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Don’t Arm the Afghan Resistance

Supporting anti-Taliban fighters will spark a return to civil war, antagonize Pakistan, and draw the United States back into a conflict it sought to put behind it.

By , a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute.
Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take rest as they patrol on a hilltop in Darband area in Anaba district, Panjshir province on Sept. 1, 2021.
Afghan resistance movement and anti-Taliban uprising forces take rest as they patrol on a hilltop in Darband area in Anaba district, Panjshir province on Sept. 1, 2021. AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Leaving Afghanistan

U.S. President Joe Biden is convinced that exiting Afghanistan was the right thing to do. But even he knows that putting the country in Washington’s rearview mirror is something the United States cannot afford to do.

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is likely to turn into a magnet for terrorism, as it was pre-9/11. Top U.S. intelligence officials estimate that in a year or two, al Qaeda could regroup.

Protecting the U.S. homeland from terrorists including the Islamic State, who could use Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks against the West, remains a top U.S. concern.

U.S. President Joe Biden is convinced that exiting Afghanistan was the right thing to do. But even he knows that putting the country in Washington’s rearview mirror is something the United States cannot afford to do.

Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan is likely to turn into a magnet for terrorism, as it was pre-9/11. Top U.S. intelligence officials estimate that in a year or two, al Qaeda could regroup.

Protecting the U.S. homeland from terrorists including the Islamic State, who could use Afghanistan as a launchpad for attacks against the West, remains a top U.S. concern.

But how can the United States most effectively meet this priority moving forward? Now that U.S. forces have departed and the Afghan military, which Americans trained and equipped for 20 years, has disintegrated, the options range from bad to worse.

One of these options is over-the-horizon strikes, attacks launched from nearby countries, which the United States has already exercised. But the risks of this tactic are clear. On Aug. 29, the U.S. military tragically killed 10 innocent Afghan civilians, seven of whom were children, because its members couldn’t tell the difference between an aid worker and an Islamic State operative. Of course, not all over-the-horizon operations are unreliable; in fact, they can be incredibly precise and effective. But they do require local intelligence and patient target development, which the U.S. military didn’t have for the Aug. 29 strike.

Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Mike Waltz, along with a growing number of conservative American lawmakers, have presented another option: arming the so-called Afghan resistance. “We’re going to lead and drive this from Congress if the White House and the administration refuses to,” Waltz said. Meanwhile, Graham has been active in his efforts to build support in Washington for Amrullah Saleh, an Afghan opposition leader.

Putting aside the political motivations of Graham and Waltz, one can see why the idea of providing weapons to Afghans who could restrain the Taliban and fight terrorism sounds attractive.

The premise is that by applying military pressure against the Taliban through local parties, the group’s worst instincts can be checked. More specifically, such leverage might push the group to meaningfully cooperate on counterterrorism and pursue more inclusive governance.

Arming the Afghan resistance also would seek to cultivate local partners on the ground who could provide the United States with critical human intelligence and thus enable more effective over-the-horizon operations.

Lastly, helping an Afghan faction that opposes the Taliban’s radicalism and ostensibly supports women’s rights, it is assumed, helps atone for America’s sins and protect previous investments in Afghan human development.

However, none of these arguments is convincing.

More than 20 years of experience in Afghanistan have clearly shown that military pressure against the Taliban didn’t succeed in taming them one bit or in forcing them to cut ties with al Qaeda.

If Washington pursues this policy, U.S. officials are almost guaranteeing a return to civil war in Afghanistan.

The case for arming local Afghan rebels in the present circumstances of post-American withdrawal is not only based on questionable assumptions but also fraught with tremendous risks.

If Washington pursues this policy, U.S. officials are almost guaranteeing a return to civil war in Afghanistan. The United States can militarily defeat the Taliban by proxy with the right level of support, but it won’t be able to uproot them or win the peace.

Some might argue that a stalemate between the Taliban and the Afghan resistance would be enough. But threading that needle in the absence of U.S. troops on the ground will be very difficult given the Taliban’s determination to establish uncontested governance.

It’s also worth learning lessons from history. An internal CIA study from previous years found that arming rebels rarely works, and the approach was even less effective without any direct U.S. support on the ground. Of course, the United States did succeed in kicking the Soviet Army out of Afghanistan in the 1980s without a U.S. military presence, but Washington relied on Pakistani intelligence officers who partnered with the Afghan mujahideen to make it work.

If the United States arms Afghan insurgents today, Pakistan will intensify its support to the Taliban until they regain control. The last thing Washington needs in Afghanistan is an even more strained relationship with Islamabad.

Even if Afghan fighters in Panjshir Valley manage to prevent the Taliban from taking over their lands with U.S. military help, this will in no way promote human rights or improve the plight of women in Kabul.

It’s also not entirely clear who these rebels are. They’re not the Taliban, but that doesn’t mean they’re model citizens either. According to reports by international human rights organizations and America’s own Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, some (not all) of these militias have behaved terribly, raping women, using violence against ethnic minorities, stealing land, and turning underaged boys into soldiers. With no U.S. personnel on the ground, how will Washington vet and exert control over them once it arms them?

Equally important, does the Biden administration want to send sophisticated U.S. weapons to a place awash with terrorists who could seize those weapons? There’s already a boatload of arms left by the Americans that were supposed to be used by the Afghan military but now have been seized by the Taliban. The additional proliferation of arms will also further militarize Afghan society, permit more aggressive forms of warlordism, and worsen a bad humanitarian crisis.

None of this suggests that the reign of the Taliban will produce peace or eradicate terrorism emanating from Afghanistan. Nor does it imply that Washington should tolerate the Taliban’s proven misconduct and treachery.

But there are other tools, including regional diplomacy, economic statecraft, and better-crafted remote strikes, to try to influence the Taliban’s behavior and achieve long-term U.S. objectives.

Arming Afghan rebels does not constitute a comprehensive Afghanistan strategy, which the United States desperately needs. It’s a feel-good tactic more than anything else. America has caused enough suffering in Afghanistan. The least the U.S. government can do is not make the situation worse.

Bilal Y. Saab is a senior fellow and director of the Defense and Security Program at the Middle East Institute and a former senior advisor in the U.S. Defense Department with oversight responsibilities for security cooperation in the broader Middle East. His upcoming book, Rebuilding Arab Defense, will be published in 2022.

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