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Betting on a ‘New’ Afghanistan? Forget It

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A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun mounted on a vehicle near the venue of an open-air pro-Taliban rally on the outskirts of Kabul on October 3, 2021 (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images)
A Taliban fighter mans a machine gun mounted on a vehicle near the venue of an open-air pro-Taliban rally on the outskirts of Kabul on October 3, 2021 (Photo by HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP via Getty Images)

It is a question of time until terror attacks occur again with their roots in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

The news cycle, of course, has already moved on.

As the midterm cycle heats up, the White House can be expected to intensify its domestic engagement. Biden has calculated that, provided the Democratic infrastructure package begins to show results, and the inflationary effects of these massive spending increases do not damage household budgets, American voters will move on from the Afghanistan debacle. Public opinion in democracies is fickle, but foreign policy spurs few long-term changes in American voting patterns.

Moreover, U.S. voters are unlikely to notice that the current administration’s hurried departure from Afghanistan has collapsed the bridges to other NATO member states that candidate Biden promised to rebuild following Mr. Trump.

The unspoken assumption has been that Afghanistan will not become a launchpad for terrorist attacks against the U.S. and its allies, as it was when the Taliban last held power.

The fact is American capitulation in Afghanistan will embolden Salafi-Jihadist organizations globally, likely first in Iraq, where the U.S., despite maintaining a military presence, has drawn down its forces and ceded the central government to Iranian influence.

The foreign policy elite know the Taliban never severed their ties with al-Qaeda. Indeed, the organizations were never fundamentally distinct. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban both emerged from the networks the Afghan Mujahideen created. The Taliban are primarily Pashtun Afghans and Pakistani tribesmen, al-Qaeda primarily foreign fighters. The Taliban’s explicit political objective centered on Afghanistan, unlike al-Qaeda with its global jihadist aims — but each mission furthers the other. Each radical interpretation of Islamic law comports with the other. Marriages between families of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, and the shared struggle against NATO in Afghanistan, reinforces this bond.

Moreover, the White House has overstated the divisions between the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS). IS affiliates like ISIS-K are distinct from the parent organization in Syria and Iraq; ISIL emerged as an al-Qaeda offshoot, comprised of locals and foreign fighters who had distinct tactical aims from al-Qaeda in Iraq, and found Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s apocalyptic intensity appealing. But IS’s affiliates typically splinter off from extant groups, rather than attracting foreign fighters, as occurred in West Africa in 2016.

ISIS-K is similar. Its leaders and members are former Taliban fighters. Thus, despite tensions between IS affiliates and other jihadist groups, significant communication still occurs by virtue of their shared social contact. The Taliban likely knew of, and perhaps even gave its blessing to, the ISIS-K suicide plot outside the Kabul airport. It is convenient, given the White House’s narrative, to pin aggressive action on ISIS-K as distinct from the Taliban. But treating these threats as distinct is foolhardy.

This issue is compounded by the unclear operational control the Taliban has over its members. A parallel is illustrative. In Iraq, the assassination of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Gen. Qassem Soleimani undermined Iranian control over Shia-affiliated militia groups. While some attacks are Iranian-backed, there have been independent attacks against U.S. forces. The Taliban, given its decentralized nature, lacks the IRGC’s political capacity. And Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), despite its assertions to the contrary, has created a mortal internal threat through its support for the Taliban. The ISI has not demonstrated the capacity to restrain the Pakistani Taliban or thoroughly disrupt its coordination with the Afghan Taliban. Thus, it can be expected that Taliban units will exert some autonomy, working with other jihadist organizations as they choose.

The new Afghanistan, like the old, will become a jihadist magnet. And while China and other regional powers must be wary, the brunt of this jihadist offensive will be directed against Western Europe and the U.S.

