Robert dannenberg, former senior CIA officer
Encryption expert in brief Rob dannenberg is a 24-year veteran of the CIA, where he held a number of senior positions, including COO of the Counterterrorism Center, Head of the Central Eurasia Division, and Head of the CIA Information Operations Center. Dannenberg is a member of the Director’s Advisory Board of the National Counterterrorism Center and a Senior Fellow of the GWU Center for Cyber and Homeland Security. He is now an independent consultant on geopolitical and security risks, after having been managing director and head of the Office of Global Security for Goldman Sachs, and director of international security affairs at BP.
Putin’s Calculated Afghanistan Play
EXPERT POINT OF VIEW – The images of Kabul are demoralizing and depressing, unless you are sitting in the Kremlin, where they are certainly seen in a whole new light. Probably something close to dizziness and joy.
From Russian President Vladimir Putin’s perspective, this likely reinforces his view that President Joe Biden and his national security team are weak and naive. “This is Obama’s third term‘, Putin must think. And of course, images of US helicopters desperately trying to evacuate thousands of people from Kabul also resonate in Kiev, Tbilisi and possibly Tallinn, Riga and Vilnius and beyond, think Taipei. The appalling mismanagement of the withdrawal from Afghanistan will have consequences that will affect American credibility globally and will persist well beyond the end of Biden’s presidency.
One consequence of the first order concerns Russia.
It is highly likely that there was practical cooperation between the Kremlin and the Taliban in preparing for the US withdrawal and this may have included direct support to Taliban forces. We do not need to revisit the story of Russian bounties for American soldiers who died in Afghanistan, but the evidence of Russia’s vigorous engagement with the Taliban in recent months is clear and the fact that the Russian Embassy in Kabul is currently protected by Taliban fighters is significant. .
For both Russia and the Taliban, there was a clear shared strategic goal: to get the Americans and their allies out of Afghanistan and ideally in the most humiliating way possible. The Russian-Taliban honeymoon may not last long, but so far it has served both sides well.
For more than a decade and a half of his tenure as President of Russia, Putin preached the gospel that you can’t trust Americans to support you in the long run or when the chips are low, but you can count on Russia that he (think of the Russian intervention in Syria and support for Assad or their intervention – whether recognized or not – in Libya alongside Khalifa Haftar among other examples). This message is important in the present day and reinforces Putin’s narrative of the decline of the West and the diminishing relevance of liberal Western systems of governance.
In recent years, Chinese President Xi Jinping has taken up the trumpet to echo this message that US power is in decline and that US security guarantees cannot be invoked in East Asia and beyond.
Putin has been Russia’s Czar for more than two decades without a significant break and will likely remain so for the foreseeable future. He has seen US presidents come and go and he was quick to assess them and adjust his moves accordingly. He was genuinely afraid of what George W. Bush might do in the aftermath of September 11, and the speed and effectiveness of the American response made a deep impression on him. He adapted his approach of the United States to that of a partner and ally against Islamic extremism (Putin was also busy consolidating his control over the Russian Federation in the immediate post-Yeltsin period).
Putin also assessed then-President Barack Obama after Obama’s failure to act when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad blithely crossed the red line of “no use of chemical weapons”. This opened the door for the annexation of Crimea as well as Russian military intervention in Syria (and later in Libya). Joe Biden was vice president at the time. Putin probably has a really good book on Joe Biden and was pretty confident about what the end result would look like for the United States in Afghanistan. Putin may even have a better idea of Joe Biden than many think, if any of the elements of Hunter Biden are true. The evaluation of one leader against another is important in geopolitical relations. Putin has a high level of confidence in his ability to read his international opposition.
