The threat that terror outfit Al-Qaeda based out of Afghanistan poses to US national security is a critical factor in the Joe Biden administration deciding whether to withdraw American troops from the war-torn country by May 1.
The American military and security experts are backing for a withdrawal only after neutralising the threat from Al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province and ensuring that the Afghan Taliban respects a permanent and effective post-withdrawal peace agreement.
Ever since Joe Biden became the US President, he has been under mounting pressure to decide the Afghan question, more so from the Taliban, which, short of attacking American or Afghan security forces, has been scaling up its violent activities while determining its future ties with other terror groups based out of Afghanistan.
The US have been continuing their counter-terrorism campaign in this part of the world since 2001 and billions of dollars have been spent in military and civilian aid and equipment later. It appears to be in no mood to depart from the Asian region without ensuring two things: One, a finality to the terror question. Two, creating a situation for long-lasting peace even if the Taliban have to be part of the process.
That is precisely the reason why the Biden administration has systematically worked for the execution of the basic principles of the Doha Agreement between the US and the Taliban in terms of securing guarantees from the latter. They haven’t been forthcoming to the satisfaction of the US as on date.
President Biden has to decide in the next few days if he will seek a time-bound extension of the May 1 deadline. The time for withdrawing the remaining 2,500 troops along with tonnes of military equipment is already lost and is impossible to achieve in just a fortnight.
The US President’s support group has already begun sounding notes suggesting that extending the deadline is the best thing to happen to all sides in Afghanistan. The President, who has said that he is reviewing his Afghan policy, is clear about one thing: The United States would not be found exiting Afghanistan without a closure on terror.
News agencies have quoted James Stavidis, a retired Navy admiral and former NATO commander, as saying: “…The most prudent course of action feels like a six-month extension and an attempt to get the Taliban truly meeting their promises – essentially permitting a legitimate conditions-based withdrawal in the fall.”
Afghanistan Study Group (ASG), a bipartisan American experts’ group, in its February 2021 final report recommended “an immediate diplomatic effort to extend the current May 2021 withdrawal date in order to give the peace process sufficient time to produce an acceptable result”.
A perusal of such reports dating back to 2001 underscore the point that the US has been consistent in insisting that the minimum guarantee it wants to ensure in Afghanistan is the erosion of the terror threat from all outfits, particularly the Al-Qaeda.
The ASG report says: “The foremost interest is containing the activities of terrorist groups that remain active in Afghanistan and that could threaten the US homeland, principally Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)….A complete withdrawal of our troops would allow the threat to re-emerge.”
The same group in its 2010 avatar had argued that relentless American military intervention had nearly decapitated the Al-Qaeda resources, organisation and personnel and suggested that the chances of the organisation still daring to threaten the US are remote.
It noted: “In order for events in Afghanistan to enhance Al-Qaeda’s ability to threaten the US homeland, 1) The Taliban must seize control of a substantial portion of the country, 2) Al-Qaeda must relocate there in strength, and 3) It must build (more) facilities…to plan and train…(H)owever…the chances of all three together (happening) are very remote.”
The observations stood the test of time as months after that report came out, Osama bin Laden was killed inside Pakistan and much of his network was obliterated. Since then the remnant of the Al-Qaeda has been relentlessly pursued wherever it sought to take shelter.
The US, as it ponders the troop withdrawal question today, is not intent on leaving anything to doubt.
The 2021 ASG says: “In the long term, the United States must either maintain a counterterrorism force in Afghanistan or be assured that other verifiable mechanisms are in place to ensure that these groups cannot reconstitute.”
That, essentially, seems to be the American policy, short of a formal enunciation from the President, but the military and security logic behind the assessment is impeccable. The United States is using the same parameters for assessing the Afghan Taliban and how to take it on its word about not turning Afghanistan into a “caliphate” after the American troops eventually leave.
The US military has always believed the Taliban to be a “rural insurgency rooted primarily in Afghanistan’s Pashtun population” and yet, to walk the mile for peace, it saw no reason not to set up a “military-to-military channel” between the US and the Taliban to monitor compliance of the Doha Agreement, 2020.
The 2021 report indicates that the US is far from convinced about the ability of the Taliban to proactively contribute to the peace process by eschewing violence and distancing itself from the Al-Qaeda: “The military-to-military channel proved unable to effectively adjudicate claimed instances of violations of the agreement due in particular to the lack of objective information regarding who initiated attacks.”
What are the American support groups and military experts finally saying about the May 1 deadline? They are firmly behind the Biden line that American troop withdrawal must lead to cessation of the terror threat.
The Study Group echoes the sentiment in full: “…the Group concludes that the threat of a direct attack against the United States… from…al-Qaeda and ISKP…located in Afghanistan is for now limited by (US) military presence…During its deliberations, the Study Group was advised that a complete US withdrawal without a peace agreement would allow these groups to gradually rebuild their capabilities in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region such that they might be able to attack the US homeland within 18 to 36 months.”