China’s passive acceptance of NATO’s Afghanistan mission stemmed from realpolitik. Afghanistan could host Uyghurs who transit the China-Afghan border or pass through Pakistani-controlled Kashmir with jihadist assistance. America’s Afghan mission precluded that. But now that the Taliban have returned to power, China has rushed to engage with the new regime, functionally bribing them to avoid supporting jihadist reprisals in China. Moreover, China’s relationship with Pakistan is that of a patron and client, despite Islamabad’s formal security ties with the U.S. China will use this alongside its bribery to restrain the Taliban’s actions, while permitting jihadist activity against the U.S. and its allies.

This raises an uncomfortable prospect for the Biden administration, U.S. citizens, and U.S. allies. If a major terrorist attack occurs in the Western world in the next two years, it is likely that its perpetrators will have received support from the Taliban, al-Qaeda, or organisations operating within Afghanistan. In turn, this raises the prospect of re-engagement with the country, despite the end of America’s “longest war.”

Unlike in 2001, the U.S. will find it much more difficult to operate in Afghanistan. In 2001, the Taliban controlled most of the country, but a robust resistance existed, centered upon the Panjshir Valley. The “Northern Alliance,” a loose assortment of ethnic Tajiks and Hazaras, resisted Taliban rule, receiving support from neighboring Central Asian states and moderate American assistance. A small number of U.S. and allied Special Operations Forces and intelligence officers were embedded within Northern Alliance units, coordinating with U.S. carrier-based aviation and B-52 strategic bombers to provide air support against the Taliban. Once the U.S. launched its offensive, the Taliban fell quickly. The entirety of U.S. strategy was premised upon unlimited access to Afghan airspace, and the continuous provision of close air support to American and allied forces on the ground.

The U.S. no longer has the unrestricted access to Afghanistan that enabled its 2001 strategy. Biden and his team claim that over-the-horizon capabilities will allow the U.S. to strike targets as needed. This is false. The ISIS offensive in Iraq after U.S. withdrawal demonstrates the inadequacy of airpower absent a robust human and image intelligence apparatus; months passed before the U.S. could rebuild the intelligence capabilities needed for precision airpower. Those difficulties occurred despite the U.S. advantages of access to Iraqi bases, U.S. naval power in the Persian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean, and U.S. ground and air forces based in locations throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

The U.S. has none of these advantages in Afghanistan.

The country is landlocked. Given Pakistan’s relationship with China, Islamabad is unlikely to grant Washington airspace or base access for strikes against its Taliban partner, especially if it can mask Taliban actions under the aegis of a “consensus government” — one that likely will receive Pakistani, Chinese, and Middle Eastern recognition.

There is no indication that the U.S. will receive basing access in Central Asia. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan are more reliant on Russia and China today than they were even in the early 2000s. Iran is far more powerful than in 2001. Despite its theological disputes with the Taliban and historical support for Afghan Tajiks, Iran is pragmatic, and likely has a robust unstated presence in Afghanistan. Tehran has based its grand strategy on ejecting the U.S. from the Near East and Central Asia.

An American president — in retaliation for a terrorist attack — may therefore be forced to choose between conducting token airstrikes that do little to disrupt operational capabilities or committing the U.S. to a major strike that will cause an international dispute involving Pakistan, likely China, and perhaps Iran and Russia.

American naval power is also far less robust than in 2001. Post-Cold War budget cuts hollowed out U.S. naval forces, but we still operated 12 supercarriers and 115 large and small surface combatants, the majority of which could carry land-attack cruise missiles. The modern fleet contains 11 carriers and 96 large and medium surface combatants — the Littoral Combat Ship, while technically a small surface combatant, is a far less capable warship. The Navy’s “Divest to Invest” scheme will reduce the service’s large surface combatant fleet, without a clear path to replace this capability gap with smaller, more numerous warships before the late 2020s or early 2030s.

Most important, unlike in 2001, the U.S. faces the prospect of international competition, particularly in Asia, where China’s direct challenge to American naval power continues to wax.

Not only, then, would an American president risk an international incident by attacking an Afghan-based terrorist group. The president would also be forced to choose between deploying a Carrier Strike Group to the Indo-Pacific to bolster American regional deterrence, or to the Indian Ocean, thereby creating a coverage gap in the South China Sea.

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