America’s New War in Afghanistan? New Phase Could Include Drone Strikes, Sanctions and Support For Anti-Taliban Insurgents

The capture of the Afghan capital of Kabul by the Taliban insurgent group on August 16th came as a major surprise due to the swiftness of the collapse of the heavily armed Afghan Military, with the brief battles surrounding the city ending almost 20 years of control by either U.S.-led coalition forces or the Western-backed Afghan government. 

While the Joe Biden administration’s popularity has fallen to record lows following the U.S. withdrawal, which has been widely criticised for being rushed and poorly planned, Washington remains unlikely to accept that its longstanding adversaries have come to power in the country and is expected to continue operations against the Taliban for the foreseeable future. 

With the Taliban now effectively representing the government of Afghanistan, however, the nature of this conflict is likely to be very different from that of the preceding 20 years. How the Taliban will respond, and whether this will push the new government in Kabul to cement security and economic ties with neighbouring states such as Iran, China and Pakistan, remains to be seen. 

On August 17th it was announced that Afghan government assets in the United States had been frozen - presumably, until a government more favourable to Western interests could be brought to power if not indefinitely. 

That day U.S. President Biden said that the U.S. planned to continue military operations in Afghanistan after the final withdrawal of U.S. forces scheduled for August 31st, indicating that the country would shift to a more cost-effective ‘drone war’ similar to that in Somalia and before 2015 in Yemen which would not require boots on the ground. 

Pakistani President Imran Khan notably bluntly rebuffed requests by the CIA to use his country’s territory for future offensive operations across the Afghan border after the U.S. withdrawal, however, which has raised questions regarding how the U.S. could strike the Taliban or its affiliates in future. With Afghanistan being landlocked the possibility of U.S. attacks from the sea is likely to be excluded as it would require violating the airspace of the country’s neighbours.

A continued U.S. war effort against the Taliban could focus both on economic sanctions to place downward pressure on living standards, and on support for insurgents who could receive Western training, funds and intelligence support. Indeed, a number of U.S. media outlets claimed from August 18th the beginning of the emergence of a new “alliance against the Taliban” in Afghanistan's northern regions, where the group has historically had a much weaker presence. First Vice President of Afghanistan, Amrullah Saleh, was highlighted as the leader of this movement, which is reportedly well-armed with its own transport helicopters. 

Where previous Western efforts to support an insurgency in Afghanistan were facilitated by access to Pakistani territory as a staging ground for operations, without the support of Afghanistan’s neighbours, which is unlikely to be provided, the support that can be given will likely be far more limited. On August 18th images showing an increased U.S. military presence at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport were publicised, with the airport expected to remain under American control until the end of the month when the withdrawal is complete. The American role in the country beyond that time, however, remains highly uncertain. 

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