Report

‘Charlie Wilson’s Playbook’: Lawmaker Pushes Biden to Back Anti-Taliban Resistance

Administration remains focused on evacuation efforts for now.

U.S. Rep. Mike Waltz speaks during a press conference.
U.S. Rep. Mike Waltz speaks during a press conference on Capitol Hill with members of the American Legion in Washington on June 16. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

The Biden administration is facing pressure from Congress to begin supporting Afghan resistance groups as the clock runs out on the massive U.S.-led evacuation effort from the Taliban-controlled country. Some lawmakers who have converted their offices into miniature operations centers to help get Americans and Afghan allies onto flights out of Afghanistan are now looking for ways to extend lifelines to pockets of anti-Taliban resistance groups that include remnants of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret who has spoken with anti-Taliban leaders, said he is looking for ways to give the U.S. administration the legal authority to support the emerging anti-Taliban resistance—even if U.S. President Joe Biden is looking to wash his hands of the 20-year war.

“Look, we’re going to take a play out of Charlie Wilson’s playbook,” Waltz said. “We’re going to lead and drive this from Congress if the White House and the administration refuses to.” Waltz was referring to a former Texas congressman who played an instrumental role in funding a covert CIA program to supply Afghan mujahideen, who fought Soviet forces during the 1979 to 1989 Soviet-Afghan war.

The Biden administration is facing pressure from Congress to begin supporting Afghan resistance groups as the clock runs out on the massive U.S.-led evacuation effort from the Taliban-controlled country. Some lawmakers who have converted their offices into miniature operations centers to help get Americans and Afghan allies onto flights out of Afghanistan are now looking for ways to extend lifelines to pockets of anti-Taliban resistance groups that include remnants of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Rep. Mike Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret who has spoken with anti-Taliban leaders, said he is looking for ways to give the U.S. administration the legal authority to support the emerging anti-Taliban resistance—even if U.S. President Joe Biden is looking to wash his hands of the 20-year war.

“Look, we’re going to take a play out of Charlie Wilson’s playbook,” Waltz said. “We’re going to lead and drive this from Congress if the White House and the administration refuses to.” Waltz was referring to a former Texas congressman who played an instrumental role in funding a covert CIA program to supply Afghan mujahideen, who fought Soviet forces during the 1979 to 1989 Soviet-Afghan war.

It’s unclear if these efforts will gain traction on Capitol Hill or elsewhere in Washington. Defense Department Press Secretary John Kirby told reporters this week that money the Pentagon had budgeted to fund the Afghan military is now being held up. The Senate Armed Services Committee is “carefully considering” how to handle previously authorized funding for the Afghan security forces and government, said Cole Stevens, a spokesperson for Senate Armed Services Committee chairperson Jack Reed, stressing none of the money would go to the Taliban. Advocates for the Taliban resistance face a war-weary administration and public not eager to expend more U.S. treasure in Afghanistan.

But Waltz’s efforts reflect an emerging debate about what a U.S. strategy in Afghanistan should entail after the Afghan government’s rapid collapse and the Taliban’s ascension to control most of the country for the first time in 20 years. A small resistance to the Taliban has flared up in northeastern Afghanistan, with Ahmad Massoud, son of the longtime Northern Alliance leader, commanding some units from the former Afghan army.

Providing support to the resistance in Panjshir—whether political, financial, or military—could only incite further violence in the country as talks between the Taliban and other power brokers in Afghanistan commence. On the other hand, it could present the only viable option left for the United States to keep a toehold in the country and counterterrorism operations afloat.

“We have no bases … and now we have a far better armed Taliban thats sitting on a treasure trove of American equipment. Believe me, the situation is bleak, but we do have this beachhead,” Waltz said. “If we let it get wiped out, thats even that much less to work with when we have to deal with al Qaeda 3.0.”

But proposals to back the rebels in Congress are going beyond military aid. In a joint statement on Friday, Waltz and Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham called for the Biden administration to declare the Taliban’s overthrow of Kabul illegal and recognize Massoud and former Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh—who is serving as Afghanistan’s caretaker president—as the legitimate leaders of the war-torn country.

“These leaders chose to stay and fight for the freedoms of the Afghan people and oppose extremism,” Waltz and Graham said in a joint statement. “They have established a safe haven in the Panjshir Valley for Americans left behind, our allies, and those seeking freedom from Afghan Taliban rule.”

Five congressional aides told Foreign Policy it is too soon to tell whether there is enough appetite in Congress regarding widespread support for the anti-Taliban resistance. But that could change as Washington sizes up whether the new Taliban rulers of Afghanistan make good on their claims to have loosened ties to transnational terrorist groups.

Former U.S. officials as well as lawmakers say they are skeptical the Taliban will cut their ties with al Qaeda or other extremist groups. Warning signs abound. An unclassified report from the U.S. intelligence community released in April warned al Qaeda “continue[s] to plot terrorist attacks against U.S. persons and interests, including to varying degrees in the United States.” A U.N. report to the Security Council in May of 2020—just four months after former U.S. President Donald Trump signed an agreement with the Taliban to withdraw U.S. forces —asserted the “Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honour their historical ties.”

