Nine months after President Biden withdrew U.S. forces from Afghanistan — which happened after nearly twenty years of war there — we seem to have already unlearned all the lessons of that war and the debacle Biden created in quitting the field.
Far more importantly, as the congressional testimony of Biden administration officials demonstrates, we have not — as Biden claimed — eliminated al-Qaeda’s (and other terrorist networks’) capacity to mount attacks on the U.S. from Afghanistan.
Colin Kahl, undersecretary of defense for policy, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in October that the Islamic State in Khorasan province (ISIS-K) could generate the capability to mount terrorist attacks against us in six to twelve months. It’s been seven months since that testimony.
Last week, Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines both told the Senate Armed Services Committee that terrorist groups were six months to a year away from being able to mount terrorist attacks against the United States.
Both seemed more concerned about ISIS-K than about al-Qaeda. Berrier said it would take ISIS-K about a year and al-Qaeda a bit longer to reach that capability. (ISIS-K is supposedly an enemy of the Taliban and mounted many attacks on the Taliban while U.S. troops were in Afghanistan. That enmity is apparently at an end.)
Haines, speaking of ISIS-K, said, “They could build that capability over time, and they certainly have the intent to do so.”
It’s simply undeniable that al-Qaeda and other terrorist networks have that same intent. (READ MORE from Jed Babbin: Biden’s Afghanistan Debacle)
Let’s make the anti-historical assumption that our intelligence community is correct and that it’s giving us the straight scoop. What both sets of testimony mean is that, as this column has stated many times, the Afghanistan war didn’t end just because President Biden decided to quit the fight.
Then-president Trump signed a peace agreement with the Taliban on February 29, 2020. It was a lousy deal. It boiled down to two points. First, that we would withdraw all of our coalition forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2020. Second, that the Taliban would ensure that Afghanistan would no longer give terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda and ISIS-K safe havens so that they could mount terrorist attacks against the U.S. and Coalition allies.
As I wrote at the time, there was no possibility that the Taliban would live up to their obligations under the agreement. That’s because, as I’ve written more often than I care to recall, in the war in Afghanistan, and the other wars we have fought in Iraq and Syria, we faced and failed to defeat religiously motivated enemies either kinetically or ideologically. Their ideology compels their war against us. Until that ideological war is won, the war goes on regardless of what we say or do.
Trump’s agreement was full of holes. The deadline for our withdrawal was extended to May 2021. Biden decided — against the facts on the ground — to precipitously withdraw all Coalition forces from Afghanistan in August of last year.
The withdrawal was a debacle. The Afghanistan security forces folded far more quickly than our intelligence community said they would, Ashraf Ghani, Afghanistan’s president, fled the country before Kabul fell to the Taliban, and thirteen U.S. soldiers were killed in a bombing attack at the Kabul airport.
Thousands of U.S. civilians were abandoned by Biden. Their fate is still unknown.
On August 31, 2021, Biden gave a speech that declared the withdrawal an “extraordinary success.” He said we remained committed to getting the rest of our civilians out and that one hundred countries had joined us in our determination to do so.
Biden said, “We will maintain the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan and other countries. We just don’t need to fight a ground war to do it. We have what’s called over-the-horizon capabilities, which means we can strike terrorists and targets without American boots on the ground — or very few, if needed.”
The problem with Biden’s “over-the-horizon” strategy, as I pointed out at the time, is that we now lack the in-country intelligence that would make that strategy possible. One of the reasons for that is that it takes hours for a military strike to reach Afghanistan from another nation or from our ships at sea. Those hours can easily mean a miss rather than a hit.
The other main problem with Biden’s strategy is that someone — Biden — has to pull the trigger on any such strike. And he hasn’t.
Afghanistan is about the size of Texas. It’s a mountainous country ruled by the Taliban and the many tribes sympathetic to the Taliban. There are thousands of places for terrorists to hide, train, and to mount terrorist attacks against the U.S. and our allies. It has reverted to its pre-9/11 policy of giving safe haven to terrorist networks.
Even without in-country intelligence gathering capabilities, we can still provide some semblance of terror suppression in Afghanistan.
We can, and should, permanently position at least a couple of spy satellites over Afghanistan. They would enable us in real time to see and listen to what the terrorist networks are doing there. But satellites are limited. They cannot give us the kind of penetrating intelligence that real spies on the ground can. Flights over Afghanistan by U-2 aircraft would help gather that kind of intelligence.
We can, if Biden were willing to authorize such strikes, use the various kinds of cruise missiles to destroy terrorist training camps as they arise. Bill Clinton infamously declined to kill Osama bin Laden when the CIA had him literally in its sights.
Biden won’t do that because he’s still congratulating himself on ending the war in Afghanistan. He won’t, by authorizing cruise missile strikes, admit that the war there isn’t over.
Hamza bin Laden, Osama’s son, was killed in a 2019 raid authorized by former president Trump. But Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s second in command, is still at large. Al-Qaeda is reorganizing in Afghanistan with the goal of perpetrating attacks as devastating as the 9/11 attacks. So are ISIS-K and other terrorist networks. And we’re not doing a damned thing to stop them.