12 min read

We'll always have Kabul

What wasn't a proxy conflict might end up becoming one later this year
We'll always have Kabul

The Biden administration surprises once more: a hard military withdrawal end date for 9/11 this year, a proposed summit meeting between Biden and Putin, and a ban on American financial institutions trading any new sovereign debt issuances (not a full ban). Taken in the larger sweep of how US foreign policy has evolved (or not) since Biden came into office, I think we can now start to talk about team’s broader approach to Russia as well as reflect on the significance of Afghanistan for Russia in Central Asia and the ‘Greater Middle East’ in light of US policy. Despite the screaming to come from hawkish quarters in Washington and New York, withdrawal isn’t a ‘victory’ for Russia, nor is it proof that the US is fundamentally changing its approach to the Middle East. Rather Afghanistan will now be a persistent instability risk to be managed without a US military presence and a withdrawal from Afghanistan sets up a stricter focus for US policy, strongly driven by the State Department under Tony Blinken and NSA Jake Sullivan, on Syria and Iran.

Before we can get to that, it’s important to briefly acknowledge that Biden’s decision to withdraw reflects his political instincts as much as anything about the viability of the US mission in Afghanistan. Washington hands wedded to the counter-terror mission and persistent presence have long made hay of the fact that the American public is relatively ambivalent about withdrawal from Afghanistan. The arguments couched in public polling are transparently appeals to continue the status quo accepting the reality that the Obama-era switch to lean on special forces, small unit deployments, air power, and drones to make combat less visible to the public dovetails with the sociological insulation of much of both parties’ voting bases from the enlisted men and women doing the fighting. What gets more interesting is just how unpopular the war is with veterans and their families — conservative pollsters found last year that roughly 70% of veterans supported a full withdrawal from Afghanistan AND Iraq with similar figures for their family members. Why does that matter so much? In 2022, the Democrats desperately need to hold what they have and make gains in both the Senate and House to be able to escape the legislative trap of the senate filibuster. Democrats are unlikely to dispense with it if they break even or pick up 1 or 2 seats, but it becomes more conceivable that Manchin — up for re-election in a deep red Trump state in 2024 — could vote against it without killing it with a few more senate Democrats. Sinema’s bizarre gamble that Arizona isn’t shifting leftward is a bit more difficult to unravel. But (D) Raphael Warnock’s Georgia seat is up for grabs during the midterms, as will be (R) Marco Rubio’s seat in Florida, an open seat in North Carolina with a retiring Republican, an open seat in Pennsylvania with a Republican not running again, (R) Portman not running in Ohio, a seat in Wisconsin against (R) Ron Johnson, and (D) Mark Kelly in Arizona defending his seat. Look at that map and match it against where veterans and service members live. Orange shows the margin of victory in 2020 subtracted from the total number of veterans living in each state and stacked together:

Nationally, there are over 17 million veterans. Add their families and suddenly you have a massive grouping that forms a voting bloc on issues salient to them. Trump spent years criticizing the continued military campaign in Afghanistan before pursuing a targeted escalation to force a push deal through in order to fulfill a campaign promise and bring troops home. I think it’s safe to say Biden views withdrawal as a moral necessity. But the move has the added effect of neutralizing a core claim Trump made running against the Republican Party’s establishment as well as that of the Democratic Party. He was able to paint Hillary Clinton as a warmonger, a trap that many Democrats then fell into by reflexively opposing any effort to withdraw troops anywhere, no matter how haphazardly done. Delivering on a Trump promise ahead of 2022 should boost Democrats’ chances to hold onto or gain seats, even if it’s a mug’s game guessing what it is the Trump base that drove turnout for Republicans in 2016 and 2020 responds to. But that’s an open question depending on what comes next.

Biden’s decision to drag out the timeline on withdrawal is sound insofar as it provides a longer runway to plan logistically, reduces the risk of gear being left behind without being accounted for, establish a diplomatic and intelligence strategy post-withdrawal, time for NATO partners to withdraw in tandem, and give the government in Kabul more time to prepare. On that front, we can see the paradoxical effect of a US withdrawal: the conflict may become a proxy conflict after a US departure, something it never has been with the US military there because Moscow isn’t stupid enough to escalate the relationship that way. It must be stressed that for all the OSINT and Twitter resistance outrage, the only evidence Russia armed the Taliban was grainy footage of guys walking around with weapons that were most likely just lying around and the Pentagon itself has never agreed with leaked analyses that Russia paid bounties etc. In short, those stories have always been aimed at domestic audiences with an eye to create outrage in order to prevent a withdrawal.

