It's been two years since the U.S. withdrew its forces from Afghanistan in a chaotic end to 20 years of war, leaving the Taliban in control. But concerns over the withdrawal and the state of Afghanistan persist.
Retired General Frank McKenzie, who led U.S. Central Command and oversaw the departure, now watches what he calls the disintegration of Afghan society at the hands of the Taliban.
"And that's very disturbing to me, and I think very disturbing to anyone who put their life on the line in Afghanistan to try to create a different outcome," McKenzie said.
McKenzie said the Taliban are "imposing a medieval theocratic society." Today Afghanistan is marred by food insecurity, human rights violations and the gutting of women's rights.
"We saw this coming. I thought it was inevitable. We've seen the way they behaved when they were last in charge, we have no reason to believe they'd do anything different this time, they have not," said McKenzie, who now leads the Global and National Security Institute at the University of South Florida.
A UN report documented at least 800 instances of extrajudicial killing, arbitrary detention, torture, ill treatment or enforced disappearance against people linked to the previous government and security forces.
Meanwhile, the rights of women and girls have fallen. Education and the ability to work, including for NGOs, have been restricted. Beauty salons were closed. Women and girls' movement, and where they can visit, has been limited.
And more than 90% of the Afghan population faces serious food insecurity, according to Human Rights Watch.
Meanwhile, civilians still face violence. Since the fall of Kabul, there have been more than 3,700 civilians killed or wounded, mostly from IEDs in attacks in populated areas. Most IEDs' casualties were tied to attacks from ISIS or ISIL-KP, according to a report from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.
"Now the thing that probably operationally is more concerning is ISIS has been given an opportunity to grow in the ungoverned spaces where the Taliban can't get to them. And ISIS still intends to conduct attacks against the United States. So that's very worrisome," McKenzie said. "Same thing with al-Qaida, although I think from where I sit, and I'm not, I'm now removed from it a little bit. I believe ISIS probably poses the greater danger, our ability to reach in and see what's going on is a pale shadow of what we had before we left. So it's hard for us to know exactly what's going on in there. And that's, that's very concerning to me."
McKenzie believes the terrorism threat is what was anticipated, "which would be if we left if the government of Afghanistan failed, that over time the threat from ISIS would rise. And I believe that's, that's what we're seeing. Hard to put a month-to-month timeline on it, I would say we are not in a better place in any dimension that you can measure right now in Afghanistan," McKenzie said.
At the end of the withdrawal, President Biden pointed to an over-the-horizon approach in vowing to continue fighting terrorism. It allows the U.S. to conduct operations using unmanned aircraft, without troops on the ground. After the fall of Kabul, a strike killed the leader of al-Qaida.
"We felt at the beginning, it would be very difficult to exercise from an over-the-horizon capability," McKenzie said, noting the challenges in travel time. "Look, in about two years, we've done one strike, I would think that's probably indicative, indicative of the difficulty of trying to conduct these kinds of operations, frankly."
CENTCOM's ability to monitor daily operations was "significantly reduced" though they still conduct over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan, according to a CENTCOM spokesperson. They have increased loiter times for airborne intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, but acknowledge the amount of time dedicated to travel.
CENTCOM is working on alternative ISR systems to increase distance and duration, and will integrate systems to increase ability to collect ISR, according to CENTCOM spokesperson Michael Lawhorn. They are also increasing other intelligence efforts. They are vigilant to the threat from ISIS-K and ready to respond when necessary, Lawhorn stated.
The intelligence community's annual threat assessment released in February warned ISIS-K "almost certainly retains the intent to conduct operations in the West and will continue efforts to attack outside Afghanistan" though it will maintain a campaign against the Taliban and religious minorities. The assessment determined al-Qaida will focus on keeping safe haven and that it will rely on regional affiliates.
The intelligence community believes ISIS-K's capabilities to post a major external threat to the West have been downgraded by counterterrorism operations and that al-Qaida has a "minuscule presence" in Afghanistan, with less than a dozen core members, and doesn't have capability to launch attacks against the US from Afghanistan, according to an administration official.
"Do you remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said it wouldn't be there. I said we'd get help from the Taliban. What's happening now? What's going on? Read your press. I was right," President Biden said when pressed on whether there were mistakes in the withdrawal in June.
The Biden administration believes Americans are safer with the war over and that the withdrawal better positions the U.S. to focus on other threats around the world, with military, intelligence and resources freed up. That includes focus on terrorist threats that shifted to splinter groups and places outside Afghanistan, according to an administration official.
Under the Doha Agreement reached in 2020 that stipulated the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban were expected to not offer a platform for terrorist organizations.
