Forward to the Past? Weigh Covert Options in Afghanistan Carefully
Is “Charlie Wilson’s War” due a sequel? The movie, like the book that inspired it, recounted the flamboyant congressman’s role in escalating America’s war in Afghanistan during the 1980s. Through one of the CIA’s largest covert action programs, the United States supplied huge amounts of arms and money to the mujahedeen, who bravely fought the Soviet army and ultimately drove it out of Afghanistan.
With that country now under the control of another brutal authoritarian regime, some in Washington argue it’s time to dust off the 1980s covert action playbook. Even though most of Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in August, a desperate resistance effort continues in the Panjshir Valley.
Ahmad Massoud, leader of the resistance and son of the famed guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, has very publicly requested U.S. support. In a Washington Post opinion article on Aug. 18 and a series of media interviews, he exhorted America to take up its role as the “arsenal of democracy” and provide his newly formed National Resistance Front with weapons and assistance. Plenty in Washington listened sympathetically, determined not to abandon the rebels to the Taliban. Predictably, the calls for action gathered steam, spearheaded by Republican Rep. Mike Waltz, who appears eager to play the role of a modern-day Charlie Wilson. Joined by influential Sen. Lindsey Graham and others, together they called on President Joe Biden to “stand with our friends in the Panjshir Valley” and to recognize them as the “legitimate government representatives” of Afghanistan.
As far as can be ascertained from fragmentary news reports, the resistance hangs on by a thread. The Taliban has declared victory in Panjshir after occupying the provincial capital of Bazarak and the international media, largely dependent on journalists embedded with the Taliban, have been quick to accept this line. But it is worth recalling that Soviet forces also occupied parts of the Panjshir multiple times during the 1980s yet could not maintain their presence. Bazarak is only a short way into the long valley and, while symbolic, hardly represents a militarily decisive objective. The resistance claims it continues to occupy “strategic positions” and has vowed to fight on: If it can hold out until the winter snows arrive this could give it time to regroup and resupply. Meanwhile, Massoud called for a national uprising, just as widespread protests rocked Kabul. Although the prospects for the resistance look grim, it might be premature to declare “game, set, match.”
Even if the National Resistance Front loses territorial control over much of Panjshir, active opposition to Afghanistan’s new regime will continue, especially if the Taliban maintain the hardline approach suggested by recent appointments. Calls for U.S. support will also continue. The Taliban are not a united group and have swept to power on the basis of a patchwork of deals with local leaders. The speed of their success has taken them by surprise, and early indicators suggest they will struggle to provide stable or effective governance. The Taliban have already made missteps, could overreach in their relations with China, and there are signs of tension with Pakistan and Iran. American covert action could — in theory — exploit all of these dynamics to divide and discredit the regime.
The Biden administration is not about to ride into the breach to rescue the resistance. But covert action in Afghanistan, especially aimed at something less than regime change, remains a distinct possibility. However, it comes with plenty of hazards and the Biden administration should proceed carefully.
The Lure of Covert Action
Biden has repeatedly stated his commitment to extricate America from so-called forever wars and, as the nature of the Afghan exit underscores, he tends to hold his ground once he has made a decision. Having achieved his central aim of withdrawal from Afghanistan, it would be nonsensical to immediately wade back in — especially given the lack of appetite for doing so among the American public and with midterm elections to be held next year.
Despite this, some form of covert action in Afghanistan is a real possibility for at least three reasons. First, there is clearly pressure from some American politicians to do something about the Taliban’s victory, even if there is little domestic enthusiasm for military intervention. In such circumstances, presidents typically turn toward the hidden hand to bypass domestic constraints. Covert action becomes a silver bullet to solve intractable problems, or an appealing halfway house between doing something and doing nothing.
