"I would say it (Af-Pak) is the epicentre of terrorism right now. It's very clear that in fact Al Qaeda is diminished while it's living in Pakistan, and this is a Pakistan - Afghanistan issue. They are by no means dead," Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told US lawmakers during a Congressional hearing.
"It's a very serious threat. And that if we allow the Taliban to take control and run Afghanistan again, I think the likelihood that their return to that safe haven would be high," Mullen said.
He said if Afghanistan has a strong enough government and security, it can prevent Al Qaeda from coming back. "And that doesn't include -- at least, clearly, it doesn't include the Taliban under their current leadership," he said.
"And the 'defeat Al Qaeda' piece -- and it does focus on Al Qaeda, but these terrorists and extremists, particularly in recent years, have become much more linked. So yes, it's Al Qaeda, but it's also the Taliban; it's also the Lashkar-e-Tayiba ; it's also Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, it's Jamaat-ud-Dawa, it's Jaish-e-Mohammad, and all of them have the same kind of outlook," he said.
"Now, each one of them does not threaten us directly, as a country, but the totality of this epicentre there, in terms of the terrorists who are there, is one that I am extremely concerned about, led by Al Qaeda," Mullen argued.
Mullen said he is worried a great deal about Afghanistan essentially becoming a failed state and a safe haven. "And while not immediately, maybe the mid-term affects that that has on Pakistan. And the President's strategy and I strongly agree with this -- it's a regional strategy. It involves both those countries, even though they're both sovereign countries, they have links that go back through the ages," he said in response to a question.
"There are other countries in the region and I think we need to be paying a lot of attention to this as well, India being a specific one. And it's very difficult to predict here. It is actually -- I think what has happened in Afghanistan as difficult as it is, has contributed to the diminishment of al Qaeda even in Pakistan," he said.
"So it is the combination of efforts in both countries I think that is so important, to get at what is the core goal of the President's strategy which is Al Qaeda. I don't know for sure but I worry a great deal that if the Taliban retake Afghanistan, that in fact clearly the option is there to recreate that safe haven where they're pretty comfortable," Mullen said.
The long-term effects of that could be very disastrous for the US and its national interests, assuming Al Qaeda is somehow able to both plan and execute attacks, which they are planning to do today, he noted.