- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 27, 2021

The Biden administration is “delusional” if it thinks the Taliban have broken or will break from what is left of the al Qaeda terrorist network in Afghanistan, says a former top Pakistani diplomat in Washington.

Husain Haqqani, who served as Islamabad’s ambassador to the U.S. a decade ago and is now a senior fellow with the Hudson Institute, said the “military situation in Afghanistan is comparable to what happened in Iraq in 2011.”

His assessment in a message to The Washington Times dovetails with those of a growing number of regional experts who warn that the vacuum left by the U.S. and NATO pullout from Afghanistan could trigger an extremist surge akin to the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria after the 2011 American troop withdrawal from Iraq.

The Islamic State group, also known as ISIS, emerged from the ashes of al Qaeda in Iraq in 2012 and 2013 and seized swaths of Iraqi and Syrian territory in 2014. The rise of ISIS triggered a spiraling global security crisis as the group inspired and directed terrorist attacks in Western Europe, the United States and elsewhere.

Hawkish national security analysts say a similar situation could unfold in Afghanistan.

“The U.S. troop withdrawal, I think, is a decision we’re likely going to regret,” retired Army Gen. Jack Keane said Friday during an appearance on Fox News.

Gen. Keane, who heads the board of directors at the Institute for the Study of War, compared the developments in Afghanistan to the Obama-era U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, which he said allowed the rise of the Islamic State terrorist group.

Mr. Haqqani told The Times that the security landscape in Afghanistan is comparable to the dynamic in Iraq “after [the] sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops.”

He added, though, that “all is not lost,” particularly if the Biden administration uses the right mix of strategic and covert military action, including airstrikes and air support for Afghan security forces, to influence the Taliban’s behavior.

“[The] U.S. providing air support capability to Afghans, intelligence and covert ops could stop the Taliban’s military advances and force them to negotiate with the Afghan government,” Mr. Haqqani said.

The Taliban’s recent territorial gains hung in the backdrop of a highly publicized White House visit Friday by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, who chairs Afghanistan’s High Council for National Reconciliation and is heading stalled attempts to negotiate a long-term power-sharing agreement between the government in Kabul and the Taliban.

President Biden sought to convey a message of confidence. U.S. troops, he said, “may be leaving, but our support for Afghanistan is not ending in terms of support and maintenance of helping maintain their military as well as economic and political support.”

The parameters of military support have yet to be clearly defined. U.S. officials told The Associated Press last week that roughly 650 American troops will remain in Afghanistan to provide security for diplomats after the main American military force completes its withdrawal, which is expected in the next two weeks.

Mr. Biden previously called for a troop withdrawal by Sept. 11 — the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks plotted by al Qaeda operatives whom the Taliban had given haven.

The withdrawal was set into motion last year after the Trump administration reached an agreement with the Taliban for U.S. troops to leave in exchange for security guarantees. Among the Taliban promises was a permanent break with al Qaeda. Afghanistan was never again to become a sanctuary for terrorist organizations.

The militants also vowed to engage in meaningful talks toward a political settlement with the government in Kabul. Although it remains to be seen how those talks will play out, unease is swirling around the prospect of an al Qaeda or other extremist resurgence in Afghanistan, where groups loyal to the Islamic State are also active.

Mr. Haqqani told The Times that “the Biden administration needs to recognize that the Taliban are not the partners in peace they were made out to be and that it is delusional to think that they will break from al Qaeda.”

Pentagon leaders, including Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have acknowledged that al Qaeda in Afghanistan could regenerate and plot terrorist attacks on the American homeland within two years — sooner if the insurgent Taliban overwhelm the fragile U.S.-backed government in Kabul and take control of the country.

Mr. Austin and Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, outlined the worst-case scenario last week when Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, pressed them to estimate whether the likelihood of an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan was small, medium or large.

“I would assess it as medium. I would also say … it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability” to carry out terrorist attacks outside Afghanistan, Mr. Austin told the Senate Appropriations Committee.

Gen. Milley gave a similar assessment, though he warned that the time frame could be much shorter if the Afghan government collapses without U.S. and NATO support.

“If certain other things happen, if there was a collapse of the government or the dissolution of the Afghan security forces, that risk would obviously increase,” he said. “But right now, I’d say ‘medium’ and about two years or so.”

Despite such concerns, advocates against U.S. military intervention abroad say the troop pullout is long overdue. Tens of thousands of Afghans and more than 2,400 American military personnel have been killed in the war zone in the past two decades.

“After 20 years, tens of thousands of casualties and $2 trillion, the U.S. has wasted far too much trying to stabilize Afghanistan,” retired Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis at Defense Priorities said in comments circulated to journalists.

“It’s true Afghan security forces will struggle to hold ground in a post-U.S. Afghanistan. But the alternative of keeping U.S. forces in the country to prop them up will not solve their problems,” he said. “Extending the U.S. deployment would trap thousands of U.S. soldiers in a civil war they cannot win, and risk more unnecessary American casualties.”

Ben Wolfgang contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.