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India has good reason to worry over Taliban’s rise: Ex-CIA official

“They obviously see your country (India) as an existential threat and any issue or challenge to them is viewed through that prism,” said Douglas London, who was CIA’s counterterrorism chief for South and Southwest Asia during 2016-18.

As someone who oversaw operations in Afghanistan as the CIA’s chief for counterterrorism in South and Southwest Asia during 2016-18, Douglas London had a ringside view of key developments and events that culminated with the fall of Kabul to the Taliban on August 15.

London, who was involved in assessments of Afghanistan prepared for former US president Donald Trump and consulted as a volunteer with Joe Biden’s counterterrorism working group during the campaign for the last presidential election, says India has good reason to worry about the rise of the Taliban, given Pakistan’s backing for the group and the complicated security scenario in the region.

The CIA veteran, who retired in 2019 after 34 years of service, argues that what happened in Afghanistan was worse than an intelligence failure, and outlines the Haqqani Network’s long-standing ties with the Pakistani military. London, who is publishing a memoir of his time at the CIA this month, “The Recruiter: Spying and the lost art of American intelligence”, talks about how the US-Taliban peace deal of 2020 was the “worst agreement” the US has ever negotiated.

This conversation was edited for clarity.

Senior US officials such as Gen Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have implied an intelligence failure with regard to the Taliban victory in Afghanistan. You have been arguing it’s much worse than that.

Under both the Biden and Trump administrations, I observed that the calculus for Afghanistan policy was more geared towards domestic political considerations as opposed to national security issues resulting from the consequences of leaving or staying in Afghanistan. In my opinion, that made it worse than an intelligence failure, which would have been the case had the intelligence community failed to forecast the developments which played out or became aware of crucial information but neglected to bring to the attention of policy-makers. Neither of those scenarios turned out to be the case nor influenced the decisions taken by both administrations.

Were you surprised by the speed at which the Taliban marched into Kabul?

Every scenario is forecasted against a range of conditions and “what ifs”. So when an assessment is done – and I’m sure the RAW and IB do it the same way – they offer a range of possible outcomes given projected conditions and policies. The assessment for such outcomes varied based on scenarios, which ranged from different levels of US forces or the timeline for US withdrawal, and for the state of progress in negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Another key factor was the stability of the Afghan government. As it turned out, we faced the worst case scenario, under which [President Ashraf] Ghani was unable to maintain strong alliances with various political and regional groups, while at the same time the US had highlighted its intent to go early on. Meanwhile, the Taliban proved insincere in its pledge to pursue a political rather than military settlement and increased the level of violence while undercutting the government’s cohesion by negotiating and paying off regional opponents who were left unpaid, unsupported and without US military or logistical support. Under such circumstances, it was expected the government could collapse within days to weeks. I think Gen Milley’s comments that he never saw an assessment projecting “the government could collapse in 11 days” were good political theatre but no intelligence assessment predicts to a day.

You’ve also described the 2020 deal between the US and the Taliban as catastrophic. One of the things that surprised people in India was how the Taliban were not being held to any commitments.

I think the problem was the treaty language wasn’t really binding to specific commitments, and offered the Taliban room for interpretation. So, when the US negotiated the treaty, it didn’t even require the Taliban to recognise the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan by name. Yet the Taliban were recognised in the agreement by their name, “the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan known as the Taliban”. The Taliban had the freedom to interpret the agreement because the language only required them to talk to other Afghan parties, leaving them the room to choose who they thought were legitimate or non-legitimate representatives. Even in the prisoner exchange of about 5,000 people, if you look at the language, the agreement said they were to be released by the “other side”, it didn’t even speak to an official entity or name the Afghan government.

Regarding relationships with terrorist groups, the Taliban believed it was required only to prevent Afghan territory from being used for terrorist operations. The Taliban saw no requirement to break their relationships or expel such groups, let alone turn over those indicted for prosecution by other countries. Now, if you noticed, I think about a week ago, a Taliban spokesman mentioned the Taliban was yet to be convinced that al-Qaeda was responsible for 9/11. So bearing that in mind, how likely do you think it is that the Taliban would acknowledge the presence of foreign terrorists on their soil, let alone turn them over?

