Robert Dannenberg, Former Senior CIA Officer
Cipher Brief Expert Rob Dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, where he served in several senior leadership positions, including chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Board of Advisors to the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and is a senior fellow at the GWU Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He is now an independent consultant on geopolitical and security risk, after serving as the managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP.
EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — The images from Kabul are demoralizing and depressing—unless you are sitting in the Kremlin, where they are certainly being viewed in a quite different light. Probably something close to giddiness and glee.
From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, this likely reinforces his view that President Joe Biden and his national security team are weak and naïve. ‘This is Obama’s third term’, Putin must be thinking. And of course, the images of US helicopters desperately trying to evacuate thousands from Kabul also resonate in Kiev, Tbilisi, and probably Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius and beyond—think Taipei. The appalling mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan will have consequences that will affect American credibility globally and linger well beyond the end of Biden’s presidency.
A first order consequence concerns Russia.
It is highly likely there was practical cooperation between the Kremlin and the Taliban in the preparation for the American withdrawal and this may have included direct support to Taliban forces. We don’t need to revisit the narrative of Russian bounties for dead American soldiers in Afghanistan, but the evidence of Russian energetic engagement with the Taliban in recent months is manifest and the fact the Russian embassy in Kabul is currently protected by Taliban fighters is significant.
For both Russia and the Taliban there was a clear shared strategic objective: Get the Americans and their allies out of Afghanistan and ideally in the most humiliating fashion possible. The Russian-Taliban honeymoon may not last long, but for the moment it has served both sides well.
For over a decade and a half of his tenure as Russia’s president, Putin has been preaching the gospel that you can’t trust the Americans to back you in the long run or when the chips are down, but you can count on the Russia he leads (think the Russian intervention in Syria and support for Assad or their intervention—whether acknowledged or not—in Libya on the side of Khalifa Haftar among other examples). This messaging is important in current times and reinforces Putin’s narrative about the decline of the West and the waning relevance of western liberal systems of governance.
In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has picked up the trumpet to echo this message that American power is in decline and that American security guarantees cannot be relied on in East Asia and beyond.
Putin has been Russia’s Czar for over two decades without meaningful interruption and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. He has seen US Presidents come and go and he has been quick to size them up and adjust his moves accordingly. He was genuinely scared of what George W. Bush might do in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 and the speed and efficacy of the US response made a deep impression on him. He adjusted his approach to the US to one of partner and ally against Islamic extremism (Putin was also busy consolidating his control over the Russian Federation in the immediate post-Yeltsin period).
Putin also sized up then-President Barack Obama after Obama’s failure to act when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blithely crossed the “no use of chemical weapons” red line. That opened the door for the annexation of Crimea as well as the Russian military intervention in Syria (and later Libya). Joe Biden was Vice President at the time. Putin likely has a very good book on Joe Biden and was quite confident of what the end result for the US in Afghanistan would look like. Putin may even have a better feel for Joe Biden than many realize, if any of the Hunter Biden material is true. One leader’s assessment of another, matters in geopolitical relations. Putin has a high level of confidence in his ability to read his international opposition.
As recently as July 2021 President Biden said, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the US embassy in Afghanistan.” He went on to add, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.” President Biden made these statements knowing perfectly or should have known—from intelligence briefings and expert commentary—as well as historical precedent—that when the US announces a withdrawal of forces with a hard deadline, in this case 9/11, our adversaries use the time to prepare for their offensive military action. Our Afghan allies knew this as well and prepared accordingly. Now the Taliban will celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks in the US embassy in Kabul, probably with their ISIS and Al Qaeda friends as honored guests. If you think the videos from Afghanistan have been troubling to this point, just wait for the anniversary celebrations.
Perhaps of more near term geopolitical significance, Putin will use the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to support a narrative that Russia needs to defend its interests from the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan by strengthening “security and counterterrorism” cooperation with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. Does anyone want an excuse to get – and keep – those pesky Americans out of Central Asia and start rebuilding that corner of the Soviet Union?
Putin’s use of terrorism risk as justification for military action is well-rehearsed and goes back to the Moscow apartment bombings (which the FSB almost certainly organized) in September 1999, which Putin used both to consolidate political power and to justify the brutal military campaign in Chechnya. Putin is acutely aware of the risks of Islamic extremism spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and into the Russian Federation. In fact, Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik troops conducted exercises in July, which appear to have been designed to prepare to respond to cross border incursions from Afghanistan. This is only the first step in his plan for consolidation of Russian power and influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Some might ask – given the risk of the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan to the Russian Federation – why would Putin would want to partner with the Taliban? Those who ask this question are misunderstanding the depth of Putin’s enmity toward the United States and the West and everything for which we stand. Putin views the world as a “zero sum” game. What hurts the US must serve Russia’s interests. The debacle in Afghanistan clearly qualifies. A short-term deal with the Taliban is a risk with taking in Putin’s mind. Putin plays on the superpower chessboard using the only tools he has at hand, military power, cyber and disinformation capability and US ineptitude and lack of strategic thought. He has taken clever advantage of President Trump’s four years of thoughtless estrangement of US allies around the world.
Beyond the propaganda value and regional leverage our withdrawal has given adversaries like Russia and China, there is the impact of our withdrawal on the many nations among our allies who contributed to the Afghanistan mission. The images of Afghans clinging to a departing US Air Force C-17 and falling to their deaths will not fade easily. How easy will it be to assemble their support when we inevitably have to go in again to deal with a resurgent Al Qaeda, a globally ambitious Taliban, or an even more dangerous embedded ISIS in the hills of Afghanistan?
We should also consider the impact on Pakistan. Pakistan has nurtured Islamic extremism in Afghanistan for decades. While a part of the Pakistani security establishment partnered with the US effectively after 9/11, other parts simultaneously were nurturing relations with extremists including the Taliban. The “Great Game” is still being played in that part of the world, and neither the Pakistanis, nor the Indians or Chinese have forgotten it.
Pakistan also still certainly chafes from the US raid to kill bin Ladin in Abbottabad a little over ten years ago. One wonders if the waning of US influence in Islamabad has opened the door for Islamic extremists to enter the security establishment there. Pakistan is a nuclear power and has in recent years, increased its development of tactical nuclear weapons. Does the Taliban now have a path to nuclear weapons? This is an important question and it’s answer casts a shadow over our withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Biden Administration, for all its vaunted claims of “return to competence” in Washington, has fallen flat in its first serious challenge. One could argue that Biden’s capitulation on Nord Stream 2 and Putin’s mocking rejection in Geneva of charges of US election interference and cyberattacks on the US, foretold the debacle in Afghanistan. The challenge for the US now will be to manage the airlift of those Afghans who were willing to partner with the US and carefully look for opportunities to rebuild the credibility of US security guarantees around the world.
Taiwan and South Korea would seem good places to start.
At the same time, we need to recognize that Afghanistan will once again become the training ground for those who hope to replicate 9/11 attacks on the US. A strong and robust intelligence capability will be essential in mitigating that risk.
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