When troops leave, that doesn’t mean America can ignore the country. The next steps will be expensive and complex.
President Joe Biden’s decision this week to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan before September 11 has left policymakers, military leaders and national security professionals wondering what happens next.
Critics haven’t been shy about pointing out that a U.S. withdrawal will leave the Taliban in a powerful position, and could even give al Qaeda room to grow again. To keep the country from once again becoming a haven for terrorist operations, Biden will need to shift quickly from a “boots on the ground” strategy to something more remote: an offshore counterterror approach.
Biden himself has long been an advocate of this idea, dating back to his time as Barack Obama’s vice president. His administration is depending on counterterrorism capabilities from afar to manage the risks that will inevitably result from the U.S. departure. In doing so, it appears to be drawing confidence from the exponential growth in capabilities in the post-9/11 era—and America’s relative and varied effectiveness with counterterrorism operations in theaters like Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and northwestern Syria.
But Afghanistan represents a new challenge, and it won’t be simple—or cheap—to build the kind of remote counterterror operation the pullout will require. It’s a landlocked country in a neighborhood dominated by America’s adversaries, and although the U.S. still has allies inside Afghanistan, such as its armed forces, those allies are constrained in operating without significant U.S. assistance. For any offshore strategy to be viable, Biden must be prepared to make major adjustments to overall U.S. counterterrorism policy, as well as its South Asia policy, to ensure that Afghanistan doesn’t once again deteriorate into a safe haven for jihadists seeking to plan attacks on the West.
In Biden’s televised speech to the nation explaining the rationale motivating his decision, the president suggested that the U.S. had achieved its objectives in Afghanistan by “killing Osama bin Laden and dismantling al Qaeda.” He also added that the U.S. will “not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” and will “reorganize” counterterrorism capabilities—but stopped short of outlining a new approach, leaving many to wonder about the details of his plan. He didn’t say what the costs and diplomatic implications of a new approach will be. If it’s to have any hope of succeeding, here are the things he’ll need to get specific about soon.
Any effective offshore counterterrorism strategy will have two primary components, one focused on Afghanistan itself and the other focused on basing a significant new American presence in the region, outside Afghanistan.
Within Afghanistan, the United States will need to partner with its existing Afghan allies, including the armed forces it helped rebuild after toppling the Taliban in 2001. However, Washington’s departure will leave the U.S. with not just weakened partners, but potentially estranged ones, unhappy at being abandoned. And a Taliban takeover of large parts of the country, which many predict, will limit their ability to operate in territories where major threats against America will take root. All of this points to the need for sustained military and economic support.
In the more dire scenario in which the existing Afghan government forces fully collapse, the United States will be forced to dramatically adjust its internal strategy. In practice, this would mean accepting greater risks in the short term while concurrently forging a new network of alliances with specific factions and groups in Afghanistan, including a patchwork of local tribes and armed militias. Given the history of U.S. involvement, this is viable—but it will not be easy. This approach will fuel violence and create humanitarian challenges. Local Afghan actors who might be most willing to work with the U.S., such as the militias that have worked with the CIA in eastern Afghanistan, will demand a political price, including tolerance for potentially abusive and exploitative behavior toward Afghan civilians.
The U.S. government can work wedges within the Taliban to obtain access and monitor terrorism threats. There are parts of the Afghan Taliban willing to sustain a relationship with the U.S. government. But a successful wedge strategy can have significant downsides. It increases the possibility of fragmentation of the Taliban along the moderate-hard-line axis, which could exacerbate the terrorism problem: a more hard-line faction may more openly embrace a transnational agenda in addition to accommodating an array of jihadist groups. Even in the best case, when such fragmentation works to Washington’s advantage, it could severely aggravate Afghanistan’s civil war and humanitarian crisis.
Outside Afghanistan, the troop pullout means Biden will have to find new basing options for U.S. counterterrorism operations. Putting eyes and ears—as well as targeting capabilities—near the country will require a physical base from which to launch unmanned aerial surveillance vehicles and also serve as a logistics hub for short-notice strikes against terrorists. Such bases are essential for monitoring and degrading any transnational terror threats before they metastasize.
Again, there are several complicating factors. Any base needs to be geographically close to Afghanistan. The farther U.S. bases are from Afghanistan, the harder it is to maintain sustained surveillance, and the longer it takes to hit any target. Even if the U.S. chooses to operate from its existing bases in the Middle East, it will need access in the form of air lines of communication to regularly cross the air space into landlocked Afghanistan—which it may not have over, for instance, Iran due to persistent tensions over Tehran’s nuclear program.