"There is a question of how operational the groups are that the Taliban hosts. So again, groups like the Islamic State, the Taliban is trying to suppress. And so it's possible that the Taliban is saying we will allow groups in our country but they can't use it as a base for your national terrorism, especially against the United States," said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
While concerns remain about terrorism from Afghanistan with ISIS-K and remnants of al-Qaida, Byman says "This is definitely something to watch. But I think some of the initial concerns may have been overstated."
"The Taliban, and the situation in Afghanistan today seem quite different for several reasons. One is al-Qaida itself is a lot weaker, so the group is less able to conduct your national terrorist attacks. Groups like the Islamic State's branch are also less focused on international terrorism and more focused on attacks in Afghanistan. and to a lesser extent, the immediate region. The Taliban also is at war with the Islamic States branch, and is trying to kill them. So the Islamic State's local branch is spending a lot of its time running and hiding," Byman said.
But it's a more complex landscape.
"It's a very, very active terrorist area, where you have al-Qaida under protection of the Taliban, ISKP opposing the Taliban, but the Taliban not being able to really push hard against ISKP, in order not to risk even more defections, and with the Haqqani Network, one of the most powerful factions in the Taliban movement, there are links to ISKP, they have been cooperating until August 2021. And those links have not been totally severed. So there's even inside the Taliban, a disagreement on how to deal with this group," said Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director of the Counter Extremism Project.
Shindler previously was part of the UN Security Council's ISIL, al-Qaida and Taliban Sanctions Monitoring Team.
"As in Iraq, as in Syria, as in other conflict zones, terror groups in insecure areas — and Afghanistan is more secure now, because the Taliban stopped attacking the Afghan population, you know, what they did in the last 20 years. But it's not a completely secured and well-run country, it's much easier for terrorist cells to hide in such a situation," said Shindler.
Over the summer U.S. officials met with Taliban representatives to discuss issues including combating terrorism, the humanitarian crisis and policies hurting human rights.
"We continue to work to hold the Taliban accountable for the many commitments that it's made and not fulfilled, particularly when it comes to the rights of women and girls. We've been very clear with the Taliban, and dozens of countries around the world have been very clear, that the path to any more normal relationship between the Taliban and other countries will be blocked unless and until the rights of women and girls, among other things, are actually supported," Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during a news conference earlier in August.
The administration plans to engage "pragmatically" with the Taliban on issues of concern, though it doesn't imply recognition, according to an administration official, adding they continue to press them on human rights and are committed to degrading ISIS-K, which is in the Taliban's interest as well.
"I don't think recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate government is a step that we should take. I know there's broad discussion on that, it's not principally a military question. But I think we need to work with our neighbors in the region. By that our friends in the region, neighbors of Afghanistan in the region, we need to work with them to try to increase our ability to see into Afghanistan. And we need to hope that we can provide increasing pressure on the Taliban to at least do some of the things, the very basic things that they need to do in order to be a responsible member of the family of nations. They've shown no, no intention to do that. So I am not optimistic and I'm afraid it's gonna be another long, hard winter in Afghanistan as a result of it," McKenzie said.
But in the two years since the withdrawal, questions still remain. While Biden stands by the decision, criticisms still remain over the withdrawal from Republican lawmakers who call for more accountability to Gold Star families who lost loved ones in the bombing at Abbey Gate during evacuations. The decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan was made by former President Trump, and followed up on by President Biden.
"I've been pretty clear from the beginning that I felt that the withdrawal was not the correct path forward. And I think everything that happened, happened in August of 2021, actually flowed from that initial decision to get out and to stop assisting the Afghans and ... the associated decision, not to begin withdrawal of all our embassy personnel, our American citizens, and our at-risk Afghans at that time," McKenzie said.
An after-action report released by the Biden administration largely put the onus on the Trump administration, noting Biden's choices were "severely constrained" by conditions created by Trump and that the outgoing administration "provided no plans for how to conduct the final withdrawal or to evacuate Americans and Afghan allies."
Meanwhile, a report partially made public by the State Department pointed to both administrations. It stated "The decisions of both President Trump and President Biden to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan had serious consequences for the viability of the Afghan government and its security. Those decisions are beyond the scope of this review, but the AAR team foundthat during both administrations there was insufficient senior-level consideration of worst-case scenarios and how quickly those might follow."
McKenzie noted the execution of plans is made by national leadership.
"All I can speak to is what I know. And we had detailed plans for withdrawal and detailed plans for evacuation. As a matter of course, a combatant command holds them for every country in their respective operational region. We held one that was constantly updated for Afghanistan for a noncombatant evacuation operation," McKenzie said. "Then we had worked and labored mightily on our withdrawal plan. So we had very good plans for all of these contingencies."
But top of mind for McKenzie, as well as many others, are the American service members killed during the withdrawal.
"My thoughts certainly began with the American lives that were lost in that, in the withdrawal, I think we begin with them and think about them every day," he said.
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