August 9, 2022

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Putin’s Calculated Afghanistan Play


Robert Dannenberg, Former Senior CIA Officer

Cipher Brief Expert Rob Dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, the place he served in a number of senior management positions, together with chief of operations for the Counterterrorism Center, chief of the Central Eurasia Division and chief of the CIA’s Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Board of Advisors to the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center and is a senior fellow on the GWU Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He is now an impartial advisor on geopolitical and safety threat, after serving because the managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of International Security Affairs at BP.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — The photographs from Kabul are demoralizing and miserable—until you’re sitting within the Kremlin, the place they’re definitely being considered in a fairly totally different mild. Probably one thing near giddiness and glee.

From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, this probably reinforces his view that President Joe Biden and his nationwide safety group are weak and naïve.  ‘This is Obama’s third time period’, Putin should be considering. And in fact, the pictures of US helicopters desperately making an attempt to evacuate 1000’s from Kabul additionally resonate in Kiev, Tbilisi, and doubtless Tallinn, Riga, and Vilnius and past—suppose Taipei.  The appalling mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan could have penalties that can have an effect on American credibility globally and linger properly past the tip of Biden’s presidency.

A primary order consequence issues Russia.

It is extremely probably there was sensible cooperation between the Kremlin and the Taliban within the preparation for the American withdrawal and this will have included direct help to Taliban forces. We don’t have to revisit the narrative of Russian bounties for lifeless American troopers in Afghanistan, however the proof of Russian energetic engagement with the Taliban in latest months is manifest and the actual fact the Russian embassy in Kabul is at present protected by Taliban fighters is important.

For each Russia and the Taliban there was a transparent shared strategic goal: Get the Americans and their allies out of Afghanistan and ideally in probably the most humiliating style potential.  The Russian-Taliban honeymoon could not final lengthy, however for the second it has served either side properly.

For over a decade and a half of his tenure as Russia’s president, Putin has been preaching the gospel you could’t belief the Americans to again you in the long term or when the chips are down, however you’ll be able to rely on the Russia he leads (suppose the Russian intervention in Syria and help for Assad or their intervention—whether or not acknowledged or not—in Libya on the aspect of Khalifa Haftar amongst different examples). This messaging is essential in present occasions and reinforces Putin’s narrative about the decline of the West and the waning relevance of western liberal programs of governance.

In latest years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has picked up the trumpet to echo this message that American energy is in decline and that American safety ensures can’t be relied on in East Asia and past.

Putin has been Russia’s Czar for over 20 years with out significant interruption and is prone to stay so for the foreseeable future. He has seen US Presidents come and go and he has been fast to dimension them up and modify his strikes accordingly. He was genuinely petrified of what George W. Bush would possibly do within the speedy aftermath of 9/11 and the velocity and efficacy of the US response made a deep impression on him.  He adjusted his strategy to the US to one among companion and ally towards Islamic extremism (Putin was additionally busy consolidating his management over the Russian Federation within the speedy post-Yeltsin interval).

Putin additionally sized up then-President Barack Obama after Obama’s failure to behave when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blithely crossed the “no use of chemical weapons” pink line.  That opened the door for the annexation of Crimea in addition to the Russian navy intervention in Syria (and later Libya). Joe Biden was Vice President on the time. Putin probably has an excellent e book on Joe Biden and was fairly assured of what the tip consequence for the US in Afghanistan would appear like.  Putin could actually have a higher really feel for Joe Biden than many notice, if any of the Hunter Biden materials is true.  One chief’s evaluation of one other, issues in geopolitical relations. Putin has a excessive degree of confidence in his skill to learn his worldwide opposition.

As just lately as July 2021 President Biden stated, “There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the US embassy in Afghanistan.”  He went on so as to add, “The likelihood there’s going to be the Taliban overrunning everything and owning the whole country is highly unlikely.”  President Biden made these statements understanding completely or ought to have recognized—from intelligence briefings and skilled commentary—in addition to historic precedent—that when the US broadcasts a withdrawal of forces with a tough deadline, on this case 9/11, our adversaries use the time to arrange for his or her offensive navy motion. Our Afghan allies knew this as properly and ready accordingly.  Now the Taliban will have fun the 20 th anniversary of the September 11 assaults within the US embassy in Kabul, most likely with their ISIS and Al Qaeda buddies as honored visitors.  If you suppose the movies from Afghanistan have been troubling thus far, simply anticipate the anniversary celebrations.