First off, the mood in Kabul appears to be managed panic taking a lower-key approach with Washington to secure its need. Just before the hard deadline was set:

Saleh, Afghanistan’s Vice President, was head of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security from 2004-2010 and has a decades-long relationship with the CIA. Say what you will about Russia’s diplomatic efforts with the Taliban, they have no working relationship with a key stakeholder anything like Langley’s relationship with possibly the most aggressively anti-Taliban leader in Kabul. To drive the point home, the Taliban tried to assassinate him in the run-up to Ghani’s re-election bid back in 2019. He drafted his own will expecting to die. They got 30 other people, including 20 of his guests and colleagues, but failed to kill him. Unlike many other political figures, he’s been personally involved in combat, intelligence, and the fight for his country’s future basically the entirety of his adult life. He’s 48 now. A US withdrawal will not preclude the provision of material support and, more importantly for US interests, the continued presence of intelligence personnel and assets or economic aid and development programs. Kabul will go to the mattresses the moment the last US soldier leaves because no matter what president Ghani says, everyone knows the Afghan security forces can’t win on their own in their current state. The fighting will escalate as the Taliban sense a new path to victory. The gamble Ghani laid out in early March was to call for an election in September running on a counter-offer to the US peace plan in order to win a mandate to continue the fight. The US timeline syncs up with that play in Kabul and to date, Moscow has no clear diplomatic or security strategy to manage the fallout but surely is now contingency planning.

What’s telling from Russia’s perspective is that its first response to the withdrawal decision was to criticize the failure to leave by May 1, echoing the Taliban’s position despite the evident reality that a faster US exit would accelerate the escalation of violence. Practically speaking, I suspect few in Moscow believe Ghani’s government can survive indefinitely and are convinced that the Taliban are not only going to win, but be the de facto partner in country for future counter-terror efforts. For them, the Kabul government is a wholly American invention and structure despite figures like Saleh who operate in pursuit of their own interests, not those of the United States. The framing of the logic of withdrawal from Secretary Blinken betrays the strategic calculus at play, one I personally subscribe to (within limits):

Dig through the press conference and you’ll see Secretary Blinken claim that the threat from Al Qaeda has been sufficiently neutralized to justify withdrawal. This is a transparent lie, not as pertains to Afghanistan itself, but Al Qaeda broadly. The US hasn’t pursued a counter-terrorism strategy in the Middle East focused on transnational threats since France jawboned the US into the Libya intervention by exploiting its NATO membership when it unilaterally declared a no-fly zone. You have to please Washington by claiming AQ is defeated, sure, but it speaks to a problem for Moscow: Al Qaeda is still a threat to it, one that still has ties with the Taliban united in their mutual hatred of ISIS and its affiliates.

Offering to host talks in Moscow and playing into the Taliban’s hands wasn’t a particularly coherent strategy on Russia’s part to accelerate a US withdrawal. Even a casual political analysis would show that any Russian attempt to broker a peace would generate a backlash at the Pentagon and among the most hawkish members of Congress who had successfully tied Trump’s hands by passing congressional sanctions on Russia. They’d maneuver to ensure a longer presence and ably outmaneuvered Trump. My own pet theory is that it was a low-cost means of getting more Americans killed and more American resources wasted on the conflict since there would have to be a corollary ramp up in fighting to secure Trump’s deal. At the same time, it provided entrée for any post-conflict settlement. But to suggest that Moscow can trust the Taliban any more than Washington could if the dust were to settle in Kabul with them in power is wishful thinking and not the high strategery often assigned to Russian efforts. There’s no mechanism to enforce compliance over agreements stipulating the Taliban actively fight and destroy any Al Qaeda presence in their own ranks or in Afghanistan. Moscow wants the same assurances the US does.

These efforts have been paralleled with meetings between Nikolai Patrushev and president Ghani as well as Afghan responses to Russian entreaties to meet for talks with the Taliban. Just like the Taliban, Ghani’s strategy was to use the threat of Russian involvement to scare Washington back into his corner with considerable success as long as Trump was in office. But when US troops leave, the ensuing escalation of violence will distract from efforts to fight Al Qaeda. It won’t be long before the Ministry of Defense and Russian intelligence agencies will have to make a judgment call on whether they have to take direct actions, whether that be air strikes, targeted support operations, further deployments to Tajikistan and border patrols, and more. Russia may retain the flexibility to support whatever ‘side’ it sees as doing the most good for stability, but the bottom line is that it will be spending more resources managing regional security, especially if the Taliban return to power since fears over Al Qaeda will almost assuredly not be addressed by them systematically. The only means of doing so is the use of force, the dilemma that sank previous, halting US efforts to leave. US intelligence agencies, with inside help from figures like Saleh, will undoubtedly take the opportunity to make it cost as much as possible. No one trusts Pakistan to handle the problem either.

