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Will the US push to exit Afghanistan bring the war back to Western cities?

A new plan for peace talks may achieve little in the long term if a Taliban-controlled country fails to stop growing Islamist militantism

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
13 March 2021, 10.00am
Isis prisoners are in Syria but the group is growing elsewhere
Carol Guzy/Zuma Press/PA Images. All rights reserved

The United States state department has moved forward in its game of chess with Afghanistan by delivering an eight-page draft of a peace agreement. An uncompromising letter by US secretary of state, Anthony Blinken, made it clear that an interim government was required and called on the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators in Doha to negotiate a power-sharing agreement.

Meetings are planned in Turkey in the coming weeks but whether they take place or not depends partly on the Taliban’s reaction. But given the group’s power over much of Afghanistan, it will probably consider the negotiations to be a useful step in taking over the whole country in due course.

The Afghan government takes a very different view, with President Ashraf Ghani resolutely opposed to an interim government. However, US President Joe Biden is convinced he will have to agree at some stage because the US really does want out of the country – at least for the 2,500 regular troops still present. If the US president does get his deal – even if it has to be imposed – then most of the other NATO forces (close to 10,000 in largely non-combat training roles) will go as well and Afghanistan will be left to its own devices to build a cohesive, peaceful state.

Fighting season begins

It is not just the 2,500 troops that concern the Afghan government. The US currently has 18,000 private contractors in the country, comprising 6,000 Americans, 7,000 foreign nationals and 5,000 Afghans.

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Once the US troops are withdrawn, foreign nationals may be deeply reluctant to continue if the security situation deteriorates further. Yet a recent report to Congress said that the departure of foreign nationals and US contractors “may be more devastating to the effectiveness of the Afghan security forces than a withdrawal of our remaining troops”.

The prospect for a good outcome is presently close to remote and, as my column last month pointed out, the Taliban has acted on a clever strategy throughout winter and is poised to enter the so-called, post-winter ‘fighting season’ to increase its control over much of the country.

During the winter it persistently refrained from attacking foreign troops and put most of its efforts into assaults on Afghan police and army units. It has also been involved in a long-running campaign of assassinating public figures, especially but not only in Kabul.

An escalating threat

Victims have included judges, independent television journalists, producers and other staff, as well as ministerial officials. Responsibility was not claimed for many of the attacks and suspicions remain that other armed opposition groups besides the Taliban are involved, including Isis elements that remain a presence in the country.

From a US security perspective, getting the troops out is the right move, with plenty of bipartisan support in Congress, not least because from that perspective the two-decades-long war is now recognised as a lost cause. The bitter reality is that the Taliban is privately recognised as the likely victor but is of less concern because the group does not directly affect US security interests.

However, the situation could grow sticky if a Taliban-dominated Afghan government fails to prevent al-Qaida or Isis increasing their international presence. If Biden ends up presiding over a renewed domestic paramilitary threat from Afghanistan more than 20 years after 9/11, the fallout will be deeply damaging for his presidency.

This is not far-fetched, given the expansion of extreme Islamist groups elsewhere. In Syria, Isis is already staging a comeback and, according to a report by the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War:

“Isis has established a stable territorial base in the mountainous regions of the central Syrian desert and has begun to overtake pro-Assad regime forces in the area. Isis is waging a coordinated campaign to draw pro-regime forces into an untenable security posture in defence of energy and oil assets threatened by Isis. Assad’s Russian and Iranian backers have attempted to contain Isis’s insurgency but are unwilling to commit force at the scale necessary to succeed. Isis is already using its territorial base to destabilise other parts of Syria. Isis could attempt to seize new territory or financial assets in central Syria during its Ramadan campaign beginning in April 2021.”

In two African regions, the Sahel and along the East Africa coastline, extreme Islamist paramilitaries are expanding their activities. In Cabo Delgado Province in Northern Mozambique, half a million people have been driven from their homes by an insurgency that started in 2017, and across the Sahel there has been a steady surge in activity for the best part of a decade.

In the Sahel, the response from the US and other Western countries, especially France but also the UK, has been remote warfare with an emphasis on armed drones, special forces and private contractors. A recent development is the expansion of CIA activities in Niger – just this week The New York Times reported on the establishment of a new CIA base in Niger.

New satellite imagery shows that the air base in Dirkou, Niger, has grown significantly since 2018, to include a much longer runway and increased security. Located in the north of the country, the airport previously had a short runway with a small support compound.

The West’s shadowy armies

The runway has doubled in length in the past two years, with a new support compound added that is at least six times the size of the previous one and includes aircraft shelters that appear to be suitable for drone operations. Dirkou is the third base in the central Sahel region used by US and French forces, but its added value may lie in its location – sufficiently close to the Libya border for drone operations across southern Libya where Isis is active.

Overall, the 20-year ‘War on Terror’ has been a conspicuous failure but continues nonetheless, no longer with tens of thousands of boots on the ground but in the form of shadow armies scarcely reported on or debated in the US, the UK or France.

As the United States finally withdraws from Afghanistan, that will almost certainly be the policy adopted if al-Qaida, Isis and other extreme paramilitaries re-establish themselves. No doubt the CIA is already preparing for a key role in a country where it has been active for at least 40 years.

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