While the Joe Biden administration has confirmed a US withdrawal from Afghanistan with or without a political settlement between Kabul and the Taliban, the story that has started to unfold following Biden’s announcement shows that withdrawal isn’t after all going to be a straightforward pull out of all military resources currently deployed and operating in Afghanistan. While the US may very well withdraw a majority of its regular troops by September 2021, it remains that it will leave considerable ‘assets’ behind to not only support the falling Kabul regime against a possible Taliban push for a military takeover, but also act as America’s strategic outpost, for as long as possible, against China and Russia. It fits with the US’ overall position with regards to Turkey’s increasing role in Afghanistan, and the related possibility of deployment of Turkey-backed jihadi militias in Afghanistan to prevent the latter from going straight into the axis of Russia and China.
In fact, when Biden announced the withdrawal, he was clever enough to announce that the US will continue to remain involved in Afghanistan. “We will not take our eye off the terrorist threat,” said Biden, adding also that “We will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and the substantial assets in the region to prevent re-emergence of terrorist threat to our homeland.”
According to a recent report of The New York Times, while Joe Biden has announced to withdraw all 2,500 US troops currently present in Afghanistan, the figure hardly represents the actual number of troops deployed in Afghanistan. There are at least an additional 1,000 troops that are present “off the book”, and there is as yet no word from the administration if it is going to withdraw these ‘assets’ or not.
However, US officials have reportedly confirmed that Turkey, which has a direct relationship with Afghanistan, is leaving troops behind who would assist the CIA in collecting intelligence. The presence of Turkish troops, like those in Syria and in Libya, is a major caveat that has the potential to change the nature of the war in Afghanistan from the one being fought between the US/Kabul and the Taliban to the one fought between proxy forces representing various interests, including Pakistan, China and Russia.
The CIA, however, is putting pressure to stay in Afghanistan because, as the CIA chief recently told the Senate intelligence committee, “both al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan remain intent on recovering the ability to attack U.S. targets, whether it’s in the region in the west or ultimately in the homeland,” he said. “After years of sustained counterterrorism pressure, the reality is that neither of them have that capacity today” but, Burns added, “when the time comes for the US military to withdraw, the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish, that’s simply a fact.”
While these concerns certainly reveal serious a reluctance on the part of the US establishment to withdraw, most of these concern look a bit shadowy when considered against the fact that the CIA has a sizeable presence in Afghanistan, including through its trained and funded militias. The Joe Biden administration’s withdrawal plan doesn’t include a withdrawal of or a disbanding of these groups.
Known collectively as strike force units because of their targeted, aggressive methods, the shadowy CIA-backed militias fall under the purview of the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s intelligence service.The units’ CIA advisers operate using fake name or call signs. The CIA personnel not only train Afghan intelligence units, but also choose their targets.
And while there is no public disclosure of the size of the CIA-supported units, they probably have more than doubled since the estimate of 3,000 given by Woodward in 2010. A 2017 report said group 2 of the NDS alone had almost 1,200 men. Among the older units, the KPF group was said to have 4,000 members in 2015. These numbers have ben growing ever since.
What makes these groups especially lethal is that their use of force is unaccountable, and their way of operation is flexible enough to allow for moves to serve any objectives, including those that target American rivals.
Afghanistan’s neighbours, especially Russia, are already weary of the CIA’s shadowy presence and how this is already being used to deploy potential jihadi groups in Afghanistan to spread chaos to destabilise the Caucasus and Central Asia.
“There are persistent reports that the US is itself giving support to terrorist groups, including ISIS, in Afghanistan, and that Washington plans to build up the presence of its intelligence service in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as it withdraws its troops from that country. We are convinced that these circumstances are giving rise to serious concern not only in Russia but in other countries of the region as well”, said Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova.
What these facts show is that the US defense establishment is not only unlikely to withdraw its “off the book” and other hidden assets from Afghanistan, but that it is already recalibrating its future plans for Afghanistan with an eye not on al-Qaeda or the ISIS or even the Taliban, but on its global strategic competitors, Russia and China.
The reason why the US continues to contest Afghanistan’s return to a Taliban dominated polity is that it will minimise the US ability to keep Afghanistan as its strategic outpost against its rivals. However, if the US can continue to spread chaos through its “off the book” assets and Turkish forces and use the same to train, equip, finance and deploy jihadi militias in Xinjiang and Central Asia, it calculates it can very much achieve its purposes.
Sensing this threat, the Chinese may even send a peace-keeping force to Afghanistan to check the presence and spread of jihadi militias. That would still mean Afghanistan’s quick descend into a proxy land between the US and its competitors. The war, therefore, may not end for a few more years.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.