Second, the record indicates that when considering covert operations the United States often acts because it can, rather than because it should. Whatever the policy reticence or bleak prospects for a successful insurgency, there is a tendency within intelligence and military circles to believe that positive action is possible. America’s spies have a habit of fighting the last war again. The United States has extensive experience in conducting covert actions and unconventional warfare, bolstered in recent years by the formulation of quasi-doctrine related to “light-footprint” and “by, with and through” indirect approaches. America has an array of dedicated units — boasting 20 years of experience overseeing paramilitary operations in theaters such as Somalia, Syria, Iraq and, not least, Afghanistan — capable of rapid deployment for just such missions. Apart from paramilitary action, the United States has even more experience in conducting political and influence operations, designed to divide and discredit targets, dating back to the CIA’s founding.
Third, reinforcing this “can-do” spirit will be the inexorable march of events. The United States will likely still have some contacts in place in Panjshir and perhaps beyond, and initial tentative interactions might generate a momentum of their own. There may even be discrete American activity already taking place on the ground, at least in terms of intelligence collection and liaison. When it comes to covert action, tactics have a habit of driving strategy. And the United States could always encourage private initiatives or facilitate the covert actions of other states, such as France — which has close ties to Massoud and a president who has expressed support for “those who cherish freedom” — or India, which has most to lose from the alliance between the Taliban and Pakistan. The CIA director has already held talks with the Indian national security adviser to discuss developments in Afghanistan.
Covert Options: Perils and Pitfalls
Although a large-scale paramilitary covert action to overthrow the Taliban is unlikely, the U.S. government has other covert options available. These include more limited programs designed to keep alive a spirit of resistance in Afghanistan, communicate determination to allies, or simply impose costs on the Taliban regime. American policymakers may see advantages in signaling resolve to the Taliban or disrupting their activities, and a small toehold within the country might allow the United States to launch counter-terrorism operations against the Islamic State in Afghanistan or al-Qaeda elements there. The composition of the Taliban’s interim regime offers little confidence that they can be relied upon to take counter-terrorism seriously themselves. The caretaker minister of the interior, for example, is none other than Sirajuddin Haqqani, who was featured in an FBI wanted poster with a $10 million bounty on his head.
Other potential options include covert action to identify and exploit divisions or contradictions within the Taliban and its new government, including those between moderates and hardliners, between the formerly exiled political leadership and its military wing, and between the different terrorist factions making up the regime. The U.S. government might also consider efforts designed to exploit frictions between the Taliban and states such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, or China. Political warfare or influence operations are a much more common form of covert action than grandiose attempts at regime change. All regional powers are concerned about Afghanistan once again serving as a base for cross-border terrorist attacks upon their territory. Iran is watching closely to see how the Taliban behave toward the large Shiite Hazara population, including those who have taken refuge in the Panjshir. China will likely be wary of expanding its geopolitical footprint and influence in the country if there is continuing armed opposition and instability.
Even covert options with limited goals, however, are fraught with hazards. If an operation involves the provision of weapons, they could get into the wrong hands, just as they reportedly did during the recent covert action supporting rebels in Syria. Any relationship between the United States and whatever is left of the resistance movement within Afghanistan would be complicated. Proxies are not puppets and they often manipulate their sponsors: Anyone the U.S. government supports on the ground would pursue their own interests, which may not align with America’s. Working through intermediaries, who will also have their own aims, would exacerbate these problems.
Massoud, or others like him, will probably hype their access to valuable intelligence on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan and request covert support — in the form of money, communications equipment, or training — from the CIA in return for providing information. Any such arrangement, even if starting small as a counter-terrorism operation, could easily drift toward an open-ended U.S. commitment.
Political warfare and influence operations also come with risks. First, they can start small but incrementally grow into paramilitary action, developing a life of their own. The multi-billion-dollar covert action in 1980s Afghanistan began with propaganda. Second, in an interconnected world, political and influence operations are hard to contain and risk reaching unintended audiences, including back home. Even rumors of operations can undermine the legitimacy of those supported or can corrode trust more widely. Third, political and influence operations are very difficult to evaluate. All the while, secrecy creates a ceiling on all types of covert activities, as does the lack of substantial U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
The United States Should Proceed Cautiously
If the U.S. government seriously considers potential covert actions in Afghanistan, it should set clear and realistic goals, including benchmarks for success. Experts stress the importance of keeping open the option of walking away if the mission is no longer serving national interests: That’s an imperative that grows more problematic the more involved the United States becomes, as reputational concerns and vested interests expand. There is always the temptation to escalate and to pursue increasingly grand aims.
