‘Amrullah Saleh needs support immediately. The US isn’t going to provide that aid. Washington’s primary concern is evacuation of personnel, and it will not risk antagonizing the Taliban.’

 

Washington, D.C. : In this edition of “Indo-Pacific: Behind the Headlines” we speak with renowned global war-on-terror expert Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and editor of FDD’s groundbreaking publication on terrorism, Long War Journal.

Bill Roggio served in the US Army and New Jersey National Guard and was embedded with, among others, the US Marine Corps, US Army, and Iraqi forces in Iraq.

Q: What can be done to help Afghans who want to resist the Taliban?

A: There is a burgeoning—small but growing—resistance to the Taliban in Panjshir province, home of the famed late anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by Al Qaeda two days prior to 9/11. It’s being led by Amrullah Saleh. He was the Afghan Vice-President. He’s declared himself the “legitimate caretaker President” and, as per the Constitution, he’s right. He’s said he’s going to fight.

Saleh was also former head of the Afghanistan intelligence agency, the National Security Directorate (NDS), and he has a thick rolodex of people across the country—former special forces, intel, and government officials—who have surrendered or went in hiding, but who don’t want to live under Taliban control. He’s getting a lot of refugees from other parts of the country.

It’s going to be difficult to resupply him because Panjshir, where Saleh is located, is an island in a sea of Taliban—he’s going to need money, ammunition, food, fuel, international support, everything you need to keep people under siege going.

Saleh needs to secure his current base then expand outwards—it’s imperative he secures lifelines to outside. And there is some fertile ground for him to expand into. Obviously, it is different today than in the 1990s, but some of the ground is similar—there are areas in neighboring provinces where there are significant anti-Taliban elements. He needs to expand northwards where there is a traditional base of support, and then you can take the fight to the Taliban.

But Saleh needs support immediately. This is not something we can kick around for a couple of months. The US isn’t going to provide that aid. Washington’s primary concern is evacuation of personnel, and it will not risk antagonizing the Taliban. It’s practising servile diplomacy—submission to the Taliban. It will not support Saleh.

If there is anyone left who will support the Afghan people—and it is clear the US will not, and there are questions if others in the West will—they must support Saleh and the resistance. They are the last, best hope. The odds are long but given the stakes, they are odds worth playing.

We shouldn’t abandon the Afghan people… Again.

Q: There are reports of US forces leaving behind large amounts of weapons. How has the manner of the withdrawal affected the battlefield?

A: The US has unintentionally armed the Taliban with thousands of small arms, howitzers, armoured vehicles including Humvees, helicopters aircraft, and more. The Taliban do have the ability to run them and are good at cannibalizing them and keeping them running over time.

The Taliban never had an air force, and they do now. Either they co-opted Afghan military pilots or received training from Pakistan—both are likely true.

It gives them considerable combat power. It is bordering on criminal that as the Taliban were on the offensive, and overrunning bases, this stockpile of war material wasn’t destroyed as the US pulled out.

There were ways to conduct the withdrawal properly if the plan was to leave. What we needed to do was to say we are leaving and we are going to help you get there, but ultimately it’s up to you. Instead, there was nothing built in to help the Afghans transition.

It was like the President pulled the tablecloth out from under a 15-piece place setting and expected the pieces to stay on the table. Instead, everything shattered and ended up on the floor in a broken mess.

Americans may have wanted to leave—and it’s understandable because we’ve had three administrations telling us we should—but not like this. Americans don’t like to see allies treated in this manner and they don’t leave their friends behind. Americans don’t like being humiliated.

I get the desire to want to get out, but I don’t trust anyone to execute our policy anymore. Just look at the decision to abandon Bagram—now we are caught trying to evacuate from the chaos of Kabul airport.

Given the Taliban control access to the airport, it has essentially created a situation where the Taliban are holding potential evacuees as hostages. It’s a way to keep countries from engaging in a way that hurts the Taliban—for example launching air strikes to hurt their weapons systems or supporting Saleh. It’s making enemies of the Taliban think twice.

Q: How did this happen?

A: This is the result of years of US policies that misunderstood Afghanistan.

There was a decade plus of political leaders telling us Al Qaeda was defeated—which it wasn’t. That the Taliban would share power—which it wouldn’t. That leaving wouldn’t have an effect on America’s international standing—and now we have China and Russia whispering in the ears of US partners saying “look at what the US does to allies”.

Three administrations talked about leaving—all President Biden did that was different than his predecessors was he pulled the trigger and left. Trump put this in motion, but we don’t know if he would have followed through. We do know Biden followed though.

Biden has been quite clear the US mission in Afghanistan is over—clear in his callousness that he has no fortitude to support Afghan people in the fight against the Taliban. The US has taken care not to go find Americans and others who are in need in Kabul out of fear of antagonizing the Taliban—this should tell just how far the US has checked out of the war.

Q: What did you think of President Biden’s speech?

A: The Afghans lost upwards of 66,000 military and police to support our efforts to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorism. Our allies who sacrificed so much deserve better. The speech made me ashamed to be an American that day.

Sure, I can tell you things that were wrong with Afghanistan, but at the same time, we had a role in it. For example, we encouraged them to build the wrong government—they needed something more devolved, not a Western-style system.

Biden’s speech threw the Afghan military and President Ghani under the bus. Whatever we think of them, they are our allies, it was disgraceful and unbecoming for a US President to denigrate an ally in such a manner. It was horrific, our allies should be quivering right now. It’s already affecting how people see the US, including NATO partners.

Q: What are some of the implications for India?

A: I would expect the fight to move into Kashmir at some point—the question is when. Kashmir is one of the key hotspots in the global jihad and they are going to set their sights to it. Now that it’s won in Afghanistan against two superpowers, not just one, why not take a shot in Kashmir?

Pakistan would in some ways revel in it. Pakistan has learned that using jihadism as a foreign policy, without paying a significant price, works.

It goes beyond ISI—it’s military, it’s select political leaders, it’s parts of society.

The Chinese would also revel in any escalation between Pakistan and India. It’s to their advantage. The more the area is destabilized, the more Indians have to pour into the Pakistan frontier, the more space for China.

Q: What might this mean for the region?

A: I don’t think people understand the magnitude of this victory and how it will reverberate. What we are witnessing is a boon for global jihad.

Just in the immediate area, in the case of the ’Stans, they are very concerned about this victory crossing their borders. Al Qaeda and Taliban-affiliated groups from the region have fought in Afghanistan and have become proficient in local outreach, how to govern, how to fight, etc. If they cross the borders, many of the ’Stans are not equipped to deal with it.

Elsewhere in the region this will encourage Pakistan’s jihad foreign policy further afield, including Bangladesh.

Q: Does this affect the US’ place in world?

A: Is the US a superpower anymore? The Russians weren’t when they lost in Afghanistan.

If I’m the Russians, and I wanted Ukraine, I’d go for that.

If I were China, I’d launch on Taiwan today. I question whether this President would even move aircraft carriers to the region if there was an attack—and the fact that I have questions it means the Chinese should do it. That’s where we are.

Cleo Paskal is The Sunday Guardian Special Correspondent and a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.