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FLASH ALERT: INCREASED LIKELIHOOD OF TALIBAN AND AL-QAEDA ATTACKS AGAINST US MILITARY/ALLIES

FLASH ALERT: INCREASED LIKELIHOOD OF TALIBAN AND AL-QAEDA ATTACKS AGAINST US MILITARY, NATO FORCES, AFGHAN INTERPRETERS, CIVILIANS, AND SECURITY FORCES DURING AND AFTER US TROOP WITHDRAWAL IN AFGHANISTAN, POWER VACUUM MAY LEAVE ROOM FOR CHINA AND RUSSIA TO GAIN INFLUENCE


Monday, May 10, 2021 | CTG NORTHCOM Team


Taliban Shelter[1]


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) is issuing a FLASH ALERT for military personnel located in Afghanistan, including NATO, US, and EU forces, as the US has not withdrawn its forces by Saturday, May 1, 2021, as outlined by the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan signed on Saturday, February 29, 2020.[2] The Taliban and Al-Qaeda threatened to attack foreign forces due to the failure to withdraw by the agreed-upon date, and CTG has identified a significant increase in their attacks already. This alert is also for those who have acted as interpreters for Western personnel, and civilians in Afghanistan. There is a HIGH PROBABILITY the Taliban and Al-Qaeda will conduct targeted attacks against US military forces, civilians, and crack-down especially on suspicious individuals who acted as interpreters for US and Western personnel. This assessment comes a week after the 10th anniversary of the killing of Al-Qaeda leader and 9/11 mastermind, Osama bin Laden on Monday, May 2, 2011. Our analysis indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that violence will continue over the next few months and there is a serious threat of several mass-casualty events.


In mid-April 2021, after reviewing the situation on the ground, US President Joe Biden announced that he will withdraw troops from Afghanistan on Saturday, September 11, 2021, not Saturday, May 1, 2021, as outlined in the Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan.[3] President Biden has long been a proponent of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan since he was Vice President of the Obama Administration. However, the risks involved in withdrawing from Afghanistan are vast. Historically, US military withdrawals have largely enabled terrorists to take advantage of the power vacuum left behind after American troops leave. When America left Beirut in 1983, Mogadishu a decade later, and Iraq in 2011, the result was an escalation of terrorist attacks.[4] CTG anticipates that this will be true in Afghanistan, especially as US troops have had a significant stabilizing presence for decades.


The Taliban has the power to re-impose theocratic rule over Afghanistan. It represents an existential threat to the democratically elected government of President Ashraf Ghani. Moreover, the Taliban’s longstanding, close alliances with al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network, and Pakistan’s Tehrik-i-Taliban give it significant offensive capabilities that did not exist in Iraq during the US withdrawal of troops in 2011.[5] This likely makes the potential threats and risks associated with this current retrenchment much higher.


Despite the signing of the Afghanistan peace deal in February 2020, violence has continued throughout the country. Rather than targeting the US military, the Taliban shifted its focus towards Afghan security forces, likely as part of a strategy to undermine the Afghan national government. Over the past few weeks, there has been a sharp increase in violence against Afghan security forces, with upwards of 100 personnel killed.[6] The night before the original May 1 US troop withdrawal agreement, a truck bomb was detonated in the Logar Province which killed an estimated 27 individuals, including many students who were preparing for university entrance exams at the time.[7] Although no group has claimed responsibility for this attack, the government largely blames the Taliban and comes as Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban spokesman, tweeted the next day, “this violation in principle has opened the way” for the Taliban “to take every counter-action it deems appropriate against the occupying forces.”[8] Therefore, it is very likely attacks carried out by the Taliban will continue to occur.


Currently, the Taliban is gaining ground north of Kabul, which is forcing Afghan personnel to retreat.[9] On Saturday, May 8, 2021, a girls' school was attacked with three explosions, leading to the deaths of over 50 people, many of them students between 11 and 15 years old.[10] Again, no group has claimed responsibility for this attack; however, the Afghan government is placing blame on the Taliban. As US troops continue to withdraw, the Taliban will continue to vie for power to control Afghanistan, likely leading towards an escalation of violence, as they perceive the peace agreement unfulfilled.


