When I served as director of the CIA’s Near East Division at Langley, I traveled each month to Tampa to brief then-Central Command chief Gen. Lloyd Austin. The general even then was a voracious and highly sophisticated reader of what U.S. intelligence analysts were learning.
Now as President Biden’s new secretary of Defense, Mr. Austin no doubt will be heavily relying again on the intelligence community as the Pentagon charts a course forward on the wickedly complex challenge of Afghanistan.
With a long history of being invaded and fighting outsiders as ruthlessly as they fight among themselves, Afghanistan is more a failed than functioning state. Al Qaeda leader Ayman Zawahiri remains at large and Islamic State has a significant and growing presence, particularly in eastern Afghanistan. On top of all that, Afghanistan continues to be the world’s opium hub.
The Taliban, which halted targeting U.S. and coalition forces in a 2020 deal with the Trump administration, have amped up attacks on what they call the “puppet government” in Kabul. But it’s important to remember that the Taliban movement is not a monolith. A sizeable portion of the Islamist group’s leaders, including Sirajuddin Haqqani, designated a “global terrorist” by the U.S. government in 2008, are indeed irreconcilable. The notorious Haqqani Network has a history of granting al Qaeda operatives safe haven on its territory and for conducting violent suicide attacks against coalition forces, civilians and the Kabul government.
Under the February 2020 Doha Accord, the U.S. and Taliban agreed to a full American troop withdrawal by May 1 of this year in return for the Taliban reducing violence, engaging in power-sharing talks with the Afghan government and ensuring Afghanistan does not become a haven for outside terrorists. But the words in the agreement do not jibe with the reality on the ground.
For the U.S. intelligence community, three issues are vital to focus on — whether Mr. Biden and Mr. Austin stick to the May 1 withdrawal date or not.
First is the risk of civil war, with the potential for the Afghan government in Kabul to collapse in the wake of a full U.S. and NATO pullout. The congressionally appointed Afghan Study Group, led by former Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, warned that a U.S. withdrawal could result in Afghanistan once again becoming a base for terrorists to plan attacks against the U.S. within “18 months to three years.”
Ruthlessly targeting Afghan security forces, the Taliban is stronger today and controls more territory than at any point since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. Continued fighting only serves as a magnet attracting more ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists, leading to more threats to American security interests in the region and beyond.
Second is the impact on intra-Afghan dialogue and the threat to remaining U.S. and NATO forces if the Pentagon delays or stops the withdrawal. The Taliban have already warned that the Doha agreement would be null and void if Washington does not honor the May 1 date.
The third big question is how regional powers will influence or exacerbate Afghanistan’s economic, political and security challenges through proxy conflicts. Having long provided safe haven and material support to the Taliban, for example, Pakistan competes with Iran for influence over Pashtun and Shia areas inside Afghanistan. For Pakistan, Afghanistan represents “strategic depth” in its far more important rivalry with India.
Maintaining close relationships with ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks in Afghanistan, Russia has supplied arms to the Taliban with an eye toward bleeding its “main enemy” — the United States. The Kremlin wants to be perceived as having induced U.S. withdrawal to enhance its own standing in the region.
And while mounting counterterrorism operations directed against Uighurs in Xinjiang and the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, China is also interested in exploiting Afghanistan’s vast natural resources, including copper, iron, coal, marble, lithium, gemstones and hydrocarbons.
Mr. Biden said in his first press conference late last month that he “can’t picture” still having U.S. troops in Afghanistan next year, but that it would also be difficult logistically to meet the May 1 deadline for a full pullout.
The Biden administration, which is conducting a review of Mr. Trump’s deal while pressing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to engage in serious talks about the country’s future, should be clear about America’s fundamental security interest: denying ISIS and al Qaeda a secure base of operations in a largely ungoverned land — the very conditions under which the 9/11 attacks in 2001 were first conceived and executed.
Cognizant that the Obama administration’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 helped create the conditions for ISIS to flourish, Mr. Biden should keep firmly in mind the distinction between an “endless war” and a forward-deployed U.S. presence — strictly limited in personnel and scope and buttressed by allied contributions — that defends our clear national interests and doesn’t outsource them to unreliable partners or hostile actors.
• Daniel N. Hoffman is a retired clandestine services officer and former chief of station with the CIA. His combined 30 years of government service included high-level overseas and domestic positions at the agency. He has been a Fox News contributor since May 2018. Follow him on Twitter @DanielHoffmanDC.