Saleem Qamar Butt
Re-posturing in the CASA Region
Updated: Oct 18, 2021
The new challenge for the U.S. military and intelligence community at hands is to accomplish President Joe Biden’s vow to fight terrorists left behind alive and kicking after 20 years of war from “over the horizon” in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. However, what couldn’t be achieved with presence of large military forces form USA and NATO allies / ISAF supported by wide spread of military bases and very elaborate human and technical intelligence network both on the ground as well as in the air and outer space, how on earth the same can possibly be achieved without all that paraphernalia? Or it is just a ruse to create reasons for maintaining toe holds intact in the CASA( Central Asia South Asia) region to keep the pot simmering —'if I can’t win, my opponent must not win too’, a notion of big powers.
The U.S. CENTCOM is already shaken badly by the outcomes in its area of responsibility and most of the drones and main spying effort(including the CIA, NSA, Defense Intelligence Agency, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency), have already been dedicated to new theater of operation in the Indo-Pacific region. Nevertheless, Central Command, which will again be lumbered with the so-called main counterterrorism task in Afghanistan to take care of the projected AQ, ISIS, ISK and other perceived threats—will be heavily dependent on the Intelligence ( primarily CIA instead of preferred DIA) as well as on U.S. State Department for seeking cooperation from repeatedly bitten Pakistan and all Central Asian Republics. The forthcoming challenge in Afghanistan “is unlike anything we’ve seen in any other theater,” said an acquaintance Mr. Seth Jones, a counterterrorism expert and former U.S. defense official, who calls the Biden administration’s assertions about currently having over-the-horizon capability “fictitious.” However, those like Mr. Thomas Spahr, who still support the idea of staying engaged in the exited arena, are presenting the arguments that policymakers should remain focused on one crucial fact: terrorist groups in Afghanistan now have greater freedom to operate. The old hawks suggest that to monitor this threat, Washington should re-posture its intelligence assets in the region. Otherwise, its ability to mitigate the terrorist threat through over-the-horizon strikes or other means will be substantially degraded. To effectively re-posture, the United States and its allies should use diplomacy and economic incentives to gain basing rights in the region that will enable intelligence collection. According to the current U.S. projected intelligence estimate, the CIA counts 14 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. In June 2021, the United Nations Sanctions Monitoring Team assessed that much of the al-Qaeda leadership resides in Afghanistan and is aligned with the Taliban. Finally, the Aug. 26 attack that killed 13 Americans is evidence that the Islamic State is still viable. America’s Aug. 29 strike on civilians in Kabul who were misidentified as members of the Islamic State also demonstrated the difficulty the United States will have keeping international terrorists at bay without a presence in the country. Even when it had thousands of troops on the ground in Afghanistan, CENTCOM did a poor job of differentiating terrorists from innocents, according to civilian organizations that closely tracked those efforts, and often it did not even bother to investigate civilian deaths.
Despite this, some commentators are optimistic that Washington can still maintain awareness of terrorist threats without a presence in Afghanistan. However, absent a significant change in strategy, this optimism may prove dangerous. For example, some have asked why the United States cannot simply continue to collect human intelligence through its source network built over the last 20 years. The answer by American intelligence experts is that without a presence in Afghanistan, running a reliable human intelligence network is difficult. Face-to-face conversations now require sending U.S. agents covertly into Afghanistan or having sources transit to a neighboring country. Moreover, many of the Afghans with whom the United States has relationships have left or are hiding from the Taliban. Finally, the degradation of the other intelligence disciplines makes it challenging to validate source reporting. For example, previously the United States could use imagery or signal intercepts from aircraft to confirm that a source was telling the truth or had traveled to a location. It is much harder to do that now. And what about the U.S. airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) fleet? Where will the United States launch and recover these aircraft from? Pakistan or any Central Asian Republic is unlikely to oblige without a nod from China and Russia. It was reported in July 2021 that Russian President Vladimir Putin hinted to U.S. President Joseph Biden that he might allow intelligence assets back into the Central Asian states in exchange for information-sharing. But at what political cost?
