You know it’s a strange world when what is still the most powerful army in the world decides to quit a counter-terrorism war on the anniversary of the worst terrorist attack against itself. Yet, one can’t entirely fault President Biden’s decision to leave Afghanistan almost entirely to its own devices by September 2021.
It’s been twenty years, 2,312 US military personnel dead, and some USD 1 trillion in costs. It also left at least 48,000 Afghan security forces, and another 38,500 Afghans dead, not to mention over 73,000 injured. An unknown number of Taliban and their Pakistani mentors, helpers and support groups have also died. Overall, a very expensive war over a country that has no oil, but unfortunately has been ill-fated to lie at the cross roads of empires or wannabe superpowers.
US Troops’ Withdrawal: What Biden Has Underlined
Biden’s address tick-boxed the “longest war” aspect, “bringing the boys home” and unexpectedly, the need to improve capabilities in the face of “stiff competition” from China. Notably, he also expects China and Russia among others, to “do more” to support Afghanistan.
That Beijing is expected to cooperate so that US forces can leave and ready up for that upcoming competition is not as strange as it sounds. China has little desire to see a chaotic Afghanistan either, though it may well hate the US more.
Biden also chose to underline that US objectives were — by and large — achieved with the death of Bin Laden and the end of the Islamic State in Iraq. But his intelligence chiefs, among others, seem to disagree. CIA Director William Burns’s testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee advised lawmakers to be “clear-eyed’ about the potential challenge, emphasising that both Al Qaeda and the Islamic State retained capabilities, though at a much lower level.
US’s Intelligence Capabilities
That levelling out was clearly due to strong intelligence capabilities, which in turn arises from having feet on the ground, never mind how much technology is deployed. That is also why the CIA director stressed that though the US would retain some intelligence capabilities and deploy more to “anticipate and contest” terrorist threats, essentially, the intelligence foot print would be reduced. That’s the plain truth.
If there has been no further devastating attacks on the US homeland, they have the intelligence community to thank, as well as their several hundred unnamed operatives on the ground, and the intelligence collected in direct operations.
It’s not just the intelligence community which is uneasy. Reports also note strong differences among lawmakers, with influential Senators like Lindsey Graham calling it “a disaster in the making”. Others felt it was a wrong message to the world.
The Taliban’s Response & Its Implications
That it was sending a wrong message was immediately visible in the Taliban response — “we have won the war, America has lost”. The Taliban official statement underlined their complete confidence in having the upper-hand, rejecting even this four month delay from the original 1 May withdrawal date of the Trump era ‘peace agreement’. Superior condescension was apparent in its acknowledging that “American officials have understood the Afghan situation to an extent, and the efforts of warmongering circles have failed”.
It also warned that since the US has breached the agreement, it “in principle opens the way for the Mujahideen… to take every necessary countermeasure, hence, the American side will be held responsible for all future consequences…”.
That would be hilarious if it wasn’t so tragic. Just days earlier, the Taliban attacked one of the top high security camp Forward Operating Base Chapman, and another on a NATO and US base in Kandahar.
Meanwhile, they continue to refuse to attend the Intra-Afghan talks in Turkey, now likely to take place on 24 April, on various grounds including the continued presence of foreign troops.
The Istanbul meeting took place after the contentious Moscow meeting with (almost) all sides, and where India was not invited, which was followed by the ninth Heart of Asia conference, which India did attend, and which was disparaged by Turkish media for reasons including ‘Iranian influence’.
Turkish sources note that Ankara has trained 'thousands' of soldiers, and has some 21 schools and education centres in the country. In other words, Turkey sees itself as the “heart” of an Afghan solution, backed quietly by China and Pakistan. The cooks are multiplying even as the broth thickens.
President Ghani’s Plans
Meanwhile, President Ghani has taken a large step back even if under pressure, in accepting an interim government (“a government of peace-building”) with plans for a handover of power to his “elected successor”. That seems a reasonable condition, except that neither his opponents nor the Taliban are likely to view his continuance with equanimity.
More details of Ghani’s plans are to be discussed at the Turkey conference that is at the core of the US plan.
It seems, however, that some minute progress towards an Intra-Afghan dialogue may be evolving. Remember that even a Taliban government has bargained its way into ensuring a continuance of American aid in the so-called peace agreement. Down the road is a possible UN role. Buts that’s looking at the wrong end of a telescope for the immediate future.
What Withdrawal of US Forces Truly Means
Meanwhile there are far more urgent issues. The US now has some 2,500 soldiers still in the country, while the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has some 7000, mainly involved in a training and support mission. But the crux of the problem is not just the issue of the US or NATO armies. The underlying disaster is underlined in a report from SIGAR ( Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction).
‘Withdrawal’ of US forces doesn’t mean just the troops; it also means all non-diplomatic staff, trainers, and private security contractors among others. At last count that included 18,000 defence contractors including 6000 Americans.
Of those, some forty percent are involved in maintenance, and the all-important supply chain management. The Afghan National Army for instance, could do with just 20 percent of its maintenance work, well below the 51 percent they managed in 2018.
Pakistan’s Peace Outreach to India & Its ‘Afghan Connection’
The Afghan National Police do just 12 percent of their maintenance work, again below previous records. Worse, the Afghan Air Force needs almost hundred percent dependability in terms of maintaining US supplied equipment like the C-130, UH-60 helicopters and others. In short, Afghan air capability, such as it is, will not be combat-effective beyond a few months of the withdrawal of this vital support. That effectively means a walkover for the Taliban, supplied and replenished by a well-oiled machine in Pakistan. No official document talks about that war machine and sheer monstrosity that is the Pakistan army’s ambition to dominate Afghanistan. But it will certainly be part of a US ‘carrot and stick’ strategy.
Few in India will be unaware that Pakistan’s present peace outreach to India arises in no small part from its need to ensure that it can focus entirely on Afghanistan at a time when its decadal ambitions seem to be enticingly within reach.
But there’s a far more dangerous angle. After US withdrawal, its intelligence capabilities will be far more dependent on Pakistan’s goodwill than before. Remember, that any intelligence chief who values his job will do almost anything to prevent any possible attack against the US or its assets.
What Biden Admin & Delhi Must Do Together
The Pakistanis will obligingly give them a few such ‘plots’ from time to time. But Washington under Biden is more aware, through hard experience of Islamabad’s ploys. What it should consider together with Delhi, is the contracting out of maintenance, supply chain management and other advisory roles to Indian private actors.
Some of these could backed by a ‘Special Purpose Vehicle’ arrangement that will provide maintenance and logistics expertise from our armed forces.
No boots on the ground. Just brains. That will give the Afghan forces some ability to cling on and fight, while it will give the US a lever with which to make sure that Islamabad plays by some minimal rules.
(Dr Tara Kartha was Director, National Security Council Secretariat. She is now a Distinguished Fellow at IPCS. She tweets at @kartha_tara. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for them.)
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