In any covert action, policymakers and officials should determine the appropriate allocation of resources and levels of secrecy based on the stated goal. The former is an obvious point (although often forgotten in practice if historical cases of tools driving strategy are anything to go by). The latter is less so, and too often gets overlooked. Determining appropriate levels of secrecy is more nuanced than commonly thought, and exposure — to certain audiences — does not necessarily mean failure. Those crafting a covert action program should ask: From whom is an operation intended to be secret, and to whom is it intended to communicate something? Perhaps the United States might want to signal resolve to the Taliban in order to gain leverage over their policies. Perhaps a covert action might be aimed at Chinese or Pakistani audiences, or even to give succor to policymakers in neighbors of Afghanistan, like Tajikistan, who are fearful of the Taliban’s takeover. Goals, resources, and secrecy are interrelated.
Meanwhile, even the limited — seemingly low-risk — option of disrupting or discrediting the Taliban could still end up inciting another full-blown civil war in Afghanistan. In that event, what comes next? Would U.S. policy then be to covertly intervene on behalf of an emboldened opposition? Or what about the laudable aim of covertly supporting the brave women out on the streets protesting the Taliban? Would such encouragement lead to material support if the Taliban continue to brutally crack down on opposition, or will anti-Taliban protestors get left high and dry? External political intervention, especially if exposed, risks changing the dynamics of genuine protests and undermining both the protestors’ and America’s goals.
Any covert action should be properly integrated into wider interagency decision-making to ensure proper scrutiny, and so that it does not compete with or undercut other U.S. government activity (such as humanitarian efforts or diplomatic initiatives). A covert move to disrupt the Taliban could adversely impact opportunities for U.S. engagement with, or influence on, the new regime. Such engagement might, for instance, be required to push Afghanistan’s new rulers to allow a more inclusive political settlement, to ensure the country is not used as a base by international terrorist groups, or to advocate for the protection of rights (to the limited degree possible). It would be damaging, perhaps dangerous, to engage in covert action against the Taliban without coordinating such efforts with other parts of the U.S. government, leaving them unprepared when the Taliban complains or retaliates.
Covert action is simply one part of a broader strategy. Those officials and policymakers weighing up options should ask: What would the United States want to get out of secret activities? How would the various possible goals of such operations play into the wider U.S. political strategy and into regional geopolitics?
In the unlikely event of a major U.S. covert action program that overthrew the Taliban, a host of new problems would emerge — problems that the United States has already demonstrated, through 20 years of failed efforts, to be beyond its means to adequately address. Even if the United States considers more limited forms of covert action to disrupt the Taliban, it should proceed extremely cautiously. There would be a need for clear goals, alignment with wider policy aims, bipartisan support, bureaucratic control, and exit options. Any action should be based on a comprehensive analysis of associated risks. This is a high bar even for seemingly low-risk operations like dividing and discrediting the Taliban. Such action could dramatically escalate levels of violence in Afghanistan or unwittingly draw the United States back into a country Biden is determined to leave.
Thomas Waldman (@tom_waldman) is a senior lecturer in international security studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. He is author of Vicarious Warfare: American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap (Bristol University Press, 2021) and War, Clausewitz and the Trinity (Ashgate Publishing, 2013).
Rory Cormac (@rorycormac) is a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham in the United Kingdom. He has written widely on intelligence and covert action, most recently Disrupt and Deny: Spies, Special Forces, and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy (Oxford University Press, 2018). His next book, Covert Actions: Subversion, Sabotage, and Secret Statecraft, is forthcoming with Atlantic (2022).