So, if you look at the conditions [in the treaty], they didn’t reduce violence. Violence increased remarkably within the week after the February 2020 agreement was signed, they chose not to recognise any official representatives of the government and they didn’t cut ties to terrorists. The only aspect to which they held was in not instigating attacks against US forces, but that was in their own interests. By not instigating attacks, they didn’t provoke retaliation or increase the possibility the US would stay or increase its forces. So it was probably, diplomatically speaking, the worst agreement I’ve ever seen the US negotiate.

You’ve also been critical of the role played by former secretary of state Mike Pompeo and Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative for Afghanistan reconciliation, especially how Pompeo championed the agreement despite intelligence warnings.

Pompeo was the director of the CIA before he became secretary of state. During that time is when [president Donald Trump] announced the new South Asian strategy, in August 2017. That was the result of the intelligence community really sounding the alarm about the consequences of a precipitous US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the potential resurgence of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups in an accelerated fashion, enabling them to resume external plotting, including against the US homeland. Pompeo supported that view in 2017 and the intelligence never changed.

In 2018, [president Trump] lost patience very quickly, before the new South Asian policy was given time to reap results. He had made it clear that he wanted to leave Afghanistan expeditiously. For political considerations, Pompeo flipped and went ahead to provide the president a solution to support his desire in spite of the intelligence. He wound up connecting with Khalilzad, who was conducting his own independent effort at the time to try to get back into the action by talking to Afghans he believed represented the Taliban. That’s how he sold his way into Pompeo’s circle and thus became the new special representative, usurping the work of then US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asian affairs, Alice Wells, who was taking a hard stand with the Taliban and Pakistan. It’s my personal opinion that Khalilzad was willing to do anything it took to gain Trump’s favour because he was hoping to become secretary of state to replace Pompeo on the assumption, which was pretty much the given at that time in the US, that Pompeo was looking at a Senate run, which he then abandoned later on due a lack of political support.

A recent development that really struck people in South Asia was when the state department spokesperson said the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are separate entities. Do you have any thoughts on that?

Clearly, he misspoke. That’s not the position of the US government. Officially, we identify the Haqqani Taliban Network – that’s actually its official name in the US intelligence community – as being part of the Taliban. The Haqqanis are, by themselves, a vast and longstanding criminal network, but they swore bay’aht, pledged allegiance to the Taliban and fought under the Taliban and really provided the teeth to the Taliban strategy, which was to destabilise the Afghan government by attacks in the cities, including massive suicide bomber attacks, truck bombs and vehicle-borne IEDs, which really did shake up the government.

They concurrently promoted a military campaign in the rural areas and the countryside to try to isolate the provincial capitals and the big cities.

I know [state department spokesperson] Ned Price made that comment, which was really unfortunate and Jen Psaki upheld it, but it is at odds with the official US government view as related by the intelligence community. All you need to do is look up the Rewards for Justice and the state department website, and you’ll see it’s the Haqqani Taliban Network.

Admiral Mike Mullen, former chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, described the Haqqani Network as a “veritable arm” of the ISI in 2011.

The Haqqanis are in bed and in league with the ISI. I wouldn’t say they’re a product of the ISI, which was responsible for enabling the Taliban and the Haqqani Network. Without the sanctuary from which the Taliban and Haqqanis could protect their leaders and move materials, arms and fighters across the border, they could not have endured and prevailed, but I don’t believe the ISI actually created the Haqqanis. The Haqqani Network is long-standing, it’s principally a criminal network involved in narcotics, extortion, real estate and all of that business for years and years.

They [the ISI] certainly provided great support to the Haqqanis, but it was a co-dependent relationship. The Haqqanis profited from the ISI and the ISI profited from the Haqqanis.

Images have emerged of the ISI chief arriving in Kabul for meetings with the Taliban. What do you make of that?

I’ve seen pictures of Lt Gen Faiz Hameed. These are all people he’s met before. I mean he was meeting them in Pakistan, though obviously they can’t acknowledge that. So, it’s simply taking the relationship to a different place out in the open, and at a different and now official level.

With the Taliban clearly facing problems on the economic front