Mark Kelton, Former Deputy Director, CIA’s Counterintelligence, National Clandestine Service
Cipher Brief Expert Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency executive with 34 years of experience in intelligence operations. Before retiring, he served as CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence. He is a partner at the FiveEyes Group and is Board Chair of Spookstock, a charity that benefits the CIA Memorial Foundation, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the Defense Intelligence Memorial Foundation.
EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Winston Churchill’s 04 June 1940 speech in which he vowed that he and his countrymen would “fight on the beaches “and would “never surrender” in the face of a seemingly inevitable Nazi invasion is rightly renowned as perhaps history’s most famous address by a wartime leader. Less well known, however, is the cautionary tone the new Prime Minister struck in that same appearance before the House of Commons, as he sought to temper the joy and relief engendered by the seemingly miraculous extraction of the British army from the beaches of Dunkirk. “We must,” Churchill warned, “be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.” “Wars” he admonished, “are not won by evacuations.”
Shortly before the 2011 Abbottabad operation that killed Osama bin Laden, I was asked by my HQ, my views on mounting an assault on the target we knew as Abbottabad Compound 1, (AC1) given that we were not sure it sheltered the terrorist leader. After expressing my 95% confidence that the Al Qaeda (AQ) leader was in fact, there, I allegorically added that we must strike as ‘you cannot leave Hitler in his bunker and end the war’. I was fortuitously, right in my assessment that the murderer of so many innocents was present within AC1. Sadly, however, his death did not bring our war with radical Islamic terrorism to a conclusion. As was the case after Dunkirk, our enemy was unwilling to quit the field or to limit his unbounded war aims.
Likewise, we should have no expectation that the withdrawal of our forces from the Afghan theater of combat signals an end to the conflict with terrorists who started that war by attacking us on September 11, 2001. We cannot unilaterally declare an end to the War on Terror by leaving Afghanistan – however much we might wish to do so – for the very simple reason that our enemies do not share that desire. As former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta put it, “I understand that we’re trying to get our troops out of there, but the bottom line is, we can leave a battlefield, but we can’t leave the war on terrorism, which still is a threat to our security.”
The Taliban parading of the American-made weapons and accoutrements of their defeated foes was, in a manner akin to that of ancient Rome, intended not only to celebrate victory. It was also meant to humiliate the vanquished. Such triumphal demonstrations – and what will be a galling celebration of the anniversary of 9/11 as their own holiday to follow – will evoke enthusiastic responses from Islamic extremists and will draw many new adherents to the cause that lies at the core of Taliban legitimacy and belief.
As was the case when we left Iraq and later had to go back into the region to crush the ISIS Caliphate that metastasized in the wake of our departure, there is every prospect that the Taliban’s success will breathe new life into Islamic extremist groups. And there is no reason to believe that the “new” and now much more heavily armed Taliban – an organization that refused to break with AQ over the course of a brutal twenty-year battle, will be any less receptive to working with Islamic terror groups than were their pre-9/11 forebears.
“We are going to have to maintain very, very intense levels of indicators and warnings and observstion and ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance] over that entire region to monitor potential terrorist threats”, said Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley in a recent interview, adding it will not be easy.
As CIA Director William Burns said during Senate testimony in April, “Our ability to keep (the) threat…in check in Afghanistan from either al Qaeda or ISIS…has benefited greatly from the presence of U.S. and coalition militaries on the ground and in the air fueled by intelligence provided by the CIA and our other intelligence partners.” With the withdrawal of the American military, Burns said, “the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish.”
Much discussed ‘over the horizon’ intelligence collection against Afghan terror targets will not fill the void left by the loss of our ability to monitor and attack terrorist targets from in-country bases. With Afghanistan bordered by countries unlikely to be willing to host a significant US presence, intelligence collection missions will now have to be launched from bases well beyond the horizon with all that implies for the quantity, quality and timeliness of intelligence collected. Such operations will also be commensurately more expensive and difficult to mount. Moreover, the intimate knowledge of our adversaries that we have painstakingly built over the course of nearly 20 years on the ground, began aging the moment we departed Afghanistan. Absent an intelligence presence on the ground, our ability to collect on terrorist groups operating in and from that country will only degrade further as time goes on.