As recently as July 2021, President Biden said, “There will be no circumstance where you will see people being lifted off the roof of the US Embassy in Afghanistan.” He added: “The likelihood of the Taliban invading everything and possessing the whole country is highly unlikely. President Biden made these statements knowing full well or should have known – from intelligence briefings and expert commentary – as well as historical precedents – that when the United States announces a withdrawal of forces with a date. limit, in this case September 11, our adversaries use the time to prepare for their offensive military action. Our Afghan allies knew this as well and prepared accordingly. The Taliban will now celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks on the United States Embassy in Kabul, presumably with their friends from ISIS and Al Qaeda as guests of honor. If you think the Afghanistan videos have been disturbing so far, just wait for the anniversary celebrations.
Perhaps of shorter-term geopolitical significance, Putin will use the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan to support a narrative that Russia must defend its interests against the spread of Islamic extremism from Afghanistan by strengthening cooperation in the field of “security and the fight against terrorism” with Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan. Does anyone want an excuse to get out – and keep – those pesky Central Asian Americans and start rebuilding this corner of the Soviet Union?
Putin’s use of terrorist risk as a justification for military action is well established and dates back to the bombings of apartments in Moscow (which the FSB almost certainly organized) in September 1999, which Putin both used to consolidate political power and to justify the brutal military campaign in Chechnya. Putin is keenly aware of the risks of Islamic extremism spreading from Afghanistan to Central Asia, the Caucasus and the Russian Federation. In fact, Russian, Uzbek and Tajik troops conducted exercises in July, which appear to have been designed to prepare for responding to cross-border incursions from Afghanistan. This is only the first step in his plan to consolidate Russian power and influence in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
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Some might wonder – given the risk of Islamic extremism spreading from Afghanistan to the Russian Federation – why would Putin want to join the Taliban? Those who ask this question misunderstand the depth of Putin’s enmity towards the United States and the West and all that we stand for. Putin sees the world as a “zero sum” game. What hurts the United States must serve the interests of Russia. The debacle in Afghanistan is clearly admissible. A short-term deal with the Taliban is a risk in Putin’s mind. Putin is playing on the superpower chessboard using the only tools at his disposal, military might, cyber and disinformation capability, and the US incompetence and lack of strategic thinking. He skillfully took advantage of President Trump’s four years of thoughtless estrangement from US allies around the world.
Beyond the propaganda value and regional influence that our withdrawal gave to adversaries like Russia and China, there is the impact of our withdrawal on the many nations among our allies who contributed to the mission in Afghanistan. Images of Afghans hanging from an departing US Air Force C-17 falling to their death will not be easily erased. Will it be easy to muster their support when we inevitably have to return to face a resurgence of Al Qaeda, a globally ambitious Taliban, or an even more dangerous Islamic state embedded in the hills of Afghanistan?
We should also consider the impact on Pakistan. Pakistan has fueled Islamic extremism in Afghanistan for decades. While part of the Pakistani security establishment effectively associated with the United States after 9/11, other parts simultaneously had relations with extremists, including the Taliban. The “Great Game” is still being played out in this part of the world, and neither the Pakistanis, the Indians or the Chinese have forgotten it.
Pakistan is also certainly still irritated by the American raid to kill Bin Laden in Abbottabad a little over ten years ago. One wonders if the decline of American influence in Islamabad has opened the door for Islamic extremists to enter the security establishment there. Pakistan is a nuclear power and has in recent years increased its development of tactical nuclear weapons. Does the Taliban now have a path to nuclear weapons? This is an important question and its answer casts a shadow over our withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The Biden administration, for all of its much-vaunted claims of a “return to competence” in Washington, has fallen flat on its first serious challenge. It could be argued that Biden’s surrender to Nord Stream 2, and Putin’s mocking rejection in Geneva of accusations of US election interference and cyberattacks against the US, predicted the debacle in Afghanistan. The challenge for the United States now will be to manage the airlift for those Afghans who were ready to partner with the United States and to carefully seek opportunities to rebuild the credibility of American security guarantees around the world.
Taiwan and South Korea seem like good places to start.
At the same time, we must recognize that Afghanistan will once again become the training ground for those who hope to replicate the September 11 attacks on the United States. A strong and robust intelligence capacity will be essential to mitigate this risk.
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