since troop withdrawal, generals warn

Gen. Stephen Townsend, head of U.S. Africa Command, speaks with lawmakers during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

U.S. troops’ exit from Afghanistan and Somalia has limited the United States’ ability to conduct counterterrorism operations against groups linked to al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, the American generals in charge of the Middle East and Africa told senators Tuesday.

“In my view, we are marching in place at best,” Army Gen. Steven Townsend, who leads U.S. Africa Command, told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee of the security picture in Somalia. “We may be backsliding.”

For years, the United States has been trying to weaken the terrorist organization al-Shabab, which Townsend has called “the most lethal arm of al-Qaeda.” Those efforts were complicated in the last year, following the full exit of U.S. troops from Somalia, a departure ordered by President Donald Trump near the end of his tenure in the White House.

Townsend said that counterterrorism efforts have experienced reduced efficacy due in part to the fact U.S. troops have been “commuting to work” from neighboring Djibouti, where the U.S. military maintains a permanent base.

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Monitoring al-Shabab from “over the horizon,” as the Pentagon characterizes the dynamic, means U.S. forces are unable to apply “sufficient pressure,” Townsend said, adding: “We really can’t get at the al-Shabab problems.”

It’s a warning akin to those voiced by U.S. Central Command leader Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie before the United States pulled out of Afghanistan last year. He had said in the lead-up to last summer’s withdrawal that monitoring terrorist groups once there was no U.S. presence in the region would be “extremely difficult” — though “not impossible.”

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During Tuesday’s Senate hearing, McKenzie confirmed that the United States has not launched any strikes in Afghanistan since the last aircraft departed Kabul at the end of August as he predicted that Islamic State-Khorasan, the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan and Pakistan, was poised to have a resurgence.

McKenzie told senators that ISIS-K has managed to execute high-profile attacks “even in Kabul” in recent months.

“We’re coming out of the winter; traditionally, this would now begin the fighting season,” he added. “It is my expectation that ISIS attacks will ramp up in Afghanistan as we go into the summer.”

McKenzie projected confidence that the Taliban, a sworn enemy of the Islamic State, would attempt to quash ISIS-K, despite having freed an estimated thousand of their fighters when they released prisoners from jails that had been maintained by U.S. forces. But McKenzie noted that things were “much less firm” when it comes to al-Qaeda, which has historically enjoyed a relationship of convenience with the country’s ruling Taliban.

For now, it appears that the United States is largely in a mode of watching and waiting. The U.S. military relies heavily on Washington’s relationship with Pakistan to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions regarding Afghanistan. But there is no formal basing arrangement — nor is the Biden administration likely at any point to bless the reintroduction of U.S. troops into or over Afghanistan.

What may transpire regarding U.S. forces and Somalia, however, is an open question.

On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), asked Townsend point-blank if he had recommended to his chain of command that the Defense Department reintroduce U.S. forces to Somalia on a full-time basis.

Townsend acknowledged that he had indeed submitted a recommendation regarding Somalia to his superiors — but categorically refused to characterize what it contained, noting they were “still considering that advice, and I’d like to give them space to make that decision.”