After acknowledging that we “could see a resurgence of terrorism out of the region in the coming 12-36 months”, Milley went on that we will, “as opportunities present themselves… have to continue to conduct strike operations if there’s a threat to the United States.” However, as our pre-9/11 experience showed, such remote strikes can delay our terrorist enemies’ plans, but will not deter them from their intent to strike the US homeland.
As such, Secretary Panetta is undoubtedly correct in his conclusion that US involvement in Afghanistan is not over. “We’re going to have to go back in to get ISIS,” Panetta said. “We’re probably going to have to go back in when al-Qaeda resurrects itself, as they will, with this Taliban.” And, as was the case with our operations to destroy ISIS’s so-called Caliphate after we precipitously left Iraq, there can be no doubt that should we have to go back into Afghanistan, our task will be greatly complicated by the manner in which we left that country, abandoning our allies and bases there.
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan will have profound geo-strategic implications for America’s position in the region and in the world. Our Chinese, Russian and Iranian adversaries will seize the opportunity to fill the void left in the wake of our departure.
The Taliban has already indicated it will engage with China, which covets Afghanistan’s mineral wealth. Entry into a transactional relationship with the cash-strapped Taliban regime and granting access to Afghan mineral resources – and possibly use of Bagram Air Base – in exchange for financial aid and Chinese support for the Taliban in international organizations would suit Beijing, which would evince no concerns about human rights and the like.
For their part, Central Asian countries will look away from Washington and ever more towards their old masters in Moscow and a rising China to ensure their security and economic well-being. Islamabad, while publicly celebrating the victory of their Taliban proxies and its role in guiding it, must at the same time worry that the extremism embodied by the victors will gain renewed traction beyond its frontier provinces with all that implies for the security of the Pakistani state.
Caught by surprise by Washington’s decision to leave and the conduct of the withdrawal, even our closest and oldest allies are questioning US resolve. They will surely think twice before acceding to any future US request to join in joint operations. Our decision to quit Afghanistan, and its messy execution, will also evoke questions about the validity of American assurances to other nations under threat from aggressors. It will not have been lost on them that the withdrawal of American air, intelligence, planning expertise and logistical support ensured the collapse of an Afghan Army that was dependent on the US.
Our adversaries, too, will see the chaotic nature of our departure as well as the abandonment of Americans, allied citizens and Afghans to uncertain fates as signs of weakness and enfeeblement. This possibility is particularly dangerous in that they could seize this moment of US distraction to engage in opportunistic adventurism that could include movement by China against Taiwan; a Russian attempt to resolve its impasse with Ukraine forcibly; stepped-up Iranian prosecution of its proxy war with Israel; or a further ramping up by North Korea of its nuclear program. Any such eventuality would force the US to respond vigorously or risk further erosion of its international credibility.
Finally, the costs involved in remotely monitoring and trying to deter threats emanating from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan mean that we will be unable to shift intelligence and military resources away from the War on Terror to confront the threat posed by peer competitors to the degree we had hoped.
Aristotle is said to have pronounced, “You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.” Likewise, the courage shown by so many – and the heroic conduct of US military and CIA personnel in particular – in seeking to extract American citizens from Afghanistan and to honor our obligations to Afghans who worked and fought alongside us for so long, cannot obviate the dishonor attendant to having left so many behind. Bloody Taliban outrages and reprisals against the latter are a certainty.
It will not be long before Kabul’s new rulers recognize that the Americans now under their control, are potentially useful pawns in trying to extract diplomatic, financial and other concessions in exchange for their freedom. The effectiveness of our efforts hereafter to extract our own people and our Afghan allies from the clutches of the Taliban and how we respond to any attempts to use them as leverage against us, will determine the depth of the stain on our national honor already attendant to the disastrous end of our Afghan campaign.
In that same famous speech, Churchill solemnly told his countrymen that: ‘The Battle of France is over: The Battle of Britain is about to begin.” He went on that “we would be well advised to gird our loins for the continued warfare to come.”
As we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we should honor our sacred dead from that horrible day. But we should likewise prepare ourselves for the battles with Al Qaeda and its murderous kindred of Cain that will surely come.
Recent polls would indicate that Americans support the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, if not the way in which it was conducted. One wonders how those polled would have responded if the question had been ‘Do you support a withdrawal from Afghanistan even if it markedly increases the chance of terror attacks and atrocities directed at your fellow citizens at home and abroad?’ I fear we will find out soon enough.
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