Following the chaotic withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan in August, the Taliban took over, but the terrorists of al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (ISIS) remain. Although the Taliban steadfastly denied that al-Qaeda was in the country, that statement was not taken seriously. The Taliban and al-Qaeda always had a good relationship.
ISIS is another matter. ISIS and the Taliban are enemies. ISIS believes the Taliban are too concerned with just Afghanistan and not enough with global jihad. And that global jihad is still a concern with the United States. But how will Washington target the terrorists in Afghanistan without any troops or intelligence assets on the ground?
Members of the Pentagon insist that they can continue to track and target terrorists using “over the horizon” capabilities. That method is not only much harder but uncertain as demonstrated when a humanitarian worker was confused with an ISIS planner and targeted. He and several of his family members, including children, were killed in the attack.
The US Still Has a Lot of Tools
SOCOM Commander Army General Richard Clarke speaking at Halifax International Security Forum, in Canada on Friday said that the job of finding and hunting terrorists in Afghanistan has gotten appreciably harder. However, there are still tools in the toolbox, Clarke said.
“We built up amazing counterterrorism capabilities over the last 20 years,” he said. “Some of those capabilities can still be used in Afghanistan today,” General Clarke said.
Clarke advocates working with partner Afghans who remained in the country as well as regional allies. However, Afghans who worked with the U.S. and remained are in grave danger with the Taliban regardless. If they were even suspected of still working with the Americans, their lives would be worth little.
Asked specifically about over-the-horizon strikes, Clarke said, “It’s going to be harder. Anytime you have a physical presence on the ground, it stimulates the enemy forces — you see and sense, you’re with partner forces.”
“It is going to be harder. However … the unique capabilities that we’ve built with airborne unmanned aerial vehicles, presence with Afghan partners, the ability to talk with them and continue to work with allies — it’s going to be what we’re going to continue to do. While hard, we’ve done hard, and we can do hard, and we’re going to continue to persist.”
General Clarke was also asked if a joint U.S.-Taliban partnership fighting ISIS is in the works.
“I don’t see them as a partner — I’ll just be frank,” Clarke replied.
“I think we have an interest from the U.S. perspective that the ISIS threat that is in Afghanistan is disrupted, that it can’t roost [so that it could actually affect one of our nations. But I wouldn’t, as we look at the Taliban, I don’t think they’re an entity, today, that should be … a counterterrorism partner.”
“The most important thing for us in Afghanistan is to ensure we understand the intel picture of where [the] ISIS-K that exists there today actually is, and if it becomes such a threat that it could come back to the United States or could come to one of our allies and partners — we’ve built up capability,” he added. “We can go to where the enemy is. We’ve proven that time and time again with the counterterrorism forces that all of us have built up.”
Jawed Lundin, the former deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan, lambasted the over-the-horizon approach.
“This whole idea of over-the-horizon, surgical strikes, military response to potential threats, we just saw that for 20 years — for God’s sake, it doesn’t work,” Lundin said.
The U.S. needs to be “more clever” and work with locals who can oppose and begin a resistance to the Taliban, as well as some of the other foreign embassies which remain and have the intelligence capability needed, Lundin added.
Violent Extremist Is Still There
“The violent extremism that attacked us on 9/11 is still there. We can never forget that,” Clarke said.
“While al-Qaeda was largely decimated in Afghanistan and the ISIS caliphate in Iraq and Syria was defeated, the threats still exist. In fact, in some ways, it has metastasized. It’s actually harder to track,” the general added.
“What we have to do is work with allies, and particularly indigenous partners from that region, to actually defeat that threat and try to contain it inside their borders, so that it doesn’t, in fact, grow,” he said. “So, we have gone to a more sustainable approach to the counter-VEO approach.”
Clarke added that the best way to defeat terrorism is to use all the available tools and not just the military.
“It doesn’t always have to be the warhead on the forehead to defeat this, but really, it has to be an entire government approach, and it has to be… ensuring allies and those partner nations are capable to [meet] the threat.”