EL PASO, Texas (Border Report) – Islamic State extremists don’t have to test our border security to inflict damage on American soil, a former Fort Bliss commanding general says.
“The idea that they would cross the border, they don’t have to; they can radicalize people already in our country – which they have shown that they can do and well,” said retired Maj. Gen. Dana Pittard.
His comments were in response to concerns raised by GOP lawmakers after deadly bomb attacks in Kabul claimed the lives of 13 U.S. service members and many Afghans on Thursday. ISIS-K, a branch of the Islamic State, claimed responsibility for the bombings at an airport where American service members are assisting with the evacuation of U.S. citizens and thousands of Afghan allies.
U.S. Rep. Tony Gonzales, R-Texas, whose district includes the largest stretch of the border with Mexico, immediately raised concerns about the possibility of newly empowered radical groups bringing their terror to American shores.
“Suicide bombs in Kabul today – suicide bombs in the U.S. tomorrow,” the West Texas representative tweeted.
“Biden must immediately secure our southern border before it’s too late! Our southern border is unsecured at a time when international terrorism is peaking.”
U.S. immigration authorities in the past nine months have “encountered” more than 1.2 million migrants who came across the southern border without authorization. That number doesn’t include “got aways” – migrants that set off sensors or were seen through surveillance cameras or were altogether undetected upon coming over and were not caught.
“Yes, (we’re) always concerned with our border not being secure, but I think it’s a bigger problem radicalizing people already in our country,” Pittard said.
Other GOP lawmakers, such as U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell, R-Texas, are demanding that Afghan refugees be properly vetted to ensure the safety of Americans.
Some of those refugees – up to a maximum of 10,000 – are being housed at the Doña Ana (New Mexico) Range of Fort Bliss, Texas. Pittard says the location provides room and safety for refugees and the community alike.
“Fort Bliss by population is in the top 5 installations in the U.S. Army,” he said. “There is plenty of space. There are places you can put the Afghan immigrants and keep them secluded until you do the proper checks […] so, there’s lots of room.”
He said ensuring proper screening of a large number of individuals involves inherent security concerns. “But I think the fact they’re on Fort Bliss or Doña Ana or McGregor Range … the harm to surrounding civilian population is minimal,” he added.
‘We are better than that’
After he concluded his command on Fort Bliss in 2013, Pittard led troops on the ground fighting ISIS in Iraq in 2014.
He says they’re “more hardcore” than the Taliban fighters that just took over Afghanistan. The Taliban and ISIS have fought each other in the past but at this point, no one knows for sure if “they’re in cahoots,” Pittard said.
The former Fort Bliss commander says there is plenty of blame to go around for Thursday’s tragedy, going back at least four U.S. presidents.
“That’s the place where al-Qaeda made the plan to hit America and the Twin Towers. We went in there for the right reasons. (But) at some point, maybe when Osama (bin Laden) was killed, it was probably time to transition,” Pittard said.
But leaving Afghanistan without a long-term strategy for the region may not be a wise decision, he said. “We’ve had two presidents in a row, Trump and Biden, wanting to leave Afghanistan. That’s not a strategy, that’s just leaving the region and the security of the United States. I’m very concerned about that. (I) wish it would have been different. We’ll see what happens,” Pittard said.
The former Fort Bliss commander said the presence of 2,500 American troops in the last year was sufficient to keep the Afghan security forces “in the fight” against the Taliban insurgents. But, “once they saw the U.S. leave, I think they felt like we abandoned them because I think that we did.”
He lamented the fate of those Afghan allies who want to leave but are being held back by the Taliban as well as women who stand to lose rights under the Taliban.
He said a fellow officer told him how an Afghan who was a former U.S. interpreter had to ditch his Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) documents as he approached a Taliban checkpoint. The would-be refugee was afraid of being harassed or killed by the Taliban if they found the documents that would allow him to leave the country. Now the former U.S. ally is having trouble getting out for lack of documents.
“We are better than that,” Pittard said. “We shouldn’t leave until the Americans are out and (also) the SIVs. That takes a certain amount of leadership and I’m just not sure we have that right now.”