Afghanistan’s Power Vacuum

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S1: We’ve got breaking news for you from Afghanistan, where there are significant casualties, including some Americans from a suicide attack outside the country’s main airport in Kabul.

S2: This happened about one last Thursday. An attack at Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul killed 13 American service members and scores of Afghan civilians. It was terrible and shocking, but for people who are closely following the on the ground situation in Afghanistan, the question in the days leading up to the attack wasn’t whether something like this would happen, but just when and how. What made you so sure that this attack was coming?

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S3: I don’t know. Maybe gut instinct. Having studied this for two decades.

S2: Colin Clarke is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm. He spent his career observing the behavior of terrorist networks, understanding the players and trying to anticipate what they’ll do next.

S3: A colleague and friend of mine named Charlie Winter, who’s a researcher, had tweeted out, I think the maybe the morning of when Wednesday morning when the initial warnings were offered that ISIS, Khorasan Province had gone quiet for about 11 days after a pretty high operational tempo, and they completely dropped off. And he said, this seems odd. And I thought to myself, it sure does. Unless you were planning for something quite big.

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S2: ISIS, Khorasan or Isis-k immediately claimed credit for the airport attack. The group is an Afghan offshoot of the Isis-k organization that we’re familiar with, the one that terrorized Iraq and Syria,

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S3: and they achieve their objectives. They slaughtered civilians, which is what ISIS looks to do. I mean, nothing is beyond the pale for this group.

S2: For Colin, a tragedy like this was a predictable result of the way we’ve executed our withdrawal from Afghanistan. And it might be a harbinger for what’s coming next. Is this pullout from Afghanistan going the way you thought it would?

S3: Unfortunately, it is. My concern as a counterterrorism expert is I look at Afghanistan and I see shades of Iraq. I see the US pulling out based on a calendar in 2011 and three years later, the Islamic State declaring a caliphate in Iraq and Syria. That’s my concern. I don’t think Isis-k will ever get that strong in Afghanistan. But I do think Afghanistan has the potential to become a jihadi proteau state and an a safe haven and sanctuary for violent extremists of all stripes. And you know what? That’s the same conversation I was having 20 years ago. And it’s kind of uncanny to think that we’re we’re back there

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S2: today on the show as the U.S. wraps up its withdrawal and evacuation efforts in Afghanistan, which groups are vying to fill the vacuum? And as we watch the chaos unfold, what kind of outcomes should we be hoping for from afar? I’m Seth Stevenson filling in for Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? We’ll be back in a moment. For 20 years, U.S. forces in Afghanistan attempted to hold the Taliban at bay, both to eliminate the safe harbor they’d created for other terrorist organizations and to protect the Afghan people from their oppressive rule. But as soon as the U.S. withdrawal neared its conclusion this summer, the Taliban swept across the country and seized power with a speed that surprised a lot of observers. And the next question became, how would the Taliban govern? Are they even capable of governing?

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S3: The Taliban have been effective insurgents. No question they won this war. But can they govern? Do they have the bandwidth to run a country? And if you’ve noticed, the people leaving Afghanistan are people that are educated and well-connected. There’s major brain drain going on. So, you know, technocrats and and others, you know, I have my doubts that the Taliban is capable of running the country. And frankly, I think that’s what the administration is banking on. I think that they are that they’re hoping that Taliban, because of that, will have to compromise and work with other groups and ultimately get to some kind of power sharing arrangement in Afghanistan. But the Taliban doesn’t strike me as a group that really, you know, is amenable to sharing power.

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S2: As things stand, there’s uncertainty over how much control the Taliban has in Afghanistan. Isis-k and even more hard-line rival of the Taliban is one of the groups hoping to exploit that uncertainty. It’s a group that was formed as the original Isis-k organization was losing its foothold in Iraq and Syria

S3: in response to aggressive Western, particularly U.S. counterterrorism efforts. These groups decentralized. And so they relieve some of the pressure off the core. And if you look at where the Islamic State is active or has been active, you’re talking about Libya, you’re talking about West Africa in the Sahel, the Philippines. And certainly Afghanistan is another node in that in that network. This is something I discussed in detail in my book after the Caliphate. And at the time, you know, the whole point of the book was, well, what comes next? ISIS lost its last territory in Begoo Syria in the spring of twenty nineteen. What happens after this? And identified Isis-k as one of the most potent ISIS affiliates and a group to be concerned about going forward. Frankly, it was rather obvious to anyone that follows this that this was a group to be concerned about and it was a group that was going to give us problems in the future.

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S2: Reports suggest that this group was behind an attack on a maternity ward last year. When I read that, I just all I can think is why on earth would anyone attack a maternity ward? What does that get anyone?

S3: I’ll tell you what what the point of that is. And it’s something, you know. Every single day I wake up and I read and I write and I talk about terrorism. So there’s a bit of you become callous to this. Right? And this is the things we look at. I still think about that attack on a regular basis because, you know, what could possibly drive someone to, you know, such depravity. And what the point of that is, is one to show is to outbid their enemies, to say, look, we’re willing to do whatever it takes, even the most egregious, wanton violence. We’ll do that

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S2: when we talk about Isis-k. How big is it and what kinds of backgrounds do these fighters come from?

