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What Future Awaits Afghanistan and the World?

What Future Awaits Afghanistan and the World?

Thursday, 2 September, 2021 - 07:45
Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

On August 31, President Joe Biden addressed the American public and the world at large, and remarked that having withdrawn troops the night before, we had ended the war in Afghanistan. The decision to disengage he said, was “the best decision for America” and going forward, US foreign policy would continue to be defined by a prioritization of human rights.


Of course, these were statements driven primarily by domestic politics and for an American audience -- rather than by strategic facts and for international ears. In truth, the United States has merely extracted itself from Afghanistan’s war and left behind the ingredients for years or possibly decades more conflict.


In the 24-hours before President Biden’s speech, Afghanistan had plunged into a new era of uncertainty, with Kabul’s security now run by one of America’s most wanted terrorists, Khalil Haqqani. Meanwhile, senior Taliban leaders are publicly celebrating victory by marking the sacrifice made by two decades of suicide bombers; al-Qaeda’s central leadership has proclaimed the start of a “new phase” of global fight; and Osama Bin Laden’s former security chief has driven into Tora Bora amid great fanfare, with an elite Taliban escort.


While the roots behind the US withdrawal lie in the Trump administration’s appalling deal with the Taliban – which granted far more advantage to the Taliban than it did to the government in Kabul – it was President Biden’s decision to follow through with it. Announcing a full withdrawal without a Taliban-Kabul deal was an egregious mistake and amounted to a public betrayal of our Afghan ally, whose military has lost over 50,000 lives to the war with the Taliban. Removing the contractors who kept the Afghan Air Force flying was a fatal blow and therefore, the fatal collapse in government morale was preordained and largely of our own doing.


Afghanistan’s future now looks decidedly grim. Notwithstanding the widespread decline in human rights and freedoms that will follow naturally from Taliban rule, absent a dramatic shift in international perceptions of the Taliban, Afghanistan is slowly walking into a severe economic and humanitarian crisis. Though the country has not witnessed a wave of mass displacement towards neighboring countries, this will become more likely with time, as the national and local economies struggle amid inflation and a sudden decline in foreign aid and investment.


Economic collapse, mass displacement and widespread uncertainty provides a ripe environment for extremism. While the Taliban will look to consolidate its rule and expand its security footprint across Afghanistan, its long-time ally al-Qaeda will likely seek to quietly rebuild on Afghan soil. As al-Qaeda’s central leadership stated just hours before President Biden’s August 31 speech, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan represents not just a “victory,” but the start of a “new phase”. There can be no underestimating the significance of recent developments to an al-Qaeda leadership that had been in a state of unprecedented difficulty – but which is now presented with the safe-haven they benefited most from two decades ago.


Beyond al-Qaeda itself, a multitude of smaller militant groups associated with the al-Qaeda movement will also aim to deepen their roots in Afghanistan, including factions from Uzbekistan, China, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan and further afield. But more than anyone else, it may be ISIS-Khorasan that stands best placed to benefit from the Taliban’s assumption of power in Afghanistan.


As an avowed and hostile enemy of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, it is ISIS-K that is attempting to present itself as the sole ‘pure’ actor on Afghan soil. While the Taliban seeks international approval through a sophisticated public relations campaign and is meeting with foreign diplomats from all the world’s major powers; and while al-Qaeda’s leadership is laying low and largely inactive; ISIS-K is resurgent and trying to make a point to potential supporters.


The merciless attack outside Kabul airport killed more than 170 Afghans and 13 US servicemen – making it one of the deadliest terror attacks since 9/11 and the biggest single loss for the US military in a decade.


For now, the Biden administration remains cognizant of terror threats in Afghanistan. However, recent developments in Afghanistan have crippled the intricate US intelligence network developed in the country over the past two decades. Moreover, President Biden’s claim that threats to national security will be intercepted “over the horizon” – using air assets based elsewhere in the region – also raises troubling issues.


The two recent strikes on ISIS-K operatives in Nangarhar and Kabul were conducted by drones that took off from Arab states. That necessitates at least six hours of flight-time to reach Afghanistan, leaving only 3-4 hours to find, monitor and strike a target. This equation means time-sensitive targets are all but out of reach, while a minimal monitoring time raises the risk of having to abort a strike due to a high risk of collateral damage or accepting a higher risk of collateral damage. The death of 10 civilians in a US drone strike in Kabul on August 29 highlights that new challenge in a horrifying way.


According to well-placed foreign government sources, foreign fighters began traveling into Afghanistan in meaningful numbers at least two months ago – and it’s ISIS that they’re seeking to join. One official from a Southeast Asian country remarked that “all” chatter being intercepted within extremist circles in the region was now about how best to travel to Afghanistan to join “ISIS.” For now, most foreign fighters are traveling via Tajikistan, where sympathetic extremists hold sway over border crossings and smuggling routes. This should be a source of very serious international concern.


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