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The U.S. carried out its second drone airstrike on Sunday, which targeted a suspected bomb vehicle.With the US withdrawal to be complete this week, there are looming questions about stability in the region. Kirsten Fontenrose is the Director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security initiative at the Atlantic Council, and was a senior director at the National Security Council in 2018.
For more on the situation in Afghanistan and what's ahead, I spoke with Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. She was a senior director at the National Security Council in 2018.
So, Kirsten, when we look at what's happening in Afghanistan right now, how much instability does it add to this region?
Quite a bit and for several different reasons. One is the risk of refugee flows. And this is the main concern of our European partners. They're already looking at a lot of pressure on their systems and their political dynamics from refugee flows out of Syria, for instance. And this is adding to it. This is creating quite a lot of political unrest in terms of debates inside Europe about where these folks are going to go and what's that going to mean for their borders. For the U.S., that's a little bit less of a concern.
It also raises the security risk for Pakistan. We're worried about the Taliban and the ISIS-K successes, emboldening groups inside Pakistan, which is already a little bit of a trouble country for us in terms of the CT threat. We're also worried about our ability to conduct CT operations and the likelihood of either al-Qaida or ISIS trying to establish a new territorial hold inside Afghanistan where we are not there to keep them outside the country any longer. And we're also worried about what this means for U.S. influence in the region writ large.
We're watching Saudi Arabia sign a partnership with Russia on defense issues. While this is happening this week, we're watching China, Iran and Russia conduct planning for a maritime exercise, which will be meant as a signal that they provide a better partnership in the U.S. and NATO can, for instance. So there are quite a few implications on several different levels.
What are the consequences of this withdrawal, this deadline by the middle of this week? If the president says that he's going to withdraw his diplomatic corps essentially what happens to any Americans that are still there?
The Americans that are still there will not be forgotten. There will be an ongoing effort to get them out. And that will entail diplomatic discussions with the Taliban about establishing corridors for those Americans to leave. There's probably a better chance of that happening than there is for establishing an agreement with the Taliban to exfiltrate non-American citizens. So there are a lot of Afghans who either have pending visas or who were integral parts of U.S. operations on the ground or who work with us NGOs that don't have the cover of the U.S. government in the same way, who are high risk now. And there will be ongoing efforts to get them out.
But the diplomatic effort will be with the Taliban about establishing a way for us folks to continue to leave that will probably be using commercial and chartered flights. It will no longer be through military operations on the ground. It will no longer be through Marines with feet on the ground.
We're seeing Macron present a proposal for a humanitarian zone around the airport to keep the airport open. And you can expect the U.S. administration to ask the Taliban to include operations to get Americans out within that safe zone. So the Taliban should probably agree to this. It's in their interest to keep that airport open to keep aid coming in, to keep trade flowing. But they're not likely to support the idea of Afghans departing if they're not American citizens. So it will take quite a bit of diplomacy and leverage to get them to agree to something larger that's not only American citizens.
There's a proposal here in the U.S. that's being discussed about establishing a humanitarian corridor to the airport that would allow for people to safely travel without Taliban checkpoints and without creating crowds at the gates that are targets for ISIS-K, for instance. So if that is added to this discussion in the UN Security Council, that would be one method for people to continue to leave. But again, the Taliban does not want to see Afghans who are non-American citizens leaving. They claim it is a brain drain and it is probably reducing their targets for kidnap for ransom. But they do make an argument that they need the smartest and brightest of Afghans to stay in the country to help them rebuild it.
With these suicide attacks, are we seeing the beginnings of a power struggle inside Afghanistan now? Because for a while you said, well, wait, who is responsible for security at the airport? And if it's not them, then who's attacking them? And what are the kind of internal power struggles that are going on?
We are seeing a power struggle. You absolutely nailed it. ISIS-K does not want the Taliban to take over control of the country because the Taliban has made an agreement with the U.S. that they will not allow Afghanistan to be a safe haven for ISIS specifically or for al-Qaida or affiliates. Well, if you're ISIS, that's untenable. They've got to challenge the Taliban's authority there. No better way to do it than to make it look like the Taliban does not have control of security of the country. So you have that dynamic.
The other power dynamic you have is with the Haqqani network. They are currently in control of security of Kabul and they have this loose affiliation of sorts with the Taliban as far as the Taliban likes to say publicly. But really they're very linked. But because they are not the same organization, Haqqani Network can carry out operations that the Taliban can claim plausible deniability of. So this means you could have Haqqani Network conducting murder operations around the city. They have a history that goes back even before 2008 of suicide bombings. They also love to conduct kidnappings for ransom.
So I expect we will see people that they consider high value moneymakers, people that they consider very valuable to multinational NGO's being kidnaped and held for ransom as a way to make money for the Taliban Haqqani Network going forward, since they are going to be cut off from official international flows of funding.
Kirsten Fontenrose, director of the Scowcroft Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Thanks so much for joining us.
Happy to be here. Thank you.
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