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Afghanistan 2.0: What continued US engagement means for the region

American troops are set to withdraw from the country by September 11 this year, but the shadow of re-engagement looms, raising security concerns beyond South Asia.

Written by Anju Gupta |
Updated: May 24, 2021 8:41:06 am
American military personnel fly over Helmand province in Afghanistan. (The New York Times: Jim Huylebroek/File)

The US-led global counter-terrorism (CT) campaign, a multi-theatre “war on terror” launched in response to 9/11, became unpopular due to the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. The US-led airstrikes removed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Saddam regime in Iraq in 2003. In both countries, the US helped create, train, equip and assist local security forces. Both countries wrote new democratic constitutions and invited UN missions.

The Iraq war ended in December 2011, but as the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) established a caliphate in 2014, US “re-engagement” in Iraq began with Iraq’s consent. The Iraq 2.0 campaign was designed as a US-led global coalition, relying on airstrikes and support to local allies — Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq and Kurd-Arab alliance (SDF) in Syria.

The US has announced that the Afghan War will end by September 11, having seized the Doha agreement as an opportunity. While its withdrawal will exacerbate chaos and violence in Afghanistan and impact the wider region, there are enough indicators of a “re-engagement” by the US and NATO in the country (Afghanistan 2.0), implying that a shadow presence will remain.

Unlike the Iraqi forces, the earnest build-up of the Afghan forces started around 2009, when the Taliban posed a serious threat across Afghanistan. In the same year, the US declared a surge of troops and promised withdrawal by 2014. By January 2015, all security responsibilities were handed over to Afghan forces and US troops reduced to 10,000, but the war did not end. Afghan forces were still ill-experienced and ISIS was expanding its footprint across the globe. A NATO-led Train-Advise-Assist Mission commenced for Afghan forces, while the US CT mission also continued in partnership with Afghan Forces.

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The US signed the Doha agreement in February 2020, dangling a “carrot” of full withdrawal, hoping the Taliban would agree to be part of an interim government. The flawed peace process, which offered a clear, early edge to the Taliban, caused a deadlock in the Doha process. Unlike Iraq, there was clear political support for the US forces to remain in Afghanistan. But the US chose to shed the “occupier” tag and distance itself from grievances against governance and harm to civilians over the past 20 years.

The US has correctly assessed that AQ in Afghanistan stands degraded and ISIS and AQ networks are scattered across the globe. For instance, the AQ-affiliate in Syria, Hayat Tahrir al Sham, has hundreds of fighters led by Khatiba Imam al Bukhari and Tawhid wal Jihad, active under the umbrella of the Taliban. Similarly, Central Asian ISIS fighters in Syria/Iraq and Europe maintain active links within Afghanistan. However, the threat of the caliphate is over and the threat of “genuine” ISIS taking root in Afghanistan has been warded off by the US-Afghan partnership. Over the last seven years, Afghan forces have evolved and are conducting most operations on their own.

The US intervention in Afghanistan after 9/11 was despite its reluctance to “occupy” a strategically unimportant country. However, current geopolitical compulsions, including the US-China competition, the China-Pakistan embrace, the China-Russia strategic partnership, and the China-Iran deal, have made Afghanistan strategically important. Thus, despite the withdrawal, the looming shadow of US-NATO will remain with a focus on preventing Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven. US-NATO have chosen Afghan forces, under a democratic government, as their local allies and have assured funding up to 2024.

The Afghanistan 2.0 engagement is unlikely to emerge with a “bang”. But a few points are clear — Afghanistan is part of the US-led Coalition against ISIS (the only country from South or Central Asia) and hence committed as a nation; the Afghan government can take a sovereign decision to ask for training or operational support; the US has sufficient resources in the Central Command theatre on land, sea, and air to provide immediate support on request; it has the option of drone strikes in Afghanistan and beyond; the Central Command is already considering active air surveillance missions; high-end technological and “signature reduction” options exist for remotely-controlled operations; and the US retains its soft power over Afghan institutions and personalities.

Afghanistan and the US have been making efforts for peace since 2010, culminating in the Doha talks. With newer players onboard, including Russia, China, Iran, Pakistan, and Qatar, the US made the smart move to approach the UN to broker peace. However, it appears unlikely that China, Russia, Pakistan, and Iran will send troops to fight the Taliban under a peacekeeping mission.

Due to the easing of UN restrictions for a few leaders and the freedom to operate from its Doha office, the Taliban continues to attend high-profile meetings in swanky hotels in Doha, while deadly attacks ravage Afghanistan. Vicious attacks on civilians, such as the killing of schoolgirls in Kabul on May 8, are conveniently blamed on Islamic State Khurasan Province (ISKP) by the Taliban. It is widely believed that the Pakistan army has infiltrated and is running the ISKP to “market” the Taliban as a “nationalist insurgent” group willing to fight “extremist” ISKP.

The UN-led peace process is expected to be slow. While US-NATO may focus on their specific objectives in Afghanistan 2.0, it is certain that the Taliban-ISKP-Pakistan combine will unleash much more violence. Groups like ISKP and al-Qaeda in Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) and their variants will be used for high-profile attacks in Afghanistan and in the region, including against Western targets, to deter deeper re-engagement in Afghanistan. The chaos would create more ungoverned spaces strengthening the terror infrastructure. Hence, the developments in Afghanistan will continue to raise security concerns, far beyond South Asia.

This column first appeared in the print edition on May 24, 2021 under the title ‘Afghanistan 2.0’. The writer is an IPS officer

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