As the U.S. works toward getting more 11,000 Americans, diplomats and Afghan allies out of the country, what kind of Taliban should the U.S. expect to deal with in Afghanistan? So far, there have been assurances from the Taliban that a new regime may not be as brutal as regimes past, but few who have worked with the Taliban believe the assurances. How might the regime work with, or shelter groups like al-Qaeda, which is the reason why the U.S. entered into Afghanistan after 9/11. And how might a massive-scale exodus of Afghans impact neighboring countries?
The Cipher Brief sat down with the former National Intelligence Manager for Iran at ODNI, Norman T. Roule to get his expert-level perspective.
Norman T. Roule, Former National Intelligence Manager for Iran, ODNI
Cipher Brief Expert Norm Roule served for 34-years in the Central Intelligence Agency, managing numerous programs relating to Iran and the Middle East. He served as the National Intelligence Manager for Iran (NIM-I) at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence from November 2008 until September 2017. As NIM-I, he was the principal Intelligence Community (IC) official responsible for overseeing all aspects of national intelligence policy and activities related to Iran, to include IC engagement on Iran issues with senior policy makers in the National Security Council and the Department of State.
The Cipher Brief: How would you characterize the international community’s response to the Taliban victory in Afghanistan?
Roule: Historians of the future will likely describe the response to the Taliban victory as a strange mix of apathy and confusion.
In terms of apathy, there is extraordinary irony in the fact that after spending so much blood and treasure to defeat Da’esh efforts to establish an extremist Islamic Republic in Syria and impose its oppression over Iraqis and Syrians, the international community failed to prevent the creation of an Islamic Republic in Afghanistan. Many of the arguments behind our involvement in Syria – from a refugee crisis to the need to deny international Islamic militants a home to birth new terror groups – apply to Afghanistan. Whether or not one supported this decision, it is hard to avoid thinking that this episode will embolden militants worldwide.
In terms of confusion, we seem to be unable to accept that no one can predict the course and pace of crowd dynamics that so quickly eroded Afghan resistance. We live in a world where people acknowledge their inability to predict who will win our presidential elections but insist the Intelligence Community can somehow predict the day events will occur in a denied environment. But such a worst-case possibility should have been part of the planning deck and resourced on the ground accordingly.
The Cipher Brief: How would you expect the international community to respond in the coming days?
Roule: Absent a Taliban attack, operations at the airport should proceed more smoothly as our response architecture grows. Beyond that, much depends on how the Taliban act in the coming weeks. The group is not a monolith. Their success was highly likely as much a surprise to them as anyone. As they define their path and choose their leaders, there will be internal debates, jockeying for power, and perhaps some violent infighting.
In terms of indicators of the regime’s direction, we may want to consider the following questions:
First and foremost, how will the Taliban respond to our ongoing evacuation? Thus far, they seem willing to let us leave untouched, probably believing that the sooner we get out, the easier it will be for them to take control. At the same time, international media coverage of the evacuation will impose a strategic embarrassment on Washington.
Second, to what extent have the Taliban changed? They certainly understand that diplomacy played a role in their victory. Some of their leaders have spent hundreds of hours with foreign diplomats and traveled to multiple foreign capitals. How will these leaders merge such experiences into governance with more insular colleagues? They are likely to talk initially about compromise regarding women’s rights and inclusion of opponents in the government, but this may well be another effort to buy time. The international community has few pressure points over the group. How this plays out will be a good indicator of how they plan to run the country.
Next, how will they handle the issue of al-Qaida and other terrorists? We cannot overlook the deep connections between the Taliban and al-Qaida. If they believe the international community will limit its response to demarches, press statements, and empty sanctions, many in the group will be inclined to allow al-Qaida to reorganize.
Last, I would look at the refugee issue. They are likely to welcome external aid and allow at least some humanitarian groups to remain in country. Doing so requires no political concessions, addresses a domestic headache, and provides an opportunity for corruption. Humanitarian groups also offer a lever the Taliban can use against the West, i.e., refrain from criticizing us, or we will block your humanitarian operations. The Houthis have done this with great effect in Yemen.
The Cipher Brief: How do you think will China, Russia, and other adversaries will respond to the withdrawal?