Those that are made the most vulnerable by the US troop withdrawal are the interpreters and other Afghan civilians who worked alongside the US military. For years, the Taliban has threatened and killed these Afghans who they view as traitors.[11] These threats have recently escalated in the wake of the withdrawal announcement with the Taliban threatening known US interpreters and their families.[12] If the US fully withdraws from the country without first evacuating these interpreters, then no other party in Afghanistan will be able to protect these individuals who continue to risk their lives for having helped the US’ mission.


While the US created a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) program to help this group to immigrate to the US, over 17,000 Afghans have applied and there is a multi-year backlog of applications.[13] This indicates that it is unlikely that all, or even the majority, will successfully be granted the SIV before the full withdrawal, and therefore will be left behind and at very high risk of attack from the Taliban. If the US does not sufficiently protect its network within Afghanistan, not only will this lead to broken faith among existing allies, but also likely damage future relationships. It will be more difficult for the US to secure local allies in the future if it shows that it is unable or unwilling to protect its foreign partners.


The US-led NATO coalition in Afghanistan has adhered to an “in together, out together” model, so allies have expressed concern over US withdrawal. Their troops may need more time and support to leave. European forces depend on US forces for transport and logistics: without US backing, European troops on the ground will face significantly higher security risks.[14] EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated that “it’s clear that once the US will withdraw, the EU troops will not be able to stay.”[15] However, in the interim, they will be at high risk of attacks without the US forces’ protection. Moreover, Turkish forces have maintained security at the Kabul airport, but Turkey may also leave, even though it had initially planned to stay after the coalition withdrawal.[16] As a result, European allies may be more reluctant to maintain diplomatic presences in Afghanistan, assist with peacekeeping processes, or provide aid to Afghan civilians. This in turn will increase the likelihood of Taliban and Al-Qaeda attacks to gain power in the region and establish a new regime.


Russia has looked negatively at US and NATO efforts in Afghanistan and will likely seek influence in the region following withdrawal. Moscow is interested in the stability of Afghanistan, as it may indirectly influence Russian security and influence throughout Eurasia. There is also a high chance following the failures of the Afghan-Soviet War that ended in 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was deemed a failure by many, and therefore they may seek to reclaim influence in the region. Additionally, Afghan narcotics often flow into Central Asia, potentially reaching a Russian market.[17] Russia also wants to prevent the spread of extremist ideology north into Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, Russian-allied Central Asian countries.[18] However, Russia does not have vital economic interests in the region and there is likely no direct military threat. Moscow will maintain and may strengthen its relationships with parties in Afghanistan and lead peace processes to increase its international influence and may work more directly with Central Asian partners towards regional security. Russia will likely not replace the US but will seek to increase its geopolitical influence.


On Sunday, May 9, 2021, China criticized the US withdrawal, stating that it “led to a succession of explosive attacks throughout the country”, linking it to the May 8 bombing targeting schoolgirls in Kabul that killed at least 50.[19] Though China does not appreciate the US presence in Central Asia — especially as Beijing seeks to increase its influence in the region via the Belt and Road Initiative — the withdrawal of US troops and reduced focus in Afghanistan may translate to greater scrutiny and presence in the South China Sea and the Pacific theater. Stability in Afghanistan and other neighboring countries is also in Chinese national interests, as China increases energy investment and cooperation in Central Asian economies.[20] China has historically been reluctant to engage in military interventions abroad and, similarly to Russia, is unlikely to replace the US presence in the country.[21] However, Beijing may see the withdrawal as an opportunity to compete for influence and pursue its national economic, political, and security interests.


CONCLUSION


CTG assesses that the current threat of attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaeda is HIGH. Likely targets of these attacks include US and NATO military forces, Afghan civilians, and individuals who acted as interpreters for the US and other Western personnel. Additionally, the threat of an increase in attacks by the Taliban and al-Qaeda on Afghan security forces and civilians once the US has withdrawn from the country is also HIGH. Current attacks against Afghan security forces and civilians demonstrate that the Taliban poses an existential threat to the stability and continuation of the democratically elected government of Afghanistan, by undermining its ability to maintain authority. Rushed US withdrawal from Afghanistan is likely to have negative security implications for Afghan translators which are viewed as traitors by the Taliban, as well as European troops that largely depend on US forces for transport and logistics. The increased risk of attack by the Taliban and al-Qaeda against European troops due to the US withdrawal is likely to also have negative implications for the diplomatic relationships between the US and its NATO allies. In addition, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan increases the threat that Russia and China will seek to increase their influence in the country, as a means to pursue their national interests.