S3: So, you know, the U.N. has has put out estimates. Fifteen hundred to twenty two hundred fighters. You know, this is a group that has it’s comprised of battle hardened fighters, you know, some from other extremist groups in Pakistan, also highly sectarian. And my main concern is that with an event like we saw at the airport, such a high profile terrorist attack that’s intended to draw recruits to the organization, say, look, we’re the we’re going to be the winning horse here. Come join our side.

S2: How powerful recruitment and sort of marketing effort is an attack like this?

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S3: Tremendous. I mean, every single, you know, major media outlet is covering this and will be for days. This is something that’s going to be packaged into propaganda by the Islamic State. They’ve already come out and claimed responsibility for the attack. So I am concerned about an influx of foreign fighters into Afghanistan to reinforce the ranks of Isis-k. So these numbers could grow. If you look at the broader pool of support, it could be in the thousands still not nearly as powerful as the Taliban, but a force to be reckoned with and a group that has the potential to play spoiler in Afghanistan and conduct attacks like this with impunity

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S2: beyond building itself and growing and getting these recruits. What’s the larger goal of Isis-k now that the U.S. has pulled out and the Taliban in control?

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S3: I think their goals are several fold. I think Isis-k wants to embarrass the Taliban and humiliate them and show Afghan civilians that the Taliban might have been an effective insurgent force. But they’re not capable of governing the country. And so attacks like this serve that goal, I think, over the long term. A group like this, just like the core group in Iraq and Syria, is going to look to carve out a piece of territory and they’re going to look to govern it. And I don’t think we’re ever going to see a situation akin to what we saw in Iraq and Syria, where you had, you know, 40 thousand foreign fighters from one hundred and ten different countries and a group controlling territory the size of Great Britain. Moreover, even within Afghanistan, Taliban is the top dog. Taliban and their allies will be able to militarily keep their foot on the neck of ISIS. They just have quantitatively and qualitatively an advantage in that regard. So I don’t think Isis-k is ever going to usurp the Taliban, but they’re also not going to be they’re not going to go away without a fight.

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S2: The focus is on Isis-k right now because of this attack, but that you’ve said that al-Qaida is also an emerging threat there. What’s the web of relationships between the and al-Qaida, Isis-k and other groups in Afghanistan?

S3: So the Taliban, they’re very, very closely aligned with al-Qaida, not only al-Qaida core, al-Qaida central, which has long been based in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but al-Qaida affiliates like al-Qaida in the Indian subcontinent. They’re all on one side. Isis-k is on the other. And if there’s any connective tissue or sinew between these groups, it’s probably the Haqqani network. The Haqqani network is a part of the Taliban. It’s a group of jihadis going all the way back to the Osama bin Laden years in Afghanistan, but major powerbrokers in Afghanistan, highly capable network that is responsible for a lot of the attacks in Kabul. You know, there’s been, you know, jihadists that have fought on multiple sides of this conflict at various points. So it’s just a real kitchen sink of jihadi groups and terrorist groups.

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S2: Should we be rooting for any I breedings are not the right word, but should we be rooting for any of these particular groups? Is there a lesser of evils either in terms of what it means for the United States or what it means for a regular person living in Afghanistan?

S3: No, I mean, we’ve we’ve done that in the past, right. We rooted for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan against the Soviets. And look where it got us. So, you know, it often does come down to pick your poison, these conflicts. And we’ve picked our poison before and it’s come back to haunt us. So the worrisome part to me is for the United States, the worst scenario would be if these groups had some kind of rapprochement. If Isis-k somehow came to terms with the Taliban and their jihadist allies and they began working together, I mean, then you’re talking about essentially a Jihadi Proteau state with the potential to be more problematic than what we dealt with pre 9/11.

S2: Yeah. In The New York Times, a former Afghan security official said that Afghanistan will become like Las Vegas for terrorists, which is an amazing thing to say. Do you see it that way?

S3: You know, they say about Vegas, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, right. What happens in Afghanistan is not going to stay in Afghanistan. It’s actually going to reverberate throughout the region. There’s going to be spillover violence. And the worst case scenario is that what happens in Afghanistan could affect the US homeland once again, as it did 20 years ago. So, you know, I’m not trying to be a fear monger here. I’m trying to think through what potentially could happen. And I think there’s a lot to be concerned about.

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S2: More with Colin Clarke when we come back. Colin Clarke says the decision to pull out of Afghanistan was never going to come without tradeoffs. As we’ve seen in the past couple of weeks, some of those trade offs are deeply painful.

S3: There are no good options. It’s not like there was this clear, obvious win strategy that the president just neglected. We’ve never had a strategy. And this is a bit of a cliche. You’ve probably heard this before. People say, well, we haven’t fought a 20 year war in Afghanistan. We’ve fought a series of twenty one year wars. It’s almost like we’re always starting over.

