On 14 April President Joe Biden informed the American people of his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. In what may become one of the defining speeches of his presidency he dwelt on the rationale to “end the forever war”.
He said “I believed our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective”.
Towards the end of his address, he reiterated the categorical assertion that the US had achieved the objective of the Afghan war. He said “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking. We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaeda is degraded in Iraq—in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war”.
Biden also made a most significant point. He said “We’ll hold the Taliban accountable for its commitment not to allow any terrorists to threaten the United States or its allies from Afghan soil”.
US Military Thinks Al Qaeda & Taliban Shall Regenerate in 2 Years
Two months and three days later, on 17 June, after their President’s clear assurances to the American people that the danger of terrorist attacks from ‘Afghan soil’ to US mainland had been eliminated Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and General Mark Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff virtually refused to endorse his words.
At a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing Senator Lindsey Graham asked them “How would you rate the likelihood of international terrorist organisations like al-Qaeda and ISIS regenerating inside of Afghanistan and presenting a threat to our homeland or our allies given what you see today”?
Austin replied “I would assess as medium. I would also say, Senator, that it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability”. Milley added “I concur with that and I think that if certain other things happen---if there is a collapse of the government or a dissolution of the Afghan security forces that risk would obviously increase, but right now I’d say medium in about two years or so”.
Loss of Intelligence Networks, Military Bases After Withdrawal
Surely, if the basic objective of America’s longest war which cost the country the lives of 2448 US soldiers and expenditure of a trillion dollars can be undone in a couple of years, if not earlier, then it was not won but lost. This despite the truth of Biden’s assertion that terrorist threats have morphed both in their location and their nature and scale.
It is also true that the US has the technological capability of monitoring the Afghan terrain to discern if terrorist threats are consolidating and the ability to respond with force from over the horizon but Austin and Milley are clearly holding out no assurances that these will be sufficient to prevent terrorist attacks from Afghan soil.
There have been reports in the American media about the deep concerns of the country’s intelligence agencies at the degradation of their human intelligence as well as technical intelligence capabilities which will be an inevitable consequence of the abandonment of military bases because of the withdrawal.
The American embassy will of course remain with its covert intelligence set-up but that cannot compensate the lost intelligence networks that were located in the bases.
This should be worrying for not only American security managers but also for those of other major powers and the regional states.
This is especially because of increasing reports that Taliban and Al Qaeda connections continue. And, as is known, apart from Al Qaeda Afghanistan has the presence of other international terrorist groups such as ISIS. In addition, members of groups oriented against China, the Central Asian states and even Pakistan are also present. While the Taliban define themselves as Islamic nationalists their sympathies lie with Islamic causes and hence, while they may not assist such groups some Taliban members may be inclined to give them shelter.
Taliban Has Gained International Legitimacy
The Taliban of 2021 would have evolved from where they were in the 1990s. Certainly, they have gained a greater awareness of the world. What is unclear is if the American withdrawal has generated in them a smugness that the world will have to deal with them on their terms. In a recent interview Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed that Biden’s announcement of a date had led the Taliban into “thinking that they won the war”.
Khan claimed that this has diminished his country’s influence over the group. That is of course not correct but it has to be accepted that the Taliban has perhaps surprised America by not, at least as yet, proceeding according to the American plan which envisaged the formation of an interim government, ceasefire, and then working out the future political system of the country with the Kabul elite.
Now the Americans are warning the Taliban that military victory will not lead to legitimacy. The problem is that they have already gained international legitimacy. All the major powers—with the exception of India—are openly dealing with them. As of now, no other power has warned them that unless they opt for a political settlement and abandon their quest for military victory they will be again treated as an “illegitimate” group as they were in the 1990s when the UN seat continued to be held by the ‘government’ of President Burhanuddin Rabbani though the Taliban controlled over 90 % of Afghan territory.
Is India Prepared?
The chances are that the Taliban think that the major powers would deal with them individually to seek their cooperation to restrain if not control the groups oriented against them rather than collectively. Ideally, the major powers need to pressure Pakistan to effectively influence the Taliban to follow the path of peace and show a collective front against the Taliban. However, that is unlikely for the contradictions among the major powers find Afghanistan tempting to settle past scores and cause present embarrassment.
It is always prudent for states to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Have Indian security planners done so in Afghanistan? It does not seem so, given their rigidity on not opening direct and open contacts with the Taliban. They have consistently ignored the writing on the wall. They would now do well to ponder the implications of Austin and Milley’s dire prognostications. They would surely know that the constellation of powers ranged against the Taliban which gave geographical comfort to India is simply not there and is unlikely to emerge.
(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He tweets at @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)