Our new counterterrorism conundrum

How the collapse in Afghanistan creates new problems for American foreign policy

It’s almost certain that America’s herculean military effort to evacuate Americans, foreigners, and Afghan allies from Afghanistan will end on August 31. By all accounts, however, it’s extremely unlikely that all those who want to leave will be able to do so by the hard deadline announced by President Biden.  Rep. Seth Moulton (D-MA) and Rep. Peter Meijer (R-MI) made clear after a surprise visit to Kabul that an extension would probably not improve matters since the Biden administration took as long as it did to start the evacuation.

But Afghanistan won’t go away once the last American airlifter departs Kabul international airport. As much as the Biden administration and others wish to shift attention and resources to other foreign policy priorities, Afghanistan will continue to place demands on the time and energy of policymakers and government officials. 

Counterterrorism concerns in particular will drive these demands. Indeed, the American public still ranks terrorism as one of its top foreign policy priorities: in recent Pew polling, some 71 percent of Americans said “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks” should be given top priority as a foreign policy goal. It’s a reality President Biden seems to grasp given the pains he’s taken to deny that withdrawal from Afghanistan adversely affects America’s counterterrorism interests.

President Biden’s assertions to the contrary, however, it does appear that Afghanistan under the Taliban will be home to terrorist networks like al Qaeda. As an April 2021 United Nations report concluded, relations between the Taliban and al Qaeda “remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.” More worryingly, the UN also reports that the militant Haqqani network “remains a hub for outreach and cooperation with regional foreign terrorist groups and is the primary liaison between the Taliban and Al-Qaida” – the same Haqqani network that the Taliban has put in charge of Kabul’s security. Then there are the thousands of prisoners - including top al Qaeda operatives - freed by the Taliban during their conquest of the country.

Despite promises that an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism approach will be sufficient to defend against terrorism that might emanate from Afghanistan, Biden’s own decisions have made post-withdrawal counterterrorism efforts much more difficult. What’s more, it’s likely to deepen American dependence on Gulf Arab security partners – running directly against the grain of the administration’s desire to rationalize America’s military presence in the Middle East and distance the United States from repressive governments like that of Saudi Arabia.

To start, the U.S. intelligence community will have far less insight into what’s happening in Afghanistan than it did with U.S. troops deployed to the country. As CIA Director William Burns told Congress in April, “the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish” with the pullout. Making matters even worse, the Taliban military victory has deprived American spies of reliable Afghan partners – leaving some journalists close to the intelligence community to say the United States now has no choice but to rely on vague and highly dubious Taliban promises to rein in al Qaeda and other terrorist networks. That’s not at all a good bet, and it’s a sign of desperation that it’s even being floated publicly.

The United States won’t be totally blind, but it will be much harder for the military and intelligence community to pull together an accurate picture of threats in Afghanistan. Some surveillance can be done from the air with drones or crewed aircraft, but it will take longer for these assets to travel to Afghanistan - giving many of them less time to soak up intelligence. On the ground, the CIA and other intelligence agencies will be forced to rely on what one former CIA officer calls “middlemen” and networks of “stay behind” Afghan agents - plus remnants of the Afghan intelligence and security services. However, as that officer later notes, “operating via surrogates and proxies is the least reliable and most dangerous means of collecting intelligence.”

In addition, the United States will need to maintain bases in the Gulf to strike into Afghanistan if necessary – or we’ll need to permanently station a carrier strike group in the Arabian Sea. Attempts to secure bases in Central Asia have proven fruitless, with Russian President Vladimir Putin rejecting any U.S. military presence in the region moving forward - though the prospects for tactical cooperation on terrorist threats should be more fully explored, particularly in the light of Russia’s own pell-mell evacuation from Afghanistan. Likewise, Pakistan has reportedly placed prohibitively stringent conditions on potential U.S. counterterrorism operations launched from its territory. 

That leaves bases in the Gulf or a carrier strike group permanently stationed within striking distance of Afghanistan. But this dependence on Gulf partners and carrier deployments to the Middle East is at odds with the Biden administration’s clear intent to right-size the American military presence in the region. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has already ordered the withdrawal of a number of missile defense batteries from the region, for instance, ahead of a wider global military posture review

Withdrawal is a done deal, and American troops almost certainly won’t be going back to Afghanistan after the evacuation ends. As a result, the degree of difficulty for American counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan has increased dramatically - but the Biden administration can still take three main steps to salvage what it can from the situation.

  1. Be honest about the risks. It’s understandable that President Biden has chosen to downplay the counterterrorism risks involved in his administration’s Afghanistan policy. But there’s no reason to ignore the considerable dangers moving forward. A frank acknowledgement of the risks involved in this new policy is necessary and important, as is an acknowledgement of the limitations inherent in the administration’s preferred “over-the-horizon” approach – including decreased visibility of Afghanistan for the U.S. intelligence community, an increased dependence on Gulf partners, and a continuing U.S. military commitment in the Middle East.

  2. Recalibrate the recalibration with the Gulf. The Biden administration has clearly signaled a desire to distance the United States from its autocratic security partners in the Gulf, beginning with Saudi Arabia. But these partners will become even more important for counterterrorism moving forward, with bases in countries like the United Arab Emirates and Qatar likely proving vital to maintain a modicum of surveillance over Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. Equally important will be the ties between the U.S. intelligence community and Gulf Arab intelligence agencies – relationships that have proven important in disrupting terrorist plots linked to al Qaeda affiliates. 

    At the same time, however, the United States needs to remain wary of the geopolitical rivalries that still divide its Gulf security partners. In particular, there’s potential for the rivalry between Qatar and the UAE to spill over into Afghanistan. What’s more, increased dependence on these Gulf partners will make it harder for the Biden administration to sell them on a new Iran nuclear deal should it materialize.

  3. Adequately support the mission. It will be tempting for the Biden administration to run this counterterrorism operation on a shoestring. After all, shifting attention and resources from both Afghanistan and the Middle East in general to more important foreign policy priorities has been a primary administration rationale for withdrawal. But strong lingering public concern about terrorism makes averting attacks from Afghanistan all the more important, and it’d be unwise for the administration to shortchange the post-withdrawal counterterrorism mission it’s taken on.

Above all, counterterrorism policy shows just how hard it will be for policymakers to ignore Afghanistan even after U.S. troops leave the country. Wishing to leave a problem or set of problems behind does not make it so. In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies will not only be forced to confront new counterterrorism problems but severe humanitarian, economic, and migration policy challenges that will likely emerge in the coming months. 

Constant vigilance will be the price we’ll pay for our withdrawal from Afghanistan.