US, British and Nato combat forces are leaving Afghanistan this summer. The Taliban are growing stronger by the day while al-Qaeda and Islamic State groups are conducting ever more brazen attacks. So how can they be contained now that the West will no longer have military resources in the country?
Western intelligence officials believe they still aspire to plot international terrorist attacks from their Afghan hideouts, just as Osama Bin Laden did with 9/11.
It is a problem that is starting to vex UK policy chiefs as the deadline of 11 September for US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal draws closer. As the British chief of defence staff, General Sir Nick Carter, said recently: “This was not the outcome we had hoped for.” There is now a serious risk that the gains made in counter-terrorism over the last 20 years, at enormous cost, could be undone as Afghanistan’s future takes an uncertain turn.
“The problem,” says John Raine, a regional security expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), “is the situation’s potential for morphing at a speed and into something with which the Afghan government, even remotely reinforced by the US, can’t keep up.”
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Yet this, for President Biden, was always the plan. When he visited the country as vice-president in the Obama administration in 2009 and 2011 he concluded that nation-building there was a waste of time and instead the US should focus on a standoff approach to counter-terrorism using air strikes and Special Forces raids. The Pentagon disagreed and the former US Defence Secretary Robert Gates described Mr Biden in his memoir as being “wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”.
So what will Western counter-terrorism in Afghanistan look like in practice after September?