August 19, 2022

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Wars usually are not Won by Evacuations


Mark Kelton, Former Deputy Director, CIA’s Counterintelligence, National Clandestine Service

Cipher Brief Expert Mark Kelton is a retired senior Central Intelligence Agency govt with 34 years of expertise in intelligence operations. Before retiring, he served as CIA’s Deputy Director for Counterintelligence.  He is a associate on the FiveEyes Group and is Board Chair of Spookstock, a charity that advantages the CIA Memorial Foundation, the Special Operations Warrior Foundation and the Defense Intelligence Memorial Foundation.

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE — Winston Churchill’s 04 June 1940 speech through which he vowed that he and his countrymen would “fight on the beaches “and would “never surrender” within the face of a seemingly inevitable Nazi invasion is rightly famend as maybe historical past’s most well-known handle by a wartime chief.  Less well-known, nonetheless, is the cautionary tone the brand new Prime Minister struck in that very same look earlier than the House of Commons, as he sought to mood the enjoyment and reduction engendered by the seemingly miraculous extraction of the British military from the seashores of Dunkirk.  “We must,” Churchill warned, “be very careful not to assign to this deliverance the attributes of a victory.”  “Wars” he admonished, “are not won by evacuations.”

Shortly earlier than the 2011 Abbottabad operation that killed Osama bin Laden, I used to be requested by my HQ, my views on mounting an assault on the goal we knew as Abbottabad Compound 1, (AC1) provided that we weren’t positive it sheltered the terrorist chief.  After expressing my 95% confidence that the Al Qaeda (AQ) chief was actually, there, I allegorically added that we should strike as ‘you cannot leave Hitler in his bunker and end the war’.  I used to be fortuitously, proper in my evaluation that the assassin of so many innocents was current inside AC1.  Sadly, nonetheless, his demise didn’t deliver our conflict with radical Islamic terrorism to a conclusion.  As was the case after Dunkirk, our enemy was unwilling to give up the sphere or to restrict his unbounded conflict goals.

Likewise, we should not have any expectation that the withdrawal of our forces from the Afghan theater of fight indicators an finish to the battle with terrorists who began that conflict by attacking us on September 11, 2001.  We can not unilaterally declare an finish to the War on Terror by leaving Afghanistan – nonetheless a lot we’d want to take action – for the quite simple cause that our enemies don’t share that need.  As former Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta put it, “I understand that we’re trying to get our troops out of there, but the bottom line is, we can leave a battlefield, but we can’t leave the war on terrorism, which still is a threat to our security.”

The Taliban parading of the American-made weapons and accoutrements of their defeated foes was, in a fashion akin to that of historical Rome, meant not solely to have a good time victory.  It was additionally meant to humiliate the vanquished.   Such triumphal demonstrations – and what can be a galling celebration of the anniversary of 9/11 as their very own vacation to observe – will evoke enthusiastic responses from Islamic extremists and can draw many new adherents to the trigger that lies on the core of Taliban legitimacy and perception.

As was the case once we left Iraq and later had to return into the area to crush the ISIS Caliphate that metastasized within the wake of our departure, there’s each prospect that the Taliban’s success will breathe new life into Islamic extremist teams.  And there isn’t a cause to consider that the “new” and now rather more closely armed Taliban – a corporation that refused to interrupt with AQ over the course of a brutal twenty-year battle, can be any much less receptive to working with Islamic terror teams than had been their pre-9/11 forebears.


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“We are going to have to maintain very, very intense  levels of indicators and warnings and observstion and ISR [Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance] over that entire region to monitor potential terrorist threats”, mentioned Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Mark Milley in a latest interview, including it is not going to be straightforward.

As CIA Director William Burns mentioned throughout Senate testimony in April, “Our ability to keep (the) threat…in check in Afghanistan from either al Qaeda or ISIS…has benefited greatly from the presence of U.S. and coalition militaries on the ground and in the air fueled by intelligence provided by the CIA and our other intelligence partners.” With the withdrawal of the American navy, Burns mentioned, “the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish.”

Much mentioned ‘over the horizon’ intelligence assortment in opposition to Afghan terror targets is not going to fill the void left by the lack of our skill to observe and assault terrorist targets from in-country bases.  With Afghanistan bordered by international locations unlikely to be keen to host a big US presence, intelligence assortment missions will now should be launched from bases properly past the horizon with all that means for the amount, high quality and timeliness of intelligence collected.  Such operations can even be commensurately costlier and tough to mount.  Moreover, the intimate information of our adversaries that we’ve painstakingly constructed over the course of almost 20 years on the bottom, started ageing the second we departed Afghanistan.  Absent an intelligence presence on the bottom, our skill to gather on terrorist teams working in and from that nation will solely degrade additional as time goes on.