What wasn’t a proxy conflict because of Russia’s prudence avoiding too extreme an escalation and limited resources will become one as those resources are put to use and the US, Pakistan, China, and Iran all jockey for position to make sure the instability is managed in defense of their respective interests. Defense minister Shoigu met with Tajik partners yesterday, previously planned but all the more pressing given the new developments in US policy. So Biden’s team wants to saddle Russia with a security problem it can manage at a lower burn knowing China won’t jump into the fray. They can package that as a concession to Russia through the convoluted and bizarre logic of ‘great power competition’, but it’s more akin to crapping in a bag, laying it at Moscow’s doorstep, ringing the doorbell after lighting it on fire, and bailing. Worryingly, the withdrawal seems to presage renewed focus on Syria and Iran at the same time it’s trying to show it’s willing to up the pressure on Moscow diplomatically while still pursuing talks. The Israeli attack on the Natanz nuclear facility in Iran has been met with an Iranian push to increase uranium enrichment levels to 60% on their way to the 90% threshold for weapons-grade production. Despite some softening of rhetoric and Secretary Blinken’s attempts to keep talks going, the default response is to blame Iran for being provocative and circle the wagons in Europe in pursuit of a broader, more stringent deal. NSA Jake Sullivan reiterated the United States’ ‘unwavering’ commitment to Israel just after Secretary of Defense Austin gave a similar photo op visit in the wake of the Natanz attack without commenting on being completely blindsided by the Israeli government. The message is clear — the US isn’t going to do anything to restrain Israeli behavior designed to maintain the cycle of escalation with Iran, which will rip up any hopes of talks. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif is diplomatically calling Biden’s bluff — time’s running out.

The fact that Biden had no problem targeting Iran-backed forces in Syria in late February, even if he intended to start a conversation with congress over the use of force, suggests that he thinks about the conflict differently than Afghanistan. That’s not to say he intends to escalate through a larger ground deployment, but a rising number of Israeli airstrikes have been normalized without comment from Washington.  Turkey has every political incentive to keep pushing the envelope when it can in northern Syria given its wider move to back Ukrainian NATO accession and secure deeper military ties with Azerbaijan. It doesn’t require an active decision from Biden so much as a passive acceptance of a status quo that steadily increases the likelihood of an unexpected escalation. The default position taken by the Biden administration is that it will not recognize the legal legitimacy of Assad’s regime until free and fair elections are held, which is tantamount to endorsing a policy of regime change as the endgame in Syria. All of this reinforces that Afghanistan, for now, should be understood as a particular case for the strategy pursued by the Biden administration. They will not let up using coercive economic instruments to pressure Iran to talk as well as retain a 50,000+ footprint on the ground in the region, ground operations in Syria that go without comment from the media, and regularly deploy carrier groups as coercive signaling tools. That leaves Russia little room to maneuver in Syria, save to keep applying pressure when it can for leverage with the multitude of external actors involved in the conflict. Biden has not changed the approach and goals set out during the Trump administration. He may do so later on given his massive list of domestic priorities, but it remains a permanent on-ramp for deeper military involvement.

With all that in mind, Biden’s outreach for a summit is a smart bit of grandstanding to deny the Russian government the high ground and also a clear sign that he wants to communicate the possibilities and limits of cooperation in person. He’s not pursuing a reset so much as an ‘event’ to crystallize his approach to the relationship to domestic audiences and allies and a chance to play the part of Leader of the Free World. At this point, most Russian policy is set without fear of US response for the simple reason that it’s always negative. The Russian state’s willingness to allow deniable, independent actors to be caught over the 2016 election radicalized US policy. To suggest Moscow is making serious efforts to show Biden they’re willing to change their behavior in specific areas in exchange for a ‘new normal’ is farcical. Domestic politics and political lobbies on both sides render that effectively impossible, as do conflicting worldviews. Russia’s hardened its stance on Donbas recently and there’s not any specific area it seems ready to concede a priority given that policy is now set with an understandable siege mentality. Biden wants to reinvigorate the power of democracies writ large as much as reach a deal on issues like arms talks. There’s also an element of letting Putin know they’re not ****ing around. The sanctions on Russian OFZ issuances for American financial institutions on the primary market are a great example. The 9/11 withdrawal timeline also aligns perfectly with Duma elections the regime is now finding new ways of stage managing as MinFin and Mishustin work the government to deliver a new social spending package and economic program for next week’s address. If civil war escalates rapidly and the lack of clarity on Al Qaeda’s presence becomes an immediate concern, the regime could have to explain why it’s launching airstrikes in Afghanistan. That’s not to say you’d see people taking the streets, but it’s easier to get the public to ignore the costs of Russian foreign policy when their incomes aren’t falling and the regime wants to avoid anything that might drive up turnout in a manner that upsets its emerging plan to split votes to the benefit of United Russia. If you’re advising Sullivan, you’d want Russia spending more and doing more abroad when it needs to be focused on domestic policy. As far as I can tell, that’s Biden’s evolving Russia strategy: talk as you constrain them, make them cough up more resources when applicable, and reverse the narrative they’ve relied on of reckless hegemony to undermine Russian diplomatic efforts. In a weird way, it’s not too different from the Reagan playbook, just without a defense buildup cause that’s already happened and the domestic situation is different.

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