If any individuals are interested in learning more about security measures to protect their facilities and personnel, please contact The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) by Telephone 202-643-248 or email info@counterterrorismgroup.com

[1] Taliban Shelter by Matthew Leary US Army, licensed by Creative Commons

[2] U.S. commander warns against attacks on troops in Afghanistan as deadline passes, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/kabul-high-alert-amid-deadline-us-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan-2021-05-01/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Leaving Afghanistan will make America less safe, War on the Rocks, May 2021, https://warontherocks.com/2021/05/leaving-afghanistan-will-make-america-less-safe/

[5] Ibid.

[6] U.S. commander warns against attacks on troops in Afghanistan as deadline passes, Reuters, May 2021, https://www.reuters.com/world/middle-east/kabul-high-alert-amid-deadline-us-troop-withdrawal-afghanistan-2021-05-01/

[7] Afghan Blast on Eve of U.S. Pullout Deadline Kills at Least 27, The New York Times, May 2021, https://docs.google.com/document/d/1Z3pkXFNpYf6Agik9nMp7LCnF7xOcvWSplJHewwA-lxo/edit?ts=609994d6

[8] Ibid.

[9] Taliban attacks on the rise in Afghanistan as U.S. continues troop withdrawal, CBS News, May 2021, https://www.cbsnews.com/video/taliban-attacks-on-the-rise-in-afghanistan-as-us-continues-troop-withdrawal/

[10] Death toll soars to 50 in school bombing in Afghan capital, AP, May 2021, https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-girls-school-bombing-fb0c565cc4c9be32ee9612981db400a7

[11] The Tragic Fate of the Afghan Interpreters the U.S. Left Behind, Smithsonian Magazine, November 2016, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/tragic-fate-afghan-interpreters-left-behind-180960785/

[12] We will kill you’: Thousands of Afghans who helped U.S. want to evacuate before the Taliban finds them, NBC News, May 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/national-security/we-will-kill-you-thousands-afghans-who-helped-u-s-n1266744

[13] Ibid.

[14] European Allies Ask U.S. to Slow Afghan Withdrawal, The Wall Street Journal, May 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/european-allies-ask-u-s-to-slow-afghan-withdrawal-officials-say-11620420804

[15] EU talks up Afghan support as US leaves, security declines, Associated Press, May 2021, https://apnews.com/article/afghanistan-europe-ddd9d7a6f3e658b88e1aca598d07212c

[16] European Allies Ask U.S. to Slow Afghan Withdrawal, The Wall Street Journal, May 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/european-allies-ask-u-s-to-slow-afghan-withdrawal-officials-say-11620420804

[17] Afghanistan: Does US exit offer Russia a chance to fill power vacuum?, DW News, April 2021, https://www.dw.com/en/afghanistan-does-us-exit-offer-russia-a-chance-to-fill-power-vacuum/a-57265837

[18] How Russia Views Afghanistan Today, War on the Rocks, October 2020, https://warontherocks.com/2020/10/russias-contemporary-afghan-policy/

[19] Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying’s Remarks on Deadly Serial Attacks in Afghanistan, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, May 2021, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/xwfw_665399/s2510_665401/2535_665405/t1874441.shtml

[20] Central Asia courts green energy investors, Eurasianet, April 2021, https://eurasianet.org/central-asia-courts-green-energy-investors

[21] Can China Replace US Troops in Afghanistan As Beijing Hints At ‘Deeper Involvement’ In The War-Torn Region, The EurAsian Times, May 2021, https://eurasiantimes.com/can-china-replace-the-us-in-afghanistan-as-beijing-slams-bidens-troop-pull-out-move/

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