“I’m smoking too much these days. Before I smoked a pack a week and now I smoke half a day,” confesses Bill Roggio, director of Long war journal, a publication of think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) on the war against terrorism with special attention in Afghanistan, and which has been the source of the advance of the Taliban with their maps.
Roggio has spent years monitoring the activity of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and is currently closely following the latest news from the Asian country. The analyst details the mistakes of the last four US governments, explains the collapse of the Afghan Army and analyzes the Taliban strategy and the future of the resistance.RELATED
It has followed the Taliban for years. After your first press conference and other statements showing a more moderate face, would you say they have changed?
The Taliban have changed, but not in the way that people expect. It is still a brutal, repressive and totalitarian regime, but what has changed is that it has become more politically intelligent and has an effective and sophisticated media campaign that is capable of fooling naive Western reporters and politicians.
In fact, the latest UN monitoring report says that Taliban continue to have ties to Al Qaeda.
That is something that my colleague Tom Joscelyn and I have covered and documented for years and the UN is right. The ties between Al Qaeda and the Taliban are as strong today as they have ever been. Al Qaeda has played a key role in this offensive, especially in the north, where it has helped regional jihadist groups to integrate with the Taliban to enhance their fighting power and to reach Uzbek, Tajik and Turkmen communities.
This is another matter where the Taliban have managed to mislead Western officials and some journalists. They say they will not allow their territory to be used to carry out attacks against the West, but that is the same lie he told before 9/11.
Will Afghanistan again become a threat to the rest of the world in terms of terrorism?
That threat never went away. Al Qaeda has always been there fighting alongside the Taliban. In recent years, even after the agreement between the US and the Taliban [de febrero de 2020]US and Afghan forces have killed several high-level al Qaeda leaders, including a member of the central shura who was the director of Al Sahab, its main outlet.
Biden has blamed the Taliban victory on the Afghan army due to an unwillingness to fight, but various estimates put more than 60,000 police and army officers killed during the war, what do you think of that statement?
President Biden has left the Afghan people, the military and its former president in the lurch. It is shameful. The Afghan Army has proven not to be up to the task of defending the country, but it has made sacrifices. Tens of thousands of people have died fighting the Taliban, who emptied and weakened the Afghan army before this offensive began.
The Afghan military and security forces were demoralized by the announcement of the Doha agreement with the Taliban under President Trump and then by the withdrawal of President Biden. Biden shares the blame for this and it is shameful that he speaks in such a way of an ally who made great sacrifices to help make Afghanistan not a threat to the West.
The president also said that the army was as strong and capable as any other army in the world. Was it a political statement or was it really a bad intelligence assessment?
One of the biggest problems we have had in Afghanistan is not understanding the Taliban and their maximalist goal of reestablishing the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. We thought that there was a peace to be achieved and that there was no military solution when they did have a military solution.
This has been a huge intelligence failure on many levels and this is one of them. The United States has been unable to adequately assess the Afghan Army and its combat capabilities. On the other hand, perhaps they did not care about the possibility of collapse either because they expected a political solution to be reached between the two parties when there really was none.
And why was the defeat of the Afghan Army so quick?
In 2014, when the US transferred security to the Afghan Army, which means that they would be the ones to do the ground operations with the support of the US and NATO, the strategy of the Taliban was to take control of rural areas and then use that power to expand.
Meanwhile, the strategy of the United States, NATO and the Afghan government was to defend the cities and ignore the rural areas, which they said were not important because they controlled the bulk of the population. This worked in favor of the Taliban, who in these areas were intact and expanded their influence. They even entered cities twice.
The American commanders dismissed it and instead of realizing that they had a problem in the rural areas that needed to be solved, what they did was to redouble the talks with the Taliban. General Miller [último comandante de EEUU en Afganistán] He literally said that the true sign of success was not the military situation, but the state of the negotiations. Meanwhile, Afghan forces were besieged by the Taliban, who were weakening the army in those contested areas.
The day before President Biden gave his speech announcing withdrawal in April, the Taliban controlled 73 districts and disputed 210 out of a total of 407. At the end of June, the Taliban controlled more than 220 districts and the number of disputed districts fell to about 100. The Taliban razed and consolidated all these areas. I would say that the Afghan Army was defeated even before the Taliban launched their offensive. It was a matter of the Taliban flipping the switch and going on the offensive. At the end of July, the Taliban controlled about 230 districts and then moved to focus on cities. On August 5 the first city falls and the rest fall like dominoes.
