Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said there is “no question” that it will be “more difficult” to identify terror threats in the wake of withdrawing all U.S. military assets from Afghanistan, but he assured that officials are working to further develop capabilities to prevent the development of threats to the U.S. homeland.
During a press conference in Qatar, Austin acknowledged the challenge after U.S. troops and intelligence assets were fully withdrawn from Afghanistan last week following a 20-year presence.
“Well, there’s no question that it will be more difficult to identify and engage threats that emanate from the region, but we’re committed to making sure that that threats are not allowed to develop … that could create significant challenges for us in the homeland,” Austin said.
Austin went on to explain that the U.S. “already” has “robust capabilities in the region” but said it looks to “improve them on a daily basis.
“We’re going to continue to do that,” he said, adding that the U.S. has “come a long way in the last 20 years in terms of the development of our capabilities.”
“There isn’t a scrap of earth that we can’t reach out and touch when we need to,” Austin said. “We’ve demonstrated that time, and time again, and again.”
He added: “Our job is to make sure we stay vigilant and continue to develop capabilities.”
President Biden last week also pointed to U.S. capabilities – beyond having U.S. troops on the ground.
Biden said the U.S. does not need to fight a ground war but instead has “over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorist targets without American boots on the ground, or very few, if needed.”
In terms of already-identified terror threats, the Biden administration has said ISIS-K poses an ongoing and “active” threat.
Last week, top Pentagon officials said it is “possible” that the U.S. will work with the Taliban against ISIS-K in Afghanistan while warning that the Taliban are a “ruthless group from the past.”
Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about the future of the Taliban, to which he replied: “I can tell you from personal experiences that this is a ruthless group from the past, and whether or not they change remains to be seen.”
“And as far as our dealings with them at that airfield, or in the past year or so, in war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not necessarily what you want to do,” Milley continued.
When asked whether there was any potential of coordination between the U.S. and the Taliban against ISIS-K, Milley said: “It’s possible.”
Austin added that the Pentagon is doing “everything” it can to “remain focused on ISIS-K,” noting that “in the time of our choosing, in the future, we will hold them accountable for what they’ve done.”
ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack that killed 13 U.S. service members and 170 Afghan citizens last month.
As for vetting of those who have been evacuated from Afghanistan, the White House said intelligence and counterterrorism officials were “working around the clock” to “vet all Afghans” before allowing them to enter the United States.
The White House said those with Special Immigrant Visas (SIVs) and vulnerable Afghans were flown to third countries in Europe and Asia that had agreed to “serve as transit hubs” before undergoing “robust security screening and flying to the U.S.”
The screening process for those individuals, according to the White House, involved “biometric and biographic security reviews conducted by our intelligence, law enforcement, and counterterrorism professionals.”
The White House also said all Afghans would be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival to the U.S. and offered vaccines and said U.S. military bases are “ready” to take in SIV applicants and other vulnerable Afghans for medical screenings, health care services and other aid.
Meanwhile, a well-placed U.S. diplomatic source told Fox News that individuals who have been flagged in the vetting process will be sent to Camp Bondsteel – the U.S. Army’s main base in Kosovo.
The source told Fox News that several individuals have already been sent to Kosovo.
The source added, though, that the U.S. government can only hold detainees for one year at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo based on the agreements with the host government. It is unclear where those individuals will go following further screening at the base.
Fox News’ Jennifer Griffin and The Associated Press contributed to this report.