Roule: Chinese propagandists have aggressively exploited our evacuation from Afghanistan. Its media is already claiming that these events show Taiwan that “once war breaks out in the Straits, the island’s defense will collapse in hours, and the US military won’t come to respond.” China’s press has also reportedly announced that the U.S. will not stand by Hong Kong activists.
Beijing, Tehran, and their proxies will likely point to the withdrawal as evidence that the U.S. is a declining power, unwilling or incapable of defending its friends. It will be lost on no one that whereas the U.S. has abandoned Afghanistan, Russia, China, and Iran have not wavered in support of their – admittedly few and otherwise isolated – allies.
In a worse case, if our adversaries believe the withdrawal reflects a lack of national resolve, they may be tempted to test our will on other issues. In this case, a miscalculation could lead to a conventional war in another theater.
The Cipher Brief: What would you say to those who say that the withdrawal demonstrates that the U.S. will only focus on strategic interests?
Roule: Certainly, this argument has an appeal. It is true that our strategic adversaries like nothing better than the U.S. expending resources and diplomatic energy in such areas as Afghanistan, in part because we are, in essence, protecting their interests for free. But it does beg two questions.
First, what will happen differently next year regarding China, Russia, efforts to combat climate change, and cyber actors, now that we are out of Afghanistan? Second, what exactly is a U.S. strategic interest that we would protect? Estonia? Bahrain? Taiwan?
This argument also glosses over how others respond to such a posture. If a country perceives itself outside the international community’s protection, it will likely accommodate an aggressor. Our next call for a coalition of the willing will likely meet with less enthusiasm.
U.S. influence depends on the respect shown to us in multiple arenas. The echoes of this localized respect become self-reinforcing. We should think about what happens to collective international security if these echoes are silenced.
Last, this argument inherently argues that values are strategic interests. Unless violence directly touches Americans, we will limit our response to diplomacy and public statements. Such protests are unlikely to stop those behind a future Srebrenica massacre or the Rwandan genocide. Indeed, one can make a case that such a response might even encourage such events.
The Cipher Brief: How can the U.S. now best demonstrate its national resolve?
Roule: As the saying goes, the best way to demonstrate national resolve is to demonstrate national resolve. Fair or not, this episode will tar the Biden administration. It doesn’t help that some allies reportedly have complained that the U.S. did not sufficiently consult with them on its decision to withdraw. Public criticism of the withdrawal decision by some of our closest European partners is growing. Adversaries will now consider their action through the lens of Afghanistan, much as the post-Vietnam malaise encouraged Soviet aggression in the 1970s.
I am not saying that we can’t reverse this situation. The U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon in 1984 caused many to question U.S. resolve. Although it did signal an end to U.S. (and international) efforts to eradicate Hezbollah, Reagan’s actions in other arenas (to include Afghanistan) restored the image of U.S. national resolve. Difficult diplomacy and a demonstration of our willingness to use military power when needed lay ahead.
The Cipher Brief: What does the return of the Taliban mean for al-Qaeda?
Roule: There is little reason to believe the Taliban-Al-Qaida relationship will not resume, although al-Qaeda is a fragmented and a pale version of its original stature. Nonetheless, it is easy to imagine the delight of its remaining leadership and cadres. Elements in Iran will likely seek to return to Afghanistan, perhaps assuring Iran that in exchange for tolerance of periodic transit of Iranian territory, the group will use its influence with the Taliban to protect Iran’s interests. We should watch for any signs of a return to Afghanistan by Zawahiri’s deputy, Sayf al-Adel, who is currently in Iran with other members of the group’s leadership council.
But al-Qaeda is not the only actor on this stage. Its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has not appeared for months and has far less influence than Osama Bin Laden. Afghanistan also hosts al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), ISIS, and other groups. The Taliban have emptied Afghanistan’s prisons which held deeply committed and dangerous militants who may gravitate to whatever new militant leadership might arise. But a lethal threat to Americans is sure to appear. The only questions are its size, goals, and reach.
The Cipher Brief: What does the U.S. withdrawal mean for China and Russia?
Roule: Both countries have sought to undercut U.S. influence in Afghanistan. They will each be delighted with the rhetorical violence of our internal debate over the withdrawal. But they also enjoyed the stability our engagement provided in a country so close to their borders.
