US soldiers watching as others prepare artillery for wounded veterans to shoot during 'Operation Proper Exit' at Forward Operating Base Shank in Afghanistan's Logar Province, May 2014. Photo: AFP / Brendan Smialowski

The United States and NATO are yet to begin the withdrawal of their forces from Afghanistan, but their eyes are cast over the horizon at what is in place after the “forever war” formally ends.

The US exit strategy in Afghanistan assumes the look of the random arbitrariness of a lottery, that was the case with its Iraq war ending inconclusively in 2011. 

However, evidence is piling up that US President Joe Biden’s April 14 declaration on total troop withdrawal by September 11 may not be the last word on that topic. The Pentagon commanders and the Central Intelligence Agency seem to be “tweaking” the decision. 

On the day after Biden spoke, The New York Times reported under the byline of two of the paper’s noted senior correspondents that “the Pentagon, American spy agencies and Western allies are refining plans to deploy a less visible but still potent force in the region to prevent the country [Afghanistan] from again becoming a terrorist base … the Pentagon is discussing with allies where to reposition forces.” 

The report said that although NATO forces would formally withdraw, Turkey, a member of the alliance, “is leaving troops behind who could help the CIA collect intelligence.” Besides, some of the Pentagon contractors (mercenaries), who include 6,000 American personnel, could also be redeployed.  

The Times report also disclosed that the Pentagon “actually has about 1,000 more troops on the ground there than it has publicly acknowledged. The murky accounting results from some Special Operations forces having been put ‘off the books’ … to include some elite Army Rangers, who work under both the Pentagon and the CIA.”

The Pentagon might even slip these undisclosed troops into Afghanistan after the departure deadline of September 11. 

US Army soldiers return home from a nine-month deployment to Afghanistan on December 10, 2020 at Fort Drum, New York. Photo: John Moore/Getty Images/AFP

CIA presence

On the same day as the Times report appeared, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaking from Kabul, confirmed to the media after talks with Afghan government officials that “even when our troops come home, our partnership with Afghanistan will continue. Our security partnership will endure. There’s strong bipartisan support [in Washington] for that commitment to the Afghan Security Forces.” 

Blinken sidestepped the scale of any future CIA presence in Afghanistan – the tricky part.

But Moscow solved the riddle when Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova alleged last Saturday that “there are persistent reports that the US is itself giving support to terrorist groups, including ISIS, in Afghanistan, and that Washington plans to build up the presence of its intelligence service in the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan as it withdraws its troops from that country.” 

Zakharova said “these circumstances are giving rise to serious concern not only in Russia but in other countries of the region as well. We are looking forward to receiving explanations from the American side.”

Indeed, this is not the first time that Russia has alleged a nexus between US intelligence and ISIS to destabilize the Central Asian region.

In fact, on Monday, Russia conducted a major airstrike at a remote region near Palmyra in Syria against camps for terrorists in which 200 militants were killed. The Russian statement alleged that terrorists were being trained in the US-controlled al-Tanf zone in the border region in southeastern Syria straddling the Baghdad-Damascus highway. 

Earlier, in January, Shanghai Cooperation Organization officials were also quoted as voicing concern over “growing” numbers of ISIS fighters being transferred from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan. 

Suffice to say, even as the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) are preparing formally to withdraw forces from Afghanistan, the Pentagon and CIA are calibrating their future operations in the country, notionally to assist Afghan security forces but in reality, in pursuit of the larger regional interests of Washington, which narrow down principally to the containment of Russia and China.

Afghan National Army (ANA) soldiers march during a ceremony at a military base in the Guzara district of Herat province on October 11, 2020. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi/AFP

The Afghan state structure is in meltdown and the US Special Forces and CIA operatives would have operational freedom to do what they want. 

Interestingly, after his return from Afghanistan, Blinken announced on Tuesday an “additional civilian assistance” of US$300 million to the Kabul regime “as part of our commitment to invest in and support the Afghan people.”

This is laughable, coming as it comes at a juncture when, as The Washington Post reported from Kabul recently, “The scramble for peace in Afghanistan is fracturing Kabul’s political leadership and undermining the US-backed government.”

Is Blinken so hopelessly out of touch with the situation in Kabul? In reality, this appears to be Washington’s gift to the power brokers in the Afghan security establishment. 

The bottom line is that the CIA is pushing ahead with its blueprint to use Afghanistan as a staging post to destabilize Russia, Iran and China.

On the other hand, the postponement of the high-level conference in Istanbul from April 24 to May 4 means that the peace process has been derailed and the Doha Pact’s May 1 deadline for US troop withdrawal stands erased.

Put differently, Washington has shifted the goalposts and has also in the bargain granted a fresh lease on life to President Ashraf Ghani’s regime. 

Afghan residents at the scene of a suicide car bomb that targeted a CIA-funded pro-government militia force at a public bus station in Khost province on May 27, 2017. Photo: AFP/Farid Zahir

US-India relations

Perhaps India is the only friend Washington genuinely has in the region to lean on. Blinken telephoned External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar on Monday “to reaffirm the importance of the US-India relationship and cooperation on regional security issues.”

The White House readout claimed that the two ministers “agreed to close and frequent coordination” over the Afghanistan situation. 

Indeed, at a hearing at the House Armed Services Committee in Washington on Tuesday, the commander of the US Central Command, General Kenneth McKenzie Jr, said that for conducting future operations in Afghanistan, the US will “firstly require heavy intelligence support” and American diplomats are working now “to find new places in the region” to base the intelligence assets. 

Surely, Pakistan cannot be one of those “new places.” Against this complicated backdrop, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi arrived in Tehran on Wednesday for talks with the Iranian leaders. The press reports from Tehran speak of Iran’s willingness to cooperate with Pakistan. But it is no secret that the two countries have different outlooks, interests and priorities in Afghanistan.

Having said that, both countries might also sense today a certain congruence of interests in the emergent situation, with the Afghan peace process in suspended animation, the Doha Pact in cold storage and the Taliban resentful, and the US finessing its future options.

The extent to which Tehran and Islamabad can reconcile their approaches and coordinate will no doubt impact the future course of events. Conceivably, that is also what Moscow and Beijing would expect.

As things stand, the continuing instability in Afghanistan and the derailment of the peace process can only work to Washington’s advantage to reset the clock and rearrange its pawns and proxies on the chessboard for a fresh game to begin.

Taliban militants and villagers celebrate the peace deal and their victory in the Afghan conflict in Alingar district of Laghman province on March 2, 2020. Photo: AFP / Noorullah Shirzada

The prospect for an inclusive interim government in Kabul has receded lately. Certainly, Pakistan has been under pressure to restrain the Taliban.

Can it be mere coincidence that terrorists chose this moment to stage a well-planned, professionally executed attack in Quetta, shattering the country’s internal situation? Who stands to gain?

There are no easy answers. A sense of déjà vu would only be natural.

This article was produced in partnership by Indian Punchline and Globetrotter, which provided it to Asia Times.

M K Bhadrakumar is a former Indian diplomat.