In Biden’s party, however, war weariness has set in even amid desperate efforts to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghan partners from Kabul. Some Democratic members of Congress signaled they want Biden to redirect funding earmarked for Afghanistan elsewhere, though they have not explicitly weighed in on the prospects of U.S. support for Taliban resistance.

“The fact that it’s just taken for granted that the now unnecessary $3 BILLION in Afghan army training money will be sucked up by some other DoD expense, rather than say, used to help Americans afford child care or community college, is a little bit what’s wrong with Washington,” Sen. Chris Murphy, a Democrat who supports Biden’s withdrawal decision, tweeted on Wednesday.

The White House did not respond to questions about whether administration officials have made any contact with the Afghan resistance or offered any form of support.

A State Department spokesperson declined to say whether the department had been in contact with Massoud or Saleh, who has also vowed to resist Taliban rule from Panjshir.

“We don’t go into the details of all our diplomatic engagements. The United States is talking to a range of Afghan leaders engaged in government formation talks,” the spokesperson said. “We encourage a peaceful and orderly transition of power to an inclusive government with broad support. That is the best outcome for Afghanistan’s long-term security and stability.”

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have voiced concern that, despite the Taliban’s claims, the militant group will allow the country to once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups looking to target the United States, particularly al Qaeda.

Massoud, the foreign-educated, 32-year-old leader of the so-called “National Resistance Front of Afghanistan” said in a Washington Post op-ed he is consolidating former Afghan security force members and weapons to fight the Taliban. Massoud is the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a famed guerrilla warrior who led the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. Massoud in his op-ed urged foreign governments to support his group. “No matter what happens, my mujahideen fighters and I will defend Panjshir as the last bastion of Afghan freedom,” he wrote. “Our morale is intact. We know from experience what awaits us. But we need more weapons, more ammunition and more supplies.”

Future U.S. administrations could potentially draw on resistance groups to launch covert operations that require the president’s signature, former defense and intelligence officials said. “If ever a future administration wants to turn on some spigot of covert action, we likely have allies inside,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer who served in Afghanistan.

But some experts fear U.S. support for such a resistance group could incite further conflict in Afghanistan and snuff out hopes for a power-sharing arrangement between the Taliban and other Afghan leaders. Others in Congress think providing military aid to Afghan resistance will only drive the Taliban closer to terror groups. “If we want the Taliban not to do things we dont like, such as giving safe haven to terrorist groups, I dont think funding an anti-Taliban insurgency really helps that,” a senior Senate aide, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Foreign Policy.

Other experts and former defense and intelligence officials acknowledged the military situation on the ground is much bleaker for resistance groups than in 2001, when U.S.-led forces and the Northern Alliance overthrew Taliban rule. Still, they said failing to support figures like Massoud and Saleh will seal the fate of an anti-Taliban resistance and could leave the United States with no viable options to stifle terror groups or challenge the Taliban, several former officials said.

Almost entirely cut off from external supply lines by Taliban positions, Massoud’s forces—which include ex-Afghan government groups, some remnants of the defeated Afghan Army, and a narrow faction of the Northern Alliance—would likely need to be supplied from the air, experts said. And it’s not just Americans who are worn out from decades of war in Afghanistan.

“Most Afghans are tired of fighting too,” Haroun Rahimi, an assistant professor of law at the American University of Afghanistan, told Foreign Policy in a text message. “If [the] Taliban don’t do something outrageous, it would be hard to mobilize a lot of forces against them.”

In recent days, the Biden administration has kept U.S. policy focused on his Aug. 31 deadline to clear out troops, personnel, and civilians from Afghanistan. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters on Wednesday that “right now, my entire focus” is on the mission to evacuate U.S. citizens and Afghans who worked with U.S. forces from Kabul’s airport.

Speaking at an event earlier this week, David Petraeus, a former CIA director and top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, said it was too soon to consider using the resistance movements as leverage, noting it could spark civil war. “The real problem for those who are in Panjshir right now is that there is no connectivity to the outside world. When Ahmad Shah Massoud was there, they had a way of linking up to one of the Central Asian states, at the least from the northeastern end of that valley,” Petraeus said.

The senior Senate aide feared U.S. military aid to resistance groups could lead to “even more suffering, destabilization, and displacement.”

With bipartisan support for U.S. troop withdrawal, despite the images emanating from Kabul’s chaotic evacuation, some former officials think it will take another catastrophic terrorist attack for the Biden administration to get serious about supporting any Afghan resistance.

“I think it is unlikely that this administration will want to start an arm-and-equip program with them immediately after withdrawing from the country,” said Michael Mulroy, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense under the Trump administration and former CIA officer. “But if another 9/11 happens, it will likely be considered then.”

Update, Aug. 27, 2021: This story has been updated to provide additional information about congressional proposals to support Afghan resistance groups.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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