Can the West Keep Track of the Threat From Jihadist-Ruled Afghanistan?
Ten months on from the NATO abandoning Afghanistan to Pakistan’s jihadists—the integrated coalition of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda—the outcome has been as depressing as it was predictable: a hideous combination of brutal Islamist rule and chaos prevails, as the economy collapses and various groups challenge them. The crisis in Afghanistan is not confined to Afghanistan, with a refugee wave underway, and a clear terrorism threat, both because the perpetrators of 9/11 are once again controlling the state from which they launched it and their most potent challenger is another transnational jihadist group, the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP). The media might have largely moved on, but the situation in Afghanistan is one that will require serious attention from Westerners—for our own sakes—for the foreseeable future. The question is whether Afghanistan will get this attention, and if it does, how much and how good is the information Western governments have access to about the internal dynamics of Afghanistan.
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THE FALL OF AFGHANISTAN
Then-President Donald Trump signed a “deal” with the Taliban in February 2020, committing NATO to a “complete the withdrawal of their remaining forces from Afghanistan within 14 months”. There were theoretical conditions placed on the Taliban in exchange for this, among them engaging in intra-Afghan negotiations to reach “a political settlement and a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire”. The “deal” had politically wounded the Afghan government and then Trump released 5,000 Taliban jihadists in September 2020, an even more direct contribution to the jihadists’ war effort. The Taliban lived up to none of its promises, freeing NATO from its obligations to the “deal”.
When President Joe Biden came into office in January 2021, however, he brought with him an ideological determination to “end forever wars”. Thus, while Biden “reversed other Trump policies, he was inclined to go through with the Afghan agreement, while extending its withdrawal date about four months”, overruling “the military [who] argued for keeping 2,500 troops in the country”. Biden announced his decision to leave Afghanistan in mid-April 2021, eliminating any pressure on the Taliban even in the fantasyland where they were engaging the intra-Afghan talks in good faith, and further devastating the morale of the Afghan army. Duly emboldened, Pakistan unleashed its jihadists for the yearly “Spring Offensive” in May 2021, and provincial capitals began falling. Biden refused to avert disaster. To the contrary.
As the Senate later concluded:
These [Taliban] advances were facilitated by President Biden’s decision to suspend air, intelligence, and contractor support to the Afghan Air Force, which depended on continued U.S. assistance to maintain its advanced planes and helicopters.
After Biden’s April announcement, “the U.S. pulled its air support, intelligence and contractors servicing Afghanistan’s planes and helicopters. That meant the Afghan military simply couldn’t operate anymore.”
Biden and his advisers cherry picked the “optimistic intelligence assessments” to justify themselves. Giving public vent to this autohypnosis, Biden famously said on 8 July 2021 that there was no parallel between his Afghanistan policy and the betrayal of South Vietnam. “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of an embassy”, said Biden (see the picture above). A week earlier Biden had ordered the evacuation of Bagram Airbase—which had been “central to the military’s plans [for a remaining force] … to conduct counterterrorism operations in case terrorist and other dangers grew”—ensuring that Saigon would be repeated.
The U.S. had crippled the Afghan state’s ability to defend itself and undermined it politically, while emboldening the jihadists through diplomatic engagement and releasing thousands of terrorists. Instead of expressing any remorse for this, Biden shamefully blamed the Afghans for the fall of the government on 15 August 2021. “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight”, said Biden, a scandalous libel on a force that fought on and took terrible casualties even after Biden had removed their capacity to defend their country. Most grotesque, after Biden handed the country to the Taliban—knowing what they did to the last president after they took over—he attacked President Ashraf Ghani, saying he and his officials “gave up and fled the country”.
The military, understanding that Biden simply wanted the U.S. out no matter the consequences, proposed a rapid evacuation plan for Embassy staff and other Americans in May 2021. Biden vetoed it, since it would be an admission that his policy had led to catastrophe. The evacuation only began in early August. The result was terrible scenes of desperate Afghans falling to their deaths from planes and a massacre of 200 people, thirteen of them Americans, by ISKP. When the U.S. withdrawal was completed on 31 August, Biden had left behind 200 Americans and thousands of Afghans who had risked their lives on America’s behalf.