S2: Some of the risks as we leave Afghanistan are less about Afghanistan itself and more about other countries. In some cases, our rivals who look to use this fluid situation to advance their own interests.

S3: The guys in the Beltway right now is something called great power competition. It’s jihadi terrorism is a nuisance, but it’s not an existential threat. We need to shift our resources, our energy and attention to dealing with China, Russia, Iran, North Korea and other near peer adversaries. The problem is, in reality, we need to do both right where the United States. We need to walk and chew gum at the same time. The way it’s been framed is this binary and frankly false dichotomy of we can only do counterterrorism where great power competition. China is the real threat in the future. We need to get our act together. The longer we stay in Afghanistan, the more time, resources, blood, treasure, we’re spilling. Now, people say Afghanistan is a great power competition because with the United States leaving the Iranians, the Russians, the Chinese, the Pakistanis, the Turks, the Indians, everyone’s moving into, they’re going to cultivate their own proxies and they’re going to look to exert influence in that country. We’re going to have very little leverage. We’ve just been the ones that spent 20 years there and we’re walking away with next to nothing. And so that’s concerning to me. You know, there are folks that think, be careful what you wish for. You just might get it. And what I mean by that is they’re hoping that the Russians and the Chinese get involved in the quagmire of Afghanistan like we did, and that it drains them the way that it’s trained us.

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S2: What does this attack do you in terms of how other countries in the region or other powers think about Afghanistan?

S3: I think, you know, it depends on the individual country, I think some countries are circling over like a vulture, right, looking to feast on a carcass. They’re looking to get access to mineral wealth. They’re looking to develop potentially proxy forces that could be used in other conflicts. So how about Pakistan? What do they see when they look at Afghanistan? Well, they see the potential to use terrorist and insurgent groups and other violent non-state actors. One day against India in Kashmir, that’s always been their game. The long game, right. Saving these guys for a rainy day. You know, the Chinese have the Chinese are primarily driven by economic concerns. You know, the Russians have potential blowback from Chechens. There’s so many different scenarios here. What I foresee is a really muddled situation, a very unstable situation. And the more actors you have in a civil war, both states and non-state, the longer that civil war lasts.

S2: President Biden’s press conference, he said again that pulling out of Afghanistan is the right thing to do. He reiterated that. Is there any chance that we get drawn back in?

S3: I don’t think so. I don’t think under this administration in the long term, I think the administration is banking on that. This is a conflict that can be contained in Afghanistan that never say never. But I think the administration is really trying to extricate the United States from this conflict. You know, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I think in this situation. So I do have some sympathy for them, for the president’s position, because if you pull out right, you’re going to be criticized for making the US less safe. And if you now reverse course and go back, then you’re a flip flopper or you’re playing into the hands of terrorists who want us to stay there.

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S2: We invaded Afghanistan in 2001 because it was an unstable country run by the Taliban that was creating space for terrorist groups to organize. And now, 20 years later, Afghanistan’s seems to be in an unstable country run by the Taliban with opportunities for terrorist groups. Are you feeling deja vu?

S3: A hundred percent. Yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, we’ve we’ve spent, you know, countless sums of money and and lost soldiers to replace the Taliban with the Taliban. It’s also a bit of a gut punch for us. The US role in the world. It makes me think about the utility of military force. How useful is hard power these days when we can’t defeat an insurgent group? You know, we’re the we’re the undisputed, most powerful military in the world. We spend more money than the next X amount of countries combined. Right. And what is it gotten us?

S2: Are we truly back to square one in Afghanistan, right, right back where we started 20 years ago? Or what, if anything, is different now than it was then?

S3: No, I think it would be unfair to say that we’re back to square one, because al-Qaida is significantly diminished from from what it was. I mean, we’ve spent 20 years hollowing that organization out. That said, they’re you know, they have the capability to to regenerate now, but they’re nowhere near as dangerous as as they were. And our capabilities are are much better, our ability to protect the homeland and our ability to hunt individuals wherever they are in the world. So it is different. And I see that point to the president. My concern is going forward. Right. Does that change? And if it does, how quickly does it change? So so that’s that’s my concern. Again, I don’t I agree. Terrorism is not an existential threat, but it’s not one that we can ignore either. And just walk away from that. That hasn’t worked in the past. It’s always come back to haunt us.

S2: Colin Clarke, thanks for joining us.

S3: Thanks so much for having me today.

S2: Colin Clarke is the director of policy and research at the Soufan Group. And that’s the show. What next is produced by Carmel Delshad Mary Wilson Danielle Hewitt. Ilana Schwartz and Davis Lante, Allison Benedict and Alicia Montgomery lead the way. And I’m Seth Stevenson, filling in for Mary Harris. You can find me on Twitter. I’m at Stephensen, Seth. We’ll be back in your feed’s tomorrow.