Kabul: Any foreign troops left in Afghanistan after NATO’s September withdrawal deadline will be at risk as occupiers, the Taliban has told the BBC. It comes amid reports that 1,000 mainly US troops could remain on the ground to protect diplomatic missions and Kabul’s international airport.
NATO’s 20-year military mission in the country is on the verge of finishing, but violence in the country continues to rise, with the Taliban gaining more territorial ground as per reports. As Afghan forces prepare to take charge of security alone, concern is growing for the future of Kabul. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen told BBC that seizing Kabul militarily was “not Taliban policy”.
But speaking to the BBC from the militant group’s office in Qatar, he said no foreign forces – including military contractors – should remain in the city after the withdrawal was complete. “If they leave behind their forces against the Doha agreement then in that case it will be the decision of our leadership how we proceed,” Shaheen said. “We would react and the final decision is with our leadership,” he said. Diplomats, NGOs and other foreign civilians would not be targeted by the Taliban, he insisted, and no ongoing protection force for them was needed.
“We are against the foreign military forces, not diplomats, NGOs and workers and NGOs functioning and embassies functioning – that is something our people need. We will not pose any threat to them,” he said. Shaheen described last week’s withdrawal from Bagram Airfield – once the largest US military base in Afghanistan – as a “historic moment”. Under a deal with the Taliban, the US and its NATO allies agreed to withdraw all troops in return for a commitment by the militants not to allow al-Qaeda or any other extremist group to operate in the areas they control.
Another development is that a small number of Special Forces troops from the British army are set to stay behind in Afghanistan as Western troops withdraw 20 years after the US-led invasion following the September 11 attacks. The SAS soldiers are expected to remain in the country in an ‘advisory’ capacity while also helping to train soldiers from the Afghan military. It comes as the last regular British troops left Afghanistan on Sunday, ending a costly involvement in which 454 UK soldiers and civilians have died in the country since the launch of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom. A former SAS soldier, who was recently in Afghanistan, told The Telegraph a small number of troops will remain there as an ‘advisory group’.
While Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to make a final decision on Monday at a National Security Council meeting, the soldier said the deal was as good as made. The veteran said the SAS troops would ‘provide training to Afghan units and deploy with them on the ground as advisors’. He also said there was ‘no determined time’ for how long the elite British soldiers will have boots on the ground in Afghanistan. “As long as they continue to see value they will keep forces there,” he told the newspaper. “It’s not a pleasant place at the moment, people are scared and rightly so. The Taliban control the countryside and are just waiting for the coalition to leave. They are making it abundantly clear at every opportunity that their peace is with the coalition and not the Afghan government. The country will implode,” he said. But a senior military source said UK PM Johnson is yet to make a decision on whether he will keep SAS troops in the country, adding: “It’s our job to provide different options to the Government”. A Ministry of Defense spokesperson said, “The UK is involved in ongoing discussions with US and international allies regarding the future of our support to Afghanistan.” While the UK may keep a small number of British SAS troops on the ground, the US are keeping 650 soldiers in Afghanistan are staying to protect its embassy.
Meanwhile, General Austin Scott Miller, the top US military official overseeing the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, said that there should be concern about the Taliban advances on the ground there. “We should be concerned. The loss of terrain and the rapidity of that loss of terrain has to be concerning, because the war is physical, but it’s also got a psychological or moral component to it. And hope actually matters. And morale actually matters,” Miller said in an interview with ABC News.
“So, as you watch the Taliban moving across the country, what you don’t want to have happen is that the people lose hope and they believe they now have a foregone conclusion presented to them,’ he added. Miller expressed his concern about the security situation in Afghanistan and raised the potential of a civil war once US troops are gone, as the Taliban are already moving rapidly to take over districts in the northern parts of the country. “You look at the security situation, it’s not good. The Afghans recognize it’s not good. The Taliban are on the move. We’re starting to create conditions here that won’t look good for Afghanistan in the future if there’s a push for a military takeover,” he said.
Along with military commanders, members of Congress have also raised concerns about a resurgence of terrorism should the US-backed government in Kabul fall soon after US troops exit the country. Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, on Sunday warned that Biden will be held responsible for the aftermath of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. “When we fully withdraw, the devastation, and the killings, and women, humanitarian crisis fleeing across border of Pakistan — President Biden’s going to own these ugly images,” the Texas Republican said in an interview on “Fox News Sunday”. He criticized the Biden administration for what he called a “lack of planning and preparation” in the troop withdrawal and accused the President of playing politics with the decision to end American’s longest war. He expressed concern that Afghanistan could go the way of Iraq, where terrorist extremists were able to gain power in the country once US troops left, then forcing the US to send troops back. He also predicted a “major civil war” in the country and added that he worries about the US embassy in Kabul.