Both countries have developed relations with the Taliban. I believe each hosted a Taliban delegation in recent weeks. It shouldn’t be lost on us that neither country felt compelled to withdraw its personnel from Kabul. That’s a pretty good sign of their confidence in the relationship.
Outside of Afghanistan, each will use the withdrawal to increase their influence with Central Asian actors – including Turkey. Coordination on terrorism and narcotics issues will come most easily. For example, Uzbekistan will worry that the Taliban will renew support of the violent Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which has long maintained a presence in Afghanistan.
China’s concerns will be threefold. Beijing will use economic and diplomatic inducements to ensure that the Taliban do not encourage unrest among China’s oppressed Uighur population, let alone support the East Turkistan Islamic Movement or other Chinese militants in Xinjiang province. Next, Beijing will want to explore the Belt and Road access Afghanistan offers. Last, China will likely test whether it can achieve a commercially viable deal to mine Lithium and other minerals. In that mine operations require many years to develop and a vast amount of capital to construct, such arrangements are likely to be few given Afghanistan’s unpredictable political and security environment.
As for Russia, the U.S. withdrawal offers a chance for greater influence in Central Asia. We should watch for signs of new Russian military bases in the region. Moscow’s concern that Afghanistan will once more become a sanctuary for anti-Russian terrorists will also drive its relationship with the Taliban.
The Cipher Brief: What about Iran and Pakistan?
Roule: Iran has long maintained a relationship with Taliban elements. Reportedly, this involved sanctuary and provision of some weaponry. Tehran’s goals were to hedge its bets in Afghanistan, influence the enemies of the U.S., and protect the Shi’a of Afghanistan.
On the last point, Iran may have much work to do. Taliban personnel reportedly tore down Shi’a posters as they entered Kabul. Tehran must now contend with the consequences of refugees and the rise of warlords on its border.
The current head of Iran’s Qods Force, Esmail Qaani, has considerable experience on Afghan issues, and I expect he will play a prominent role in Iran’s response. We should watch to see how the Qods Force deploys its seasoned Afghan Fatemiyoun proxies from Syria.
Pakistan’s long-time relationship with the Taliban will give it more influence over the group than other countries. But Islamabad also will be on the receiving end of a flood of refugees, renewed militant terrorism in its loosely-controlled border areas, and Western pressure for its support of the Taliban. Ties to the Taliban may also complicate Islamabad’s relationship with India and China.
The Cipher Brief: What does this mean for the U.S. intelligence community?
Roule: The counterterrorism cadre of the US intelligence community and its partners have achieved extraordinary successes in the last years. But their work is now more complicated but no less urgent. For example, our withdrawal has reduced collection streams and potential access when the Afghanistan-based terrorist threat has only begun to grow. This challenge arrives as we shift counterterrorism resources from al-Qaeda to domestic extremists, cyber threats, and China.
The Cipher Brief: Any final comments?
Roule: If I may, I would like to close with a couple of brief comments.
First, we need to do everything we can to support personnel on the ground in Afghanistan. They – and their support teams at home – are trying to restore order in the middle of a hurricane. We are watching heroism at its best.
Next, the narrative of Afghanistan is unsurprisingly partisan. But politics shouldn’t obscure the truth. For more than twenty years, thousands of American and coalition partners volunteered to risk their lives in Afghanistan. We didn’t come to colonize. We didn’t steal Afghan resources. The operational goals were to bring Bin Laden to justice, destroy al-Qaeda, and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a haven for the group in the future. We also worked to transform Afghan society. The need for this last effort wasn’t apparent at the outset of our invasion. But it was likely unavoidable if we hoped to satisfy our values and enable Afghan society to confront its militant population. This effort represents the best of our values, and we owe all who served in this arena our most profound respect. Afghans who have participated in their country’s efforts during the past two decades will endure tremendous suffering. But they remain Afghanistan’s best hope and they deserve our support. Last, we need to end the fiction that Afghans didn’t fight for their country. Tens of thousands of Afghans were killed and wounded in the fight against al-Qaeda. Many involved in this fight are reportedly being sought door-to-door by the Taliban. Discounting their efforts may serve a political narrative, but it does them a terrible injustice.
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