After acknowledging that we “could see a resurgence of terrorism out of the region in the coming 12-36 months”, Milley went on that we are going to, “as opportunities present themselves… have to continue to conduct strike operations if there’s a threat to the United States.”  However, as our pre-9/11 expertise confirmed, such distant strikes can delay our terrorist enemies’ plans, however is not going to deter them from their intent to strike the US homeland.

As such, Secretary Panetta is undoubtedly appropriate in his conclusion that US involvement in Afghanistan just isn’t over.  “We’re going to have to go back in to get ISIS,” Panetta mentioned.  “We’re probably going to have to go back in when al-Qaeda resurrects itself, as they will, with this Taliban.”  And, as was the case with our operations to destroy ISIS’s so-called Caliphate after we precipitously left Iraq, there might be little doubt that ought to we’ve to return into Afghanistan, our activity can be enormously difficult by the way through which we left that nation, abandoning our allies and bases there.


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The US withdrawal from Afghanistan may have profound geo-strategic implications for America’s place within the area and on this planet.  Our Chinese, Russian and Iranian adversaries will seize the chance to fill the void left within the wake of our departure.

The Taliban has already indicated it’ll interact with China, which covets Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.  Entry right into a transactional relationship with the cash-strapped Taliban regime and granting entry to Afghan mineral assets – and presumably use of Bagram Air Base – in trade for monetary support and Chinese help for the Taliban in worldwide organizations would swimsuit Beijing, which might evince no considerations about human rights and the like.

For their half, Central Asian international locations will look away from Washington and ever extra in direction of their previous masters in Moscow and a rising China to make sure their safety and financial well-being.   Islamabad, whereas publicly celebrating the victory of their Taliban proxies and its function in guiding it, should on the similar time fear that the extremism embodied by the victors will achieve renewed traction past its frontier provinces with all that means for the safety of the Pakistani state.

Caught abruptly by Washington’s choice to go away and the conduct of the withdrawal, even our closest and oldest allies are questioning US resolve.  They will certainly suppose twice earlier than acceding to any future US request to affix in joint operations.  Our choice to give up Afghanistan, and its messy execution, can even evoke questions in regards to the validity of American assurances to different nations below menace from aggressors.  It is not going to have been misplaced on them that the withdrawal of American air, intelligence, planning experience and logistical help ensured the collapse of an Afghan Army that was depending on the US.

Our adversaries, too, will see the chaotic nature of our departure in addition to the abandonment of Americans, allied residents and Afghans to unsure fates as indicators of weak point and enfeeblement.   This risk is especially harmful in that they may seize this second of US distraction to have interaction in opportunistic adventurism that would embrace motion by China in opposition to Taiwan; a Russian try to resolve its deadlock with Ukraine forcibly; stepped-up Iranian prosecution of its proxy conflict with Israel; or an extra ramping up by North Korea of its nuclear program.  Any such eventuality would drive the US to reply vigorously or danger additional erosion of its worldwide credibility.

Finally, the prices concerned in remotely monitoring and making an attempt to discourage threats emanating from a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan imply that we are going to be unable to shift intelligence and navy assets away from the War on Terror to confront the menace posed by peer opponents to the diploma we had hoped.

Aristotle is claimed to have pronounced, “You will never do anything in this world without courage. It is the greatest quality of the mind next to honor.”  Likewise, the braveness proven by so many – and the heroic conduct of US navy and CIA personnel specifically – in looking for to extract American residents from Afghanistan and to honor our obligations to Afghans who labored and fought alongside us for thus lengthy, can not obviate the dishonor attendant to having left so many behind.  Bloody Taliban outrages and reprisals in opposition to the latter are a certainty.

It is not going to be lengthy earlier than Kabul’s new rulers acknowledge that the Americans now below their management, are probably helpful pawns in making an attempt to extract diplomatic, monetary and different concessions in trade for his or her freedom.  The effectiveness of our efforts hereafter to extract our personal folks and our Afghan allies from the clutches of the Taliban and the way we reply to any makes an attempt to make use of them as leverage in opposition to us, will decide the depth of the stain on our nationwide honor already attendant to the disastrous finish of our Afghan marketing campaign.

In that very same well-known speech, Churchill solemnly instructed his countrymen that: ‘The Battle of France is over: The Battle of Britain is about to start.”  He went on that “we would be well advised to gird our loins for the continued warfare to come.”

As we method the 20th anniversary of 9/11, we should always honor our sacred useless from that horrible day.  But we should always likewise put together ourselves for the battles with Al Qaeda and its murderous kindred of Cain that may certainly come.

Recent polls would point out that Americans help the choice to withdraw from Afghanistan, if not the way in which through which it was performed.  One wonders how these polled would have responded if the query had been ‘Do you support a withdrawal from Afghanistan even if it markedly increases the chance of terror attacks and atrocities directed at your fellow citizens at home and abroad?’  I worry we’ll discover out quickly sufficient.

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