August 19, 2019
IntelBrief: Looking at Kabul and Seeing Saigon
Following several months of negotiations in Doha between U.S. officials and Taliban leaders, an agreement on bringing the war in Afghanistan to a formally recognized end now seems imminent. Tens of thousands of Afghans have been killed in the nearly two decade-long conflict, as well as nearly 3,500 American and coalition troops. U.S. President Trump has made ending the war in Afghanistan a top priority in his foreign policy agenda and has afforded Zalmay Khalilzad, the chief American negotiator, with the authority to push for a deal that would accelerate the process. Trump met with his top national security advisers late last week to review the status of the talks. The negotiations in Doha are just one component of a more comprehensive agreement, which also needs to include members of the Afghan government. Preparations for intra-Afghan negotiations, which are expected to be far more contentious and drawn out, are reportedly underway and tentatively scheduled to be held in Oslo, Norway.
The most important elements of the negotiations are the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the Taliban’s relationship with transnational terrorist groups operating on Afghan soil, including al-Qaeda, and a power sharing agreement between Taliban leaders and representatives of the Afghan government in Kabul. Yet despite pledges to break ties with al-Qaeda, few terrorism analysts believe that the Taliban will hold up its end of the bargain. Militants from al-Qaeda’s South Asian affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), are embedded in units alongside Taliban fighters. With a reduced U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and the Taliban reneging on promises to make a clean break from al-Qaeda, the country could once again be used as a safe haven for jihadists and a staging ground for planning transnational terrorist attacks.
Throughout the negotiations fighting has continued unabated, with Taliban militants launching spectacular and well-coordinated terrorist attacks throughout Afghanistan. These attacks have demonstrated that the Taliban remains a potent fighting force capable of destabilizing the country and overrunning the positions of the Afghan National Security Forces. There are serious concerns that with a significantly reduced role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, its security forces will be further attenuated. Even after eighteen years of being trained and equipped by the U.S. and its coalition allies, the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police are plagued by corruption and ineptitude. Afghanistan’s special forces are highly capable and able to operate autonomously, but uncertainty over the future role of American forces, including air power and force protection, have contributed to a growing anxiety over the future in Afghanistan. It is becoming difficult to look at the situation in Afghanistan and not see clear parallels to the ignominious U.S. exit from Vietnam more than four decades ago.
Political negotiations and a potential power sharing deal could lead elements of the insurgency to splinter, with Taliban hardliners opposed to a settlement breaking away or merging with other actors committed to continuing the fight. Diehard Taliban militants could join the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), providing vital reinforcements to a group that some estimates suggest has 2,000 fighters. ISKP militants claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing targeting Shiites at a wedding in Kabul over the weekend, resulting in the death of 63 people, with another 182 wounded. The U.S. military has described ISKP as capable of both inspiring and directing attacks against the West, including the United States. A reduced American presence will also pave the way for external nations to become more actively involved in Afghanistan, with China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and India all planning for the aftermath of a peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban.
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