SecDef: Guess who might come back to fill the vacuum we left in Afghanistan?

I’ll spot you the “A” and the “Q” if you can’t figure out where Lloyd Austin went with this today. Joe Biden insists that our departure from Afghanistan doesn’t mean anything for our national security. His Secretary of Defense spoke a little more honestly about the ramifications of our collapse and retreat. The “ungoverned space” that we leave behind will allow al-Qaeda to regenerate, Austin predicted, meaning we will have to keep dealing with threats in the vacuum we left behind:

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Thursday the al-Qaida extremist group that used Afghanistan as a staging base to attack United States 20 years ago may attempt to regenerate there following an American withdrawal that has left the Taliban in power.

Austin spoke to a small group of reporters in Kuwait City at the conclusion of a four-day tour of Persian Gulf states. He said the United States is prepared to prevent an al-Qaida comeback in Afghanistan that would threaten the United States.

“The whole community is kind of watching to see what happens and whether or not al-Qaida has the ability to regenerate in Afghanistan,” he said. “The nature of al-Qaida and (the Islamic State group) is they will always attempt to find space to grow and regenerate, whether it’s there, whether it’s in Somalia, or whether it’s in any other ungoverned space. I think that’s the nature of the organization.”

That’s why you don’t leave spaces to become ungoverned, especially in this corner of the world. The Obama administration didn’t learn that lesson from Libya, at least not until the terror networks that took over in that failed state assaulted our consulate in Benghazi and killed four of the Americans in it. They failed to learn it so completely that they did the same thing in Iraq, again under Joe Biden’s urging, creating another vacuum filled by ISIS and fueled by our abandonment of the Sunni tribal leaders we had courted, leaving them to the domination of Iranian-backed Shi’ites. That has to sound at least a little familiar to our Afghan allies now, at least those whom the Taliban haven’t already murdered.

If anything, Austin’s a bit behind events already. Osama bin Laden’s security chief has already come out of the shadows to make a public return to his home province in Afghanistan, cheered on by the crowds and under Taliban protection. If Austin’s “kind of watching to see what happens,” he should know that the may part of his construct is likely already moot.

Austin tries to push this off by claiming the supremacy of our over-the-horizon capabilities. The drone strike on the alleged ISIS-K bomber didn’t provide a propitious opening for that campaign, and in fact demonstrated its severe limitations even before we fully retreated from Kabul. Without boots on the ground and allies in a security force, our ability to discern legitimate targets in populated areas will be sharply degraded — likely to the point where collateral damage risks run too high for long-distance counter-terror strikes.

It would have been much simpler to conduct such operations had we maintained enough support to allow the Afghan army to stand up against the Taliban. That would have meant a small force, contractors, and reliable air support for their operations at a relative pittance. The costs for collapse and retreat are going to eventually start adding up, and unfortunately those costs will get counted in bodies, too.