Afghanistan’s Clear and Present Danger


Cipher Brief Expert Daniel Hoffman is a former Chief of Station with the Central Intelligence Agency. His combined 30 years of distinguished government service included high-level positions not only within the CIA, but also with the U.S. military, U.S. Department of State, and U.S. Department of Commerce.  He is currently a FOX News Contributor.  

OPINION — How ironic that as the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, after decades of highly effective counterterrorism operations and horrific failures at nation-building, Afghanistan is more of a clear and present danger to our nation than ever before.

The US always maintained there was no military solution to the conflict, but that was not true for the Taliban, who saw the value in staying in the fight as an insurgent force even while losing battle after battle until the Biden administration’s horrifically planned and executed withdrawal presented them a propitious opportunity during the height of the fighting season to conquer Kabul.

The Taliban used “peace negotiations” only to secure prisoner releases and fortify its blitzkrieg attacks against the Kabul government.

The Taliban never adhered to the February 2020 Doha agreement, which called for intra-Afghan dialogue and severing Taliban links to al Qaeda.  We are still in the crosshairs of the Taliban and al Qaeda and ISIS, which homestead in Afghanistan’s ungoverned space.

The Taliban features the notorious Haqqani Network, which allows al Qaeda to enjoy safe haven on the territory it controls and has a history of conducting violent suicide attacks against coalition forces, innocent civilians, and the government of Afghanistan.

With the medieval Taliban, the past is prologue.  We should expect al Qaeda and ISIS to exploit Afghanistan’s ungoverned space to plot attacks against us as bin Laden did twenty years ago.  And since we no longer own the battlespace, intelligence collection – – the find and fix parts of the counterterrorism mission- – and the kinetic finish will be extraordinarily challenging.

We learned from September 11 that we need a robust, forward presence to detect and preempt threats before they reach our shores.   But there is the genuine risk that with the fall of Kabul and closure of the US embassy, Afghanistan will become a denied area, where we cannot collect the intelligence needed to detect threats left of boom.

Pakistan has long provided safe haven to the Taliban but has also faced serious attacks from al Qaeda, including against its nuclear arms infrastructure.  A Taliban regime in Afghanistan will likely increase security threats to Pakistan, already struggling with its own massive economic, extremist, and societal challenges.

Last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Taliban, while Chinese state-sponsored propaganda prepped the information battlespace for Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban.  China is interested in long-term strategic collaboration with Afghanistan and economic predation.  Afghanistan has significant natural resources, including copper, iron, coal, marble, lithium, gemstones, and hydrocarbons, which sparked China’s interest and investment.   Russia supplied arms to the Taliban to bleed its “main enemy,” the United States and supported diplomatic, multilateral peace initiatives, which sought to exclude the U.S.

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Russians are fond of saying, “Svaya rubashka blizhe k telu,” or “one’s own shirt is closest to one’s skin.”  China and Russia will ensure they are not on the receiving end of attacks emanating from Afghanistan even if the Taliban and its terrorist allies carry on their war against the US.

The Biden administration has been consumed with the immediate crisis it created, of exfiltrating U.S. citizens and Afghans with special immigrant visas from harm’s way.

There will be many opportunities for after-action analysis of where our Afghanistan policy went so disastrously off the rails.  What intelligence, analysis, and assessment did the president receive regarding contingency planning for scenarios like the lightning-fast collapse of the Ghani government? Was Embassy Kabul, which submitted a dissent cable to Secretary Blinken on July 13, sufficiently involved in the planning phase? Did the president’s team advise against conflating nation-building with a narrowly focused counterterrorism mission? Our only real ally in the region was the former government of Afghanistan, whose soldiers bravely fought and died for their country and our counterterrorism mission.

This week Pentagon press spokesman John Kirby admitted the Pentagon did not know how many al Qaeda operatives were in Afghanistan.  Especially in Afghanistan’s unforgiving mountainous terrain where terrorists can conceal themselves, there are no counterterrorism operations without human sources and the intelligence operatives to direct them. We have left behind a permanent fog of war, which our enemies will exploit.

As we approach the sacred anniversary of 9/11, President Biden should delineate a concrete plan to keep our nation safe with profoundly reduced intelligence and military capacity in what is morphing on his watch, into a failed terrorist sponsored state.

This column by Cipher Brief Expert Dan Hoffman was first published in The Washington Times

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