How to Deal with Afghanistan after U.S. Withdrawal


Testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee last week, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl made a startling observation: The Islamic State-Khorasan, ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan, could “generate” the capability to attack the United States in as soon as six months. Al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that brought the U.S. military to Afghanistan 20 years ago, could possess the same capability in one to two years.

Kahl’s assessment not only inspired a wave of hyperbolic headlines, but seemed to give credence to claims that withdrawing U.S. troops from Afghanistan would hamper U.S. intelligence-collection efforts. Those concerns are not necessarily far-fetched; common sense suggests that removing troops from a particular country could affect the quality and quantity of information that the U.S. can scoop up there. CIA director William Burns made precisely this point during his own congressional testimony in April, commenting that “when the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish. That’s simply a fact.”

But as Burns also stressed, U.S. intelligence agencies will retain the capabilities and access required to defend against terrorist groups that have both the means and the intent to strike the U.S. homeland. In other words, the U.S. won’t be blind to what is occurring in Afghanistan, nor will it be unable to counter an imminent threat if one does materialize. Underestimating the power of the U.S. intelligence apparatus, whose $85 billion budget is among the largest in the world, would be a significant mistake.

What’s more, it is important to recognize that Afghanistan has always been, and will continue to be, a difficult threat environment for any intelligence service. Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war for more than 40 years, a period during which state security forces, pro-government militias, tribal fighters, independent warlords, and proxy forces supported by various countries have all fought for land, status, and resources. The history of Afghanistan is a history of simple survival, in which short-term alliances are formed and then broken. The constantly evolving patchwork of partnerships between armed factions can be hard for even the most experienced and diligent intelligence officer to follow.

When tens of thousands of U.S. troops were still on the ground in Afghanistan, the CIA, National Security Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and director of national intelligence were responsible for monitoring this complex, ever-shifting mosaic of alliances and rivalries. Fighting the Taliban, protecting a feckless Afghan government, and ensuring the security of American forces were all just as vital as keeping transnational terrorist organizations such as al-Qaeda in check. Attention was split between multiple priorities, of which the security of the U.S. homeland was only one.

The U.S. departure from Afghanistan, however, reorders those priorities. Because U.S. soldiers are no longer sitting in forward-operating bases across the Korengal Valley or conducting counterinsurgency operations in the farming communities of Helmand Province, U.S. intelligence officers no longer need to spend their time acquiring the information needed to protect those soldiers. Because there is no Afghan government to nurture anymore, agencies such as the CIA no longer have to spend their limited resources ensuring security threats to Kabul are minimized. Washington can now focus the bulk of its efforts on the one objective that truly matters in Afghanistan: preventing Afghan soil from being used as a staging ground for anti-U.S. attacks.

Of course, this still raises an obvious question: Even if Washington’s attention is now undivided, does the U.S. have the capability to act in the event that an Afghanistan-based terrorist group is reckless enough to plan an attack against Americans? The conventional wisdom, propagated by unnamed U.S. security officials, is that conducting counterterrorism operations will be riskier in a post-withdrawal Afghanistan. The logic is straightforward: Without U.S. military personnel on the ground, the U.S. won’t have as much intelligence, and won’t have as much ability to act on the intelligence that it does gather.

But the vast improvement of U.S. offshore-strike capabilities over the past 20 years makes this argument less convincing. The intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets at America’s disposal are second to none. Through two decades of trial, error, and lessons learned, the U.S. intelligence community has created a system whereby information is collected, analyzed, disseminated, and acted upon in short order. As retired lieutenant colonel Daniel Davis, a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, wrote in 2020, “The ability to launch strikes from a variety of platforms and long-range bombers that can traverse continents enables the U.S. to eliminate targets far from where it maintains a military presence.” The U.S. has proved this again and again over the years, wiping out high-profile terrorists, facilitators, and propagandists wherever they happen to operate. Numerous AQAP commanders have been killed, as have several senior al-Qaeda operatives in Idlib, Syria, an area where U.S. forces don’t operate. Osama bin Laden was so concerned about U.S. drones hovering in the skies of northwest Pakistan that he considered moving his fighters to eastern Afghanistan.

In short, the technological capabilities of the U.S. military mean that there is no such thing as a terrorist safe-haven anymore.

It is still the case that the U.S. can pursue a target only if the underlying intelligence is solid and actionable. As good as we are at capturing and exploiting signals intelligence, human sources remain imperative. Fortunately, the U.S. can maintain a reserve of human sources in Afghanistan even without the kind of massive ground presence we had until this summer. CIA field officers are masters at cultivating relationships with assets in remote, austere, hostile environments — and it’s hard to believe that the agency will stop doing this work after the U.S. troop withdrawal. As Douglas London, a 34-year veteran of the intelligence community and former CIA counterterrorism chief for South Asia, wrote in Just Security, it is likely the CIA is still running a fleet of agents in Afghanistan who are trained and equipped to recruit more sources and report back to the U.S.

As the Taliban consolidates power in Kabul and ISIS-K terrorists continue to kill innocent Afghans, President Biden’s decision to extricate U.S. forces from a meandering, purposeless war will remain under scrutiny. But if anything is to be scrutinized, it is the contention that pouring thousands of American soldiers and tens of billions of dollars every year into a black hole is an effective way to protect Americans from terrorism.

Our troops may be out of Afghanistan, but we are still more than capable of identifying and countering threats to our national security as they arise there.

How to Deal with Afghanistan after U.S. Withdrawal How to Deal with Afghanistan after U.S. Withdrawal Reviewed by Your Destination on November 05, 2021 Rating: 5

No comments