Among the realistic options for such basing and access purely from a geographic point of view, the first major option is Pakistan. Notionally a U.S. ally, Pakistan has long been friendly to the Taliban, and its mercurial security and intelligence services have often worked at cross-purposes to U.S. objectives in the region. Would it be a viable option? The answer is complicated. On the one hand, history tells us Pakistan wants to keep the U.S. engaged through basing, even in exceedingly difficult geopolitical and domestic contexts. In the 1960s, the U.S. government retained bases for surveillance and spying into the Soviet Union. In the 1980s, the U.S. government worked with Pakistan’s spy agency to support the mujahideen resistance against the Soviets from bases in northwest Pakistan. In the 1990s, the U.S. nearly brokered a secret targeting capability to take out al Qaeda’s leadership, but was ultimately thwarted by Pakistan’s 1999 military coup. Significantly, in the post-9/11 era, the U.S. government secretly cooperated with Pakistani intelligence in rounding up scores of al Qaeda leaders in the country’s mainland and the high-tempo drone war in the tribal areas, waged partially from bases inside Pakistan, to eliminate high-ranking al Qaeda leaders.
On the other hand, Pakistan remains firmly allied with the Taliban, which it has long viewed as an important strategic counterweight to its archrival India’s influence in Afghanistan. Indeed, Pakistan’s willingness to provide sanctuary for the Taliban is one of the central reasons the U.S. lost in Afghanistan. Washington was never able to figure out a way to get Islamabad to break from the Taliban, and doesn’t fully trust it even against other extremist groups; when the U.S. located Osama bin Laden inside Pakistan, it mounted the targeting killing operation unilaterally. So there are clearly limits on the kind of operations Pakistan might agree to. Pakistani domestic politics has a strong strand of anti-American sentiment, which is subdued for now. Any cooperation with the Pakistanis might also elicit a negative reaction from Afghan actors who might be willing to work with the U.S., but who see Pakistan as an adversary due to its alliance with the Taliban.
The Pakistan challenge is further complicated by the country’s deepening alliance with China. Over the past decade, China has launched a range of infrastructure projects in Pakistan as part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative. China and Pakistan’s military cooperation is also ramping up. It is plausible that the Chinese might have a veto on U.S. basing in Pakistan.
There is no coercive option to force Pakistan into providing territory and air space for counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. Sanctioning Pakistan to transform its strategic objectives on the timetable required is wishful thinking at best, naive at worst, perhaps best indicated by the failure of the Iran maximum pressure campaign. Any Pakistan option would require genuine Pakistani buy-in—not improbable given the U.S.’ relative success in obtaining Pakistani cooperation against al Qaeda and its allied Pakistani insurgents, but requiring delicate and sustained negotiations, perhaps behind the scenes with the powerful Pakistani army. The Biden administration might also have to loop in—and concede some influence to—China. If so, that will bring stress on the U.S.’ current effort to build a counter-China alliance in Asia.
If the Biden administration eschews the Pakistani option, another, less optimal alternative would be a Central Asian state. The most likely candidate might be Uzbekistan, where the U.S. maintained a military base immediately following the al-Qaeda attacks of September 11, 2001. The base was essential to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, but following the use of disproportionate force by Uzbek security forces against protesters in Andijan in May 2005, relations between Washington and Tashkent soured. Then-president Islam Karimov decided to close the U.S. base at Karshi-Khanabad.
Under current Uzbek president Shavkat Mirziyoyev, U.S.-Uzbek relations have improved, so this could be a viable option. Since taking power, Mirziyoyev has implemented crucial security sector reforms, even as human rights concerns remain. But one limitation of basing in Uzbekistan is its location: It borders northwest Afghanistan, and the areas that are most likely to see transnational terrorist activity are in the east of Afghanistan, which will make this option relatively costly as a base of operations.
Another option that has been floated is Tajikistan—but that country remains heavily dependent upon Russia economically. Russia, which effectively ruled Central Asia during the Soviet era and enjoys substantial influence in the region, does not look favorably on the idea of a NATO member expanding in Moscow’s backyard. Any major basing decision in the Russian sphere of influence will be of substantial interest to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will seek to intercede.
America’s position in trying to build a new, effective counterterrorism strategy in a challenging region is less than ideal. But those are the no-kidding costs of deciding to remove troops from Afghanistan, something U.S. presidents have consistently punted on dating back several administrations.
With Biden choosing to pull out, he should face these costs head-on by explaining, in detail, exactly how the United States envisions the next phase of its approach to counterterrorism in Afghanistan and the geopolitical compromises it is ready to make. For now, the administration is selling the withdrawal by implying that continued vigilance could be an equitable trade-off to the status quo, maintaining safety at lower cost in money and lives. The obstacles to success remain high, leaving the U.S. choosing between the best of several subpar options in Afghanistan.