AN ONGOING DISASTER
There were, incredibly, people who argued that the Taliban had “changed”, or anyway that Afghanistan had changed so much since 2001 that if the Taliban returned to power—which of course it did not want to do by force—it would have to adapt by providing space for other political forces. Taliban operatives disseminated these ideas through analysts, and the annoying term “Taliban 2.0” entered the discourse. It hardly needs to be said at this remove that this was all abject nonsense: nothing has changed from last time.
Following the example of the Islamic revolutionaries who deposed the Shah of Iran, a systematic campaign of assassination was launched against officials of the fallen government. Also like the Iranian revolutionaries and their fixation on “Westoxification” (Gharbzadegi), micro-managing orders have prohibited Western dress, such as neckties. Three million girls remain banned from schools. All the other restrictions on women, from being forced to wear the burqa to having no legal rights to challenge their husbands, are back in place. Men whose hairstyles and beards defy Taliban edicts are beaten and have their hair cut by the religious police. Public transport is sex-segregated, schools have been turned into madrassas, and the smallest word of anti-Taliban criticism results in public torture, making journalism in Afghanistan essentially impossible. Just a few days ago, a prominent television journalist, Musa Mohammadi, was found on the streets selling bread to try to earn enough to live.
Poor as Afghanistan was from 2001 to 2021, it was nothing like what has happened since. Foreign aid accounted for three-quarters of Afghanistan’s public spending and about forty percent of its GDP; this has now gone, and Afghanistan’s economy could shrink by as much as thirty percent per year. Foreign states and international organisations are unwilling to put money into Afghanistan that will be used to consolidate the Taliban’s cruel regime, and they do not want to get tangled in the U.S. and international anti-terrorism sanctions.
There were hopes the Taliban would sever its “ties” with Al-Qaeda, and the final “deal” gave an ambiguous commitment “to prevent the use of Afghan soil by any international terrorist groups … against the security of the United States and its allies”. This hope was in vain. Days after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban denied Al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11 and Al-Qaeda congratulated the Taliban on their victory, specifically referring to the Taliban emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada, as the “Commander of the Faithful”. Al-Qaeda has sworn an oath of allegiance (bay’a) to the Taliban since the time of Usama bin Laden, and his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has continued the practice. Whether Akhundzada is still among the living are beside the point. The jihadists that Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) agency used to conquer Afghanistan—the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, the Haqqani Network—are not separable. The jihadists are part of a fluid, interdependent network, and this is no secret: the declared organisational structures show the overlap. The Haqqanis’ leader, for example, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is also simultaneously a member of the “wider Al-Qaeda leadership” and the overall deputy of the Taliban. Al-Qaeda took a strategic decision to scale back, though not cease, international terrorism in recent years: if or when Al-Qaeda can restart, the Taliban will not be a hindrance.
ISKP, which ferociously hates the Taliban-Qaeda forces, is a more pressing concern. ISKP was able to get involved in several terrorist operations across the world when NATO was in Afghanistan and putting the group under severe pressure. During the Taliban takeover, as was predictable, the prisons were broken open and thousands of ISKP jihadists went free. The impact of this was quickly seen within Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban has been unable to rein in ISKP. Just yesterday, a mosque was blown up in Kunduz and this morning a Sikh temple in Kabul, likely by ISKP. The U.S. assesses that ISKP will be in position to launch attacks outside Afghanistan within twelve or eighteen months; this seems like a best-case scenario.
The poverty, persecution, and terrorism of the Taliban-Qaeda regime has created a massive population displacement, internally and externally, and these trendlines seem likely to get worse. These factors have naturally provoked resistance, some of it armed like the National Resistance Front (NRF) in the Panjshir, with the potential that foreign states will once again get involved to support anti-Taliban groups, and there are signs of internal tensions with non-Pashtun Talibs. The removal of the Taliban would obviously solve many of the problems afflicting Afghanistan, but the process for getting there would probably be another bout of civil war, creating further horrors for a population that has lived with war since Pakistan initiated its jihad against Afghanistan half-a-century ago.
STRUCTURAL INTELLIGENCE PROBLEMS
So, if we can see the broad outlines of developments in Afghanistan since August 2021, what kind of visibility do Western intelligence services have at a more granular level? This was the question Reuel Marc Gerecht, a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operations officer, recently took up for the Hoover Institution.
Gerecht began by noting that when Americans are “traumatized by the unexpected abroad, discussions inevitably start about the inadequacy of American intelligence collection and analysis”. While “there is truth behind this reflex response”, says Gerecht, it misses the point in Afghanistan: “Predicting accurately what was going to happen … shouldn’t have taken much analytical prowess”; all the information one needed was out in public.