Perhaps of extra close to time period geopolitical significance, Putin will use the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to help a story that Russia must defend its pursuits from the unfold of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan by strengthening “security and counterterrorism” cooperation with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. Does anybody need an excuse to get – and preserve – these pesky Americans out of Central Asia and begin rebuilding that nook of the Soviet Union?

Putin’s use of terrorism threat as justification for navy motion is well-rehearsed and goes again to the Moscow condo bombings (which the FSB virtually definitely organized) in September 1999, which Putin used each to consolidate political energy and to justify the brutal navy marketing campaign in Chechnya. Putin is conscious about the dangers of Islamic extremism spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia, the Caucasus, and into the Russian Federation. In truth, Russian, Uzbek, and Tajik troops carried out workout routines in July, which seem to have been designed to arrange to reply to cross border incursions from Afghanistan. This is just step one in his plan for consolidation of Russian energy and affect in Central Asia and the Caucasus.


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Some would possibly ask – given the danger of the unfold of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan to the Russian Federation – why would Putin would need to companion with the Taliban?  Those who ask this query are misunderstanding the depth of Putin’s enmity towards the United States and the West and every little thing for which we stand.  Putin views the world as a “zero sum” sport.  What hurts the US should serve Russia’s pursuits. The debacle in Afghanistan clearly qualifies. A brief-term cope with the Taliban is a threat with taking in Putin’s thoughts.  Putin performs on the superpower chessboard utilizing the one instruments he has at hand, navy energy, cyber and disinformation functionality and US ineptitude and lack of strategic thought.  He has taken intelligent benefit of President Trump’s 4 years of inconsiderate estrangement of US allies all over the world.

Beyond the propaganda worth and regional leverage our withdrawal has given adversaries like Russia and China, there may be the influence of our withdrawal on the numerous nations amongst our allies who contributed to the Afghanistan mission. The photographs of Afghans clinging to a departing US Air Force C-17 and falling to their deaths is not going to fade simply. How simple will it’s to assemble their help after we inevitably need to go in once more to cope with a resurgent Al Qaeda, a globally bold Taliban, or an much more harmful embedded ISIS within the hills of Afghanistan?

We must also contemplate the influence on Pakistan.  Pakistan has nurtured Islamic extremism in Afghanistan for many years.  While part of the Pakistani safety institution partnered with the US successfully after 9/11, different components concurrently had been nurturing relations with extremists together with the Taliban. The “Great Game” remains to be being performed in that a part of the world, and neither the Pakistanis, nor the Indians or Chinese have forgotten it.

Pakistan additionally nonetheless definitely chafes from the US raid to kill bin Ladin in Abbottabad a bit of over ten years in the past.  One wonders if the waning of US affect in Islamabad has opened the door for Islamic extremists to enter the safety institution there. Pakistan is a nuclear energy and has lately, elevated its growth of tactical nuclear weapons. Does the Taliban now have a path to nuclear weapons?  This is a vital query and it’s reply casts a shadow over our withdrawal from Afghanistan.

The Biden Administration, for all its vaunted claims of “return to competence” in Washington, has fallen flat in its first severe problem. One might argue that Biden’s capitulation on Nord Stream 2 and Putin’s mocking rejection in Geneva of expenses of US election interference and cyberattacks on the US, foretold the debacle in Afghanistan. The problem for the US now shall be to handle the airlift of these Afghans who had been prepared to companion with the US and punctiliously search for alternatives to rebuild the credibility of US safety ensures all over the world.

Taiwan and South Korea would appear good locations to begin.

At the identical time, we have to acknowledge that Afghanistan will as soon as once more turn out to be the coaching floor for individuals who hope to copy 9/11 assaults on the US. A robust and strong intelligence functionality shall be important in mitigating that threat.

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