The offensive was clear since May, could the US have done something then?
What would have been necessary is for President Biden to renounce his withdrawal policy, and he was not going to do so. An immediate change would have been necessary in a month. The US would have had to deploy combat forces and launch a massive air campaign against the Taliban. That’s the only thing that probably would have stopped this.
What future do you see for the resistance organized in the Panjshir Valley and led by Vice President Amrullah Saleh?
Saleh is a leader and Panjshir has historically always been a stronghold of resistance to the Taliban. It has significant challenges ahead. First of all, it is isolated. It is an island in a Taliban sea. Second, the supply lines have been cut. Right now he has the war material for the short term. I am sure that Panjshir was probably prepared and accumulated material while the rest of the country fell, but at some point things like fuel, ammunition, spare parts will be needed … and the ability, for example, to be able to fly the helicopters and planes that they have will diminish. Furthermore, it does not have any external support at the moment, least of all from the US, which is approaching the Taliban to evacuate its personnel.
It will also be important what the Russians will do and that will dictate the behavior of the Russians. istans, especially Tajikistan. Saleh and the Panjshir resistance are mainly Tajik. Before September 11, 2001, Panjshir and Badakhshan were the only provinces controlled by the Northern Alliance – an anti-Taliban coalition. Badakhshan was the headquarters of the Northern Alliance and is currently under the control of the Taliban, but there are doubts how well garrisoned it is by the fundamentalists, for which Saleh could be exploited.
As a former director of intelligence services, Saleh also has contacts throughout the country. There are tens of thousands of soldiers and intelligence personnel who are playing their skin. The Taliban are hunting some of them, but these people can give Saleh a lifeline. Saleh has the ability to reach out to them and try to organize them, but it is a complicated task.
For the Taliban, crushing him should be their top priority, even before securing their power over Kabul because any hint of resistance is a direct threat to their ability to take full control of the country.
He argues that the US agreement with the Taliban signed by the Trump Administration was a terrible mistake. Why?
It legitimized the Taliban and delegitimized the Afghan government. It demonstrated to the Afghan people, the military and the government that the United States was no longer on their side and gave the Taliban confidence that once the United States began to withdraw, they would be able to implement their final strategy to retake Afghanistan.
From the US point of view, we have had three governments in a row whose main objective has been to get out of Afghanistan. What the last two administrations, Trump’s and Biden’s, did was try to buy time, as in Vietnam. They hoped that the Afghan government could fight for years and then point the finger at them without there being a direct line between withdrawal and the collapse of the government. That agreement did not succeed because when President Biden announced the withdrawal, the Taliban were already on their way to Kabul.
Did the deal tie Biden’s hands as the president argues?
He was not bound by the agreement. It was not a treaty ratified by Congress. You have to take responsibility for your decision. This decision is yours. He could have ruled out Trump’s bad deal, which he admits was. Why as president of the United States do you adhere to a deal that you consider bad and that has no binding legal authority? It is cynical of Biden to blame his predecessor for a decision that is his. You have had seven months to develop your strategy.
He also criticizes the increase in troops ordered by Obama at the time, why?
The troop build-up was flawed for multiple reasons. It did not address the threat from Pakistan, which was the refuge of the Taliban. In addition, he set a time limit and did not address the situation against the Taliban throughout the country, but instead focused on the south. He said the troop surge would be over in 18 months, so he sends the message to the Taliban that they just have to hang on.
During this time period, more American soldiers died than in the rest of the war in Afghanistan. Anyone with half a brain would have known he was doomed.
We have reviewed the rulings of Biden, Trump and Obama. What about the Bush Administration? Some big mistake in your Afghan strategy?
The failure of the Bush Administration was to form the wrong Afghan government and build the wrong Afghan army. He needed a government for Afghanistan and not a Western-style government. He needed an army for Afghanistan and not a Western Afghan army. He did not need a centralized and hierarchical government as we have in the West, but he needed a more flexible federal government, probably led by someone respected by all who delegated power to the provinces.
For its part, the military had to organize itself in a similar way. A kind of National Guard for the provinces where you have the locals fighting for their homes and their areas. Then there could be regional commands to support the provinces and, finally, a centralized military command that could support the regions. Something like a strategic army reserve.