Also, the former head of MI6 has warned that the threat to Britain from terror groups including Al-Qaeda will grow if NATO powers turn their backs on Afghanistan. Sir Alex Younger told Sky News that it would be an ‘enormous mistake’ to neglect the country and predicted that the most likely outcome for Afghanistan is civil war between a resurgent Taliban and the US-backed Afghan government.
The ex-spy chief revealed that he was ‘very worried’ that Russia could exploit the crisis in Afghanistan to harm Britain and her allies, two decades after the US-led coalition invaded the country following the September 11, 2001 atrocities in New York and Washington DC. Sir Alex, who retired as chief of the Secret Intelligence Service in September last year, also said every goal set by the international community to rebuild the Afghan state was ‘unrealistic’ goal. It comes as the last regular British troops left Afghanistan on Sunday, ending a costly involvement in which 454 UK soldiers and civilians have died in Afghanistan since the launch of the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom.
Meanwhile, as US President Joe Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan nears completion, his administration still hasn’t finalized its policy for pursuing terrorists in the country once US troops have departed, CNN reported. While the US military will retain authority to carry out strikes against the Taliban in support of Afghan forces, as CNN reported on Friday, that authority does not necessarily extend to counter-terrorism operations in the country against those suspected of planning attacks against the US homeland or allies.
For years, the CIA and US military have had broad authority to kill suspected terrorists in Afghanistan, targeting decisions that could be made by senior military and intelligence officials and did not always need final sign off by the White House. But as Biden prepares to end the war, his National Security Council is studying whether to raise the bar for the CIA and the Pentagon to carry out deadly drone strikes and commando raids once US troops are gone, according to people familiar with the matter. Sources tell CNN that the Biden administration is also still debating whether to remove the combat zone designation for Afghanistan — a technical distinction that in recent years has greatly impacted how freely the US uses lethal drone strikes and commando raids in a given country.
Under the Trump administration, commanders in the field were authorized to make targeting decisions under their own authority in countries like Yemen and Somalia, in addition to Afghanistan. But the Biden administration is reviewing the rules there as well, and it remains to be seen if the administration will put Afghanistan on a similar footing or implement specific criteria for terrorists there post-withdrawal. So far, the NSC deliberations — which are nested within a broader study of Pentagon and CIA authorities globally — are in early stages, officials familiar with the work tell CNN, and options have not yet been delivered to senior White House officials for final review. That current uncertainty leaves the military and the CIA in limbo as they await updated guidance on what kind of approval they will need to launch lethal strikes after Biden declares the war to be over.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday that the US would continue to work with countries “that share our interest in countering the reemergence of a serious external plotting capability emanating from Afghanistan, should that emerge,” but noted that Afghan security forces would be “in the lead” following the US troop withdrawal. Internally, CIA officials remain uncertain of what the agency’s future operations in Afghanistan will look like after the withdrawal, according to people familiar with the matter. Agency officials are closely watching the security situation on the ground as predictions about Afghanistan’s stability have become more dire over time.
For months, the Biden administration has been reviewing its standards for military and CIA strikes in terrorism hotspots around the globe, like Somalia and Yemen, whose status as “areas of active hostilities” has been hotly debated for years. That broader review has yet to be completed and in the meantime, the White House has been more tightly controlling the agency’s lethal operations worldwide. Also, Russia does not discuss deployment of its military contingent in Afghanistan with Kabul amid the ongoing escalation near Afghan borders, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists on Monday. Also, Tajikistan is looking into setting up camps for potential refugees from neighbouring Afghanistan amid escalating violence across the border, government sources told Reuters on Monday.
Meanwhile, the first six members of Afghan personnel, who worked with the German military during their time in Afghanistan, have arrived in Germany with their families, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Monday. Their arrival marks the beginning of a program to provide asylum to Afghans who aided the Bundeswehr and who are now fearing for their lives as the Taliban regains control of large parts of the country. A total of 23 individuals — including children — were flown out of the city of Mazar-i-Sharif in the north of the country by Turkish Airlines, Spiegel said. Another 30 are expected in the coming days. German military officials prepared documents for 471 local workers, such as interpreters, shortly before withdrawing from the country at the end of June. A further 2,380 visa documents were also readied for their families.