Leon Panetta is one of this nation’s most formidable, respected and experienced public servants. After a long career in the House of Representatives, he served as head of Office of Management and Budget, White House chief of staff, director of the CIA and secretary of defense. So when Panetta predicts that U.S. forces will need to return to Afghanistan to deal with the panoply of terrorist organizations out to attack America and others, he should be taken very seriously. Indeed, Panetta is not alone in this forecast.
The Biden administration claims to have thought this through and will maintain an “over the horizon” capability to deal with these threats, particularly the Islamic State Khorasan, or ISIS-K. The drone attack late last week that reportedly killed one or two Khorasan terrorists is an example of that ability. But the U.S. still had about 5,000 soldiers and Marines stationed at Karzai International Airport and presumably round the clock surveillance by both manned aircraft and drones.
But can that be sustained after all U.S. troops leave and operational demands elsewhere preclude that intensive overhead presence? Further, after 20 years of conflict in Afghanistan, will Congress and the public support a further commitment of the U.S. military and possible casualties? And would any future use of force require a new congressional resolution” Or would it be covered by the current war on terror authorization?
Beyond these domestic considerations, geography counts. The only likely bases from which to stage a military operation to reintroduce American ground forces are in the Gulf and from the sea. Afghanistan is landlocked. During the 20 years of war, Pakistan was vital for road logistics through the Khyber Pass. Bases in the various “stans” (Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) that border Afghanistan also were used. And Russia allowed transit through its air space.
The other major border neighbor is Iran. Not it nor the other states noted above will grant access. As a result, should American forces be ordered back into Afghanistan, while entry will not be an insurmountable issue, sustainment and resupply will. And, as U.S. forces operating inside the Kabul airport understand, extrication, if forcibly opposed by an enemy, can be costly. The French learned this at Dien Bien Phu in what is now northern Vietnam in 1954 when its forces were trapped and forced to surrender.
This dilemma of committing to attack and disrupt terrorism emanating from Afghanistan with the means to achieve that objective is intractable and unresolvable. Hence, while Panetta makes a logical argument about the need for U.S. troops to return to Afghanistan, the political reality is that this is very unlikely to occur barring an attack even more destructive than Sept. 11.
And even if the U.S. were to consider this option, it is doubtful any allies would be interested in joining, given the debacle over how the current withdrawal was planned and undertaken, especially the absence of coordination with our friends. Allies do not appreciate being informed and not asked in advance of a decision of this magnitude.
Where the U.S. may have no alternative to intervening is not with armed military might. What happens when the Taliban prove incapable of governing and Afghanistan becomes a failed state and an even greater human catastrophe than Libya, Syria and Yemen? What happens to a population of about 38 million with a third or more living in poverty and when food, water, electricity, medical care and money evaporate? Already the finance ministry is unable to pay government workers, and all wire money transfers have stopped.
Can the U.S. and regional powers, as well as NATO and EU states who fought in Afghanistan, turn away from the crises for which they are largely responsible? Assuming the Taliban cannot cut off all access from the outside world and videos and reports record the disaster unfolding on a regular basis, what are the reactions and options?
Similarly, India, Pakistan, China, Iran and the three “stans” would be adversely affected by Afghanistan becoming a failed state and a potential terrorist hotbed. Pakistan’s war with Tehrik-i-Taliban would worsen. China, Russia and the “stans” would fear a terrorist spill over. A Shia Iran could conflict with radical Sunni terror. And could regional instability be confined?
Panetta’s warning indeed could prove to be far more threatening, sweeping and consequential than merely redeploying military force. A specter far worse than the disintegration of the Balkans could appear. And while no one is seriously considering a major war breaking out, a failed Afghanistan could have greater impact on creating instability that, like COVID-19, could reach pandemic proportions.
Harlan Ullman, Ph.D, is United Press International’s Arnaud deBorchgrave Distinguished Columnist. His latest book, due out this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New MAD: The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Endangered, Infected, Engulfed and Disunited a 51% Nation and the Rest of the World.”