Main Image Credit Afghan security forces and a British soldier with NATO-led Resolute Support Mission stand guard at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan, 31 May 2019. Courtesy of Reuters/Alamy Stock/Omar Sobhani
Joe Biden may be withdrawing US troops from the ground, but given the continuing threat of terrorism that will emanate from Afghanistan it is unlikely that NATO will be able to fully disengage.
As the administration of Joe Biden announces a full US withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan by 11 September, the recent chapter of Afghanistan’s history, characterised by serious Western involvement, is finally drawing to a close. The current Afghan government is unlikely to survive. The Taliban have been slowly wresting control of the country from their opponents for several years, and are already in de facto control of much of the countryside. This process will likely accelerate after US forces complete their withdrawal. A victorious Taliban regime would be similar in outlook and in its approach to governance as it was before in 2001: a conservative theocracy uninterested in either development or human rights.
A continuation of material support alone is unlikely to prop up the Afghan government for long. Even with the current levels of external support, the Afghan government only controls perhaps 32% of the country and has been steadily losing ground. Endemic corruption and a lack of military cohesion have hampered attempts to stabilise the situation, and the government has been unable to provide security for or win the trust of its people. The Taliban have recently been successful at preventing the movement of forces along Afghanistan’s main highways, isolating large parts of the country from Kabul. Air power, which has been key to the survival of Afghan government forces up until now, will be impossible to coordinate effectively once the remaining NATO military advisers are withdrawn. While the Afghan government classifies its casualty figures, the level of attrition that Afghan security forces are suffering has reportedly increased to unsustainable levels, raising the possibility of military collapse.
The withdrawal and probable consequences also have serious implications for other NATO allies contributing to the mission, particularly the UK. The withdrawal is total, not limited to ending combat operations, and includes the closure of all NATO basing in-country and the withdrawal of all 7,000 remaining non-US NATO forces. As the NATO coalition depends on the backbone of US basing, logistics and medical support to operate in-theatre, a support network that would be prohibitively expensive for other countries to replicate, there is no prospect for a continued national presence independent of the US by any NATO member disagreeing with the decision, regardless of its specific national interests in the region.
A Manageable Risk?
The key to understanding the change in policy is the Biden administration’s determination that the terrorist threat from Afghanistan will be manageable without military forces present on the ground. A major effect of the Afghanistan campaign was to suppress, though not eliminate, the ability of terrorist groups to shelter there. The counterterrorism-focused nature of NATO’s mission, which often sidelined other initiatives focused on controlling the heroin trade and promoting development, was as much a reflection of the genuinely high threat posed by organisations such as Al-Qa’ida as it was of Western fixation with terrorist threats.
Regardless, the Biden administration’s strategy is predicated on one of two assumptions: either terrorists will not be able to operate from Afghanistan, or they can be contained there by global counterterrorism efforts ensuring that any attempt by Afghanistan-based terrorist organisations to operate abroad can be identified and neutralised.
The former eventuality is unlikely. If the Taliban take over, Al-Qa’ida and other organisations will regain a significant base of operations. The closest the Taliban came to divesting themselves of their Al-Qa’ida links was during negotiations in late 2001 before the US-led invasion. And even had these negotiations been allowed to run their course, it is doubtful whether the Taliban would have accepted US demands. Still, such an outcome was at least a possibility, albeit a remote one, two decades ago. But current Taliban statements about preventing Al-Qa’ida from establishing a presence in the country should not be taken seriously. Even at their lowest ebb during the counterinsurgency campaign the two groups remained close-knit, and the strongest incentives, those of a conditions-based withdrawal or continued conflict, for the Taliban to break ties have now been removed. This means that the global community, including the UK, must accept and manage a heightened terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan in the near future.
The UK Perspective
Here, the implications for the UK are especially pronounced. The UK maintains strong diplomatic links and institutional ties with Pakistan – particularly military-to-military – of a sort that no other NATO member has. And, likewise, the UK has long been the US’s closest and most interoperable ally in the global counterterrorism campaign. Therefore, the UK is likely to find itself a leading actor in continuing regional counterterrorism efforts, even more so than it is already as the importance of Pakistan to these efforts increases.
As part of this, the UK must manage myriad interconnected diplomatic issues, including coordinating counterterrorist activity with Pakistan. Global counterterrorism efforts that have pursued terrorist and insurgent networks operating cross-border from Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) over the past two decades provide an unfortunate model for the future. There, counterterrorist activity continues in the form of targeting and drone strikes into a space lacking state governance in conjunction with the Pakistani military, in a legal grey area with no declared persistent presence. Without a persistent physical presence in Afghanistan, and with Taliban control of the country, NATO will in all probability be forced to continue to target and strike into Afghanistan as it has done in FATA but at a larger scale, and this will have to be done with Pakistani consent due to the need for overflight rights.
Pakistan has been a critical ally in the War on Terror, but a problematic one. It remains designated a major non-NATO ally by the US, and has facilitated or provided logistics support, air access and an intelligence apparatus with deep expertise in Afghanistan. While NATO has no formal basing in Pakistan, the Pakistani Air Force has long provided facilities amounting to air basing. However, Pakistani foreign and counterterrorist policy have often intersected, with the Pakistani military government often horse-trading and balancing cooperation in one area to buy leeway or concessions in the other. It has historically hedged its bets, both fighting terrorism alongside NATO and allowing terrorist organisations to survive for use as proxies. This has included accepting a higher domestic terrorist threat as a consequence, for the groups that they nurture often attack Pakistani security forces and periodically launch larger-scale attacks.
The UK will therefore be drawn deeper into numerous disputes as Pakistan gains greater leverage to make demands of it. India–Pakistan relations have continued to fester, with Jammu and Kashmir being a particular sticking point. Pakistani basing, air access or counterterrorism support may all prove conditional on the UK’s passive cooperation or even active diplomatic support through an alignment of policy whenever the difficult relationship with India experiences its periodic turbulence.
Aside from these issues, there is also the simple shifting of responsibility for counterterrorism. With counterterrorist operations no longer suppressing networks in Afghanistan in the same manner, a greater burden will fall on states and their intelligence and counterterrorist police services, which will have an increased need to monitor, disrupt and eliminate terrorist networks at the point where these attempt to enter and establish themselves in NATO and allied territory or plug into domestic extremist networks. With domestic counterterrorism already being a difficult prospect, the future involves accepting a greater risk of terrorism at home.
In for the Long Haul
Ultimately, counterterrorism operations will have to continue in the region, and the US, UK and NATO will be further entangled in Pakistani diplomatic affairs as a result. There is a risk that the UK and NATO, if they wish to support the US, will only be able to do so by striking into Afghanistan from basing in neighbouring countries, effectively a continuation of one of the current lines of effort that the Biden administration is attempting to terminate, except with the bases moved across the Pakistani border.
The US, UK and NATO may even end up seriously escalating combat operations in Afghanistan in some form in future, either to prevent the Afghan government from falling or to address Taliban support for terrorist networks if they are allowed to take power.
The Biden administration seeks to end the ‘forever war’ by withdrawing. However, given the ongoing situation with Islamist terrorism globally, the forever war looks instead as if it is transitioning into a new and dangerous phase in which the UK and NATO will be forced to play a continuing role.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
Research Analyst, Land Warfare