This is not to take away from the deep structural problems with the CIA, three in particular: in analysis, politics, and practice.
First, the analytical problem—which is also somewhat political—is phrased by Gerecht this way: “Langley has a way of confidently repackaging establishment biases, in both analysis and‑operations”. A classic case is the relationship between Saddam Husayn and Al-Qaeda, where the CIA’s own collection pointed in one direction, but analytical outputs were shaded in the other because conventional wisdom was that Ba’thists and jihadists could not cooperate, thus the Agency’s surprise to discover that this very fusion had been in train for some time and would destroy the post-invasion stability of Iraq.
Second, the political problem is the extreme risk-aversion of the Agency. As Gerecht says, “It is far better that case officers lose their lives trying [to infiltrate jihadist organisations] than American civilians die by the hundreds, or thousands, later”. That is, after all, what the CIA is paid for. But bureaucratic and human incentives being what they are, the Agency takes a rather different view. Going forward, writes Gerecht, “CIA director Bill Burns, a bureaucrat’s bureaucrat, probably won’t allow case officers to cross the Afghan border”. The CIA almost certainly could not conduct an operation like Israel’s MOSSAD did in 2018, stealing the “atomic archive” from Iran. This inability to create agent networks to support action in hostile terrain is a persistent problem.
Everyone remembers the CIA’s weapons of mass destruction error over Iraq in 2003—whether or not Director George Tenet ever said it was a “slam dunk”. This arose because the CIA did not have a single agent of its own focused on WMD inside Iraq before the invasion, and therefore got taken in by Saddam’s deception operation that disseminated the idea he did have WMDs, intended as a deterrent against Iran’s clerical regime. (What is also usually forgotten on the WMD front is that for most of the CIA’s history, the problem has been the exact inverse: the Agency missed just how close Saddam was to nuclear weapons when he annexed Kuwait in 1990, for example, and was consistently unaware what Pakistan was doing.)
Reinforcing this, since the “Global War on Terror” began, the CIA’s role has shifted from espionage in a traditional sense to paramilitary activity, and when there were efforts to get back to basics there were some spectacular mishaps. Especially under President Barack Obama, the U.S. virtually gave up trying to capture jihadists and extract information, preferring to drone them—which was excellent at reducing CIA casualties, deleterious for Western understanding of how Al-Qaeda and its derivatives worked, and sometimes disastrous for bystanders.
The U.S. revenge strike for the ISKP airport bombing last August accidentally killed ten civilians because the intelligence available was drawn from technical means, not human sources able to identify an individual and tell the difference between a bomb and a family’s propane tank. There is a lot of propaganda about the number of civilian casualties caused by U.S. drone strikes, but without troops and intelligence officers on the ground the chances of error significantly increase.
A further complication: when the U.S. is not directly present in-theatre, it becomes “more dependent on foreign intelligence and security services, which always have their own axes to grind”, as Gerecht writes. “Their enemies may not be ours”. Which is the third problem. The CIA has become very reliant on liaison relationships with security services in the Greater Middle East. CIA officers under official cover who are restricted to Embassies, with no unilaterals, have no easy way of evaluating the information given to them, which, even if given in good faith, might be wrong. That’s just in friendly countries; as mentioned above, the situation with “hard” targets is much worse.
There is a moral hazard of exactly how a service like Egypt’s acquires the intelligence it passes to the Americans. And there is the problem of this process being corrupted when maintaining the liaison relationship becomes more important than the job at hand. This was a particular problem with Pakistan, since the cost of maintaining that relationship was leaving Pakistani militant assets alone, and those very assets were the targets the CIA was seeking. The lack of CIA officers with local language skills is also a problem, though this is driven by these other factors—languages are less practically necessary when the Agency is so unwilling to go into dangerous territory, and relies so heavily on partner services.
AFGHAN-SPECIFIC INTELLIGENCE PROBLEMS
Where does all this leave the CIA when dealing with Afghanistan now? The key, argues Gerecht, is for the Congressional oversight committees to begin asking the CIA questions that go far further back than last summer; there should be an effort to discover if the CIA (and the Defense Intelligence Agency and “the intelligence services of the armed branches”) ever really tried to infiltrate the Taliban-Qaeda forces since 2001, and if they did what the quality was of these sources. Gerecht clearly does not believe the answers would be flattering to the Agency, nor if the question was extended back further, since Gerecht is able to say from direct experience that “Langley had next to nothing in Afghanistan in the 1990s—neither inside the Taliban nor among the Northern Alliance in the Panjshir Valley”.