During the just concluded testimonies in the American Congress by the U.S. secretary defence, Chairman JCSC and Commander CENTCOM, the admission of strategic failure by the military establishment was in fact acknowledgement of ‘The limits of hard power’ that has vainly but continually remained mainstay of American foreign policy since 1950s. However, the American deep state does not seem to have learnt the right lessons from a series of failures in various theaters of operations like Koreas, Vietnam, the Middle East and Afghanistan---- not to mention misadventures in the Latin America. Ironically, the deep state remains fixated with repeatedly tried recipes of planting moles, imbedding trojan horses, seeking military bases, recruiting and running proxies and covert networks, cyber terrorism, creating law and order situation in targeted countries and seeking regime changes through various colours of revolutions and coercive use of IMF, World Bank, FATF, unethical direct and indirect sanctions, and misuse of UNO as a rubber stamp as and when required. That is what is once again being tried in the derelict Afghanistan and ever scapegoated Pakistan through a bill moved by 22 opposition Republican senators( September 2021)….an attempt to prove Henry Kissinger right that ‘it is dangerous to be enemy of USA, but fatal to be a friend’. Therefore, the U.S. hawkish administration will try to keep treating Pakistan with the same old ‘carrot and stick policy’, laden with incentives, threats of sanctions, waivers etc.
Apropos, the U.S. military & intelligence community is bound to adapt its strategy for the purported mission of hunting the terrorists who could not be eliminated in the longest American War in Afghanistan by attempting to reposition existing assets and using diplomacy to develop new ones. This could require returning some of the long-range collection platforms to Central Command. Besides, shifting emphasis to diplomatic representation in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan would improve situational awareness. For that, American diplomats will attempt to induce Afghanistan’s neighbours like Pakistan, CARs and even India to allow U.S. bases for intelligence collection. USA will be given bad advice again to further increase diplomatic and economic leverage with Pakistan as the U.S. no longer relies on Pakistani ground routes to support U.S. troops. However, in addition to military bases, increased covert and intelligence footprints, Pakistan will be asked to at least keep allowing an Air Corridor/ boulevard to the USA with enhanced intelligence cooperation. As a less preferred option, the United States will try to seek new air bases in Central Asia, which means working with Russia. India may be asked by the U.S. to influence Russia and the Central Asian States to help with basing rights. The United States is bound to work closely with India and its European allies (with focus on five eyes) that bring collection capability and shared concerns about terrorists and drugs emanating from Afghanistan. Americans may use the comparatively better chances of acceptance of Europeans diplomacy and economic incentives to Taliban besides using Afghanistan neighbouring countries. In nutshell, American effort to adapt her diplomatic, military and intelligence efforts in Afghanistan is likely to include a heavy dose of diplomacy and economic incentives throughout the region to pave the way for positioning intelligence resources. Last but not least, Pakistan and all regional countries must not forget what I concluded in, “Afghanistan: Mission Unaccomplished”---' While for the American political elite strategic failure to ruin Chinese BRI project or at least check mate China in Asia-Pacific, South-Asia and Central- Asia by betting on a lame horse India and weaning it away from Russia may be of great concern; yet for the U.S. deep state nipping Iran’s nuclear ambitions in the bud and above all denuclearization of Pakistan by any means remains an unfinished and priority agenda on behest of Zionist lobby. Hence, the American Deep State is likely to prevail upon President Joe Biden’s administration to exert even more pressure on Pakistan to cover up their failure in Afghanistan on all fronts, to hide their mega corruption and follow up both on failed as well as incomplete malicious agenda. While Pakistan Armed Forces and Intelligence Services are well poised to defeat the ever evolving threats both from outside as well as from inside, the Government of Pakistan may also like to pay some heed to suggestions proffered in “Pak-US Relations: How to Bridge the Widening Gap” and “Lessons from Afghanistan Conundrum”, in order to counter hostile intelligence agencies’ treacherous moves through proactive diplomacy. As for the USA and close allies, there is now, perhaps, an opportunity to begin to end this impasse. Once attention shifts from tactical errors made in the closing weeks of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan to the drifting purpose and self-delusion of the preceding 20 years, the shock of failure in America’s longest war may provide an open moment to reexamine the lengthy list of earlier interventions and to reconsider U.S. foreign policy in the post–Cold War era more broadly.
4th October 2021