Aug 15, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Thousands of prisoners freed by Taliban could pose threat to U.S.

Bagram airfield in the north of Kabul, Afghanistan
Afghan National Army members keep watch after U.S. forces left Bagram Air Base in the north of Kabul on July 5. Photo: Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Taliban captured Bagram Air Base on Sunday and released thousands of prisoners, including many senior al Qaeda operatives.

Why it matters: The prisoners were some of the Taliban's most hardened fighters and could pose a threat not only to Afghan citizens but to American security interests.

State of play: U.S. forces handed control of the airfield to Afghan government forces in early July.

  • Estimates suggest that from 5,000 to 7,000 prisoners were left behind following the U.S. withdrawal, per CNN.

The big picture: The prison, Pul-e-Charkhi, is the largest in Afghanistan and contained a maximum-security cell block for al Qaeda and Taliban prisoners.

  • Afghan government troops surrendered control of the base, located on the outskirts of Kabul, to the Taliban without a fight.

The big picture: U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told senators Sunday that a previous assessment of how soon terrorist groups will likely reconstitute in Afghanistan will speed up because of what's happening there now, three sources on the phone call told Axios.

  • On the phone call between top Biden officials and senators from both parties, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) asked Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Milley whether, in light of recent events, they will revise an assessment to Congress in June of a "medium" risk of terrorist groups reconstituting in Afghanistan within two years.
  • Milley responded "yes" — that he would have to assume that timeline would get moved up and that he would be happy to brief senators in a classified setting.

Go deeper: Scoop: Joint Chiefs chairman moves up terrorist threat in Afghanistan.

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