The CIA did better than some other U.S. government institutions in getting their people out, Gerecht notes, but they are now out of Afghanistan. It is likely, as with South Vietnam, that the CIA’s networks in Afghanistan were irretrievably shattered by the withdrawal, and there is no sign of a stay-behind network. Gerecht sees a Talibanized Afghanistan as somewhat more promising a target than a Sovietized Vietnam because “an asset base among the common folk might help with big questions.” Ordinary Afghans, especially in the Pashtun areas where extended families have links to the Taliban, might be helpful in locating Al-Qaeda camps, for example, or noticing the presence of Western jihadists.
However, it does not seem even this effort to gather RUMINT has been undertaken, and Gerecht argues: “Odds are high that Langley hasn’t yet tried seeding agents into the Taliban.” The reasons are basically two.
One is simple logistics: case officers would need a base from which to run agents, and none of the neighbours offer this. Iran is obviously a no-go. Central Asia is a non-starter for various reasons, including the heavy Russian influence. There will be a temptation to try, again, to work through Pakistan to solve a problem they caused, but if the ISI was unwilling to play ball in the past when relations with the U.S. were better, “Penetrating the Taliban or Al-Qaeda today from Pakistan likely verges on the impossible”, Gerecht writes.
The other reason is politics. The Biden White House wants to turn the page and there will be political pressure for the intelligence community to assist in this by concluding that Al-Qaeda is “essentially defeated”, writes Gerecht, with any remaining threat a matter for the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and European domestic security services. This will divert the CIA from any kind of focus on Afghanistan. There is also the politics of the CIA itself. Gerecht recounts a telling anecdote:
I recently had drinks with a former CIA station chief in Islamabad who had the opportunity to witness up close Pakistani support of the Taliban. Despite 9/11, he remains sympathetic to Islamabad and averse to Washington supporting any anti-Taliban opposition. This “realist” disposition likely remains widespread among senior ranks inside the operations directorate.
The political pressures within and without are thus pushing in the same direction. At a minimum, it is safe to say the CIA will not be doing anything too bold inside Afghanistan anytime soon.
In sum, says Gerecht, “Without troops and case officers on the ground [in Afghanistan], the United States is probably flying blind.”
Afghanistan is now a devastated land enduring the worst combination of political terror and disorder, which has forced millions of its people to become refugees, creating challenges for international stability. The Taliban-Qaeda forces that control most of the country are a standing menace to Western states, and the main challenger to this de facto regime, ISKP, is a more determined menace still, with its capabilities to launch international terrorism seemingly developing even more quickly. The uncertainties that surround this are because of the collapse of the U.S. and allied intelligence networks—to the extent they ever existed—when the U.S. helped the jihadists push the Afghan government into its grave. For various operational and political reasons, it is unlikely that Western intelligence will gain any serious visibility into Talibanized Afghanistan.
The Biden administration contended that it would deal with jihadist takeover of Afghanistan using an “over-the-horizon” strategy. One U.S. intelligence official memorably referred to this with acid contempt as an “over-the-rainbow” strategy, which neatly summarises the situation. To be able to launch a drone strike or special forces raid into Afghanistan, the U.S. would have to have a target, and that requires intelligence, which the U.S. cannot access since it refused to keep the 2,500 troops in Afghanistan necessary to sustain the government that was bearing essentially all of the casualties to keep the jihadists at bay. Last month, Biden conceded that “over-the-horizon” was a fantasy, sending hundreds of U.S. troops back to Somalia to counter the surge by Al-Qaeda’s Al-Shabab. Apparently, Biden does not regard all Trump military withdrawal decisions as sacrosanct.
The presence of a nominal ally, Pakistan, on Afghanistan’s border should allow the U.S. and allied states a staging ground for intelligence and other operations in Afghanistan. In reality, of course, Pakistan is directly responsible for killing hundreds of our soldiers and stands behind the catastrophe that has befallen Afghanistan. Pakistan has, to date, suffered no consequences for this. An important corrective is for the West to begin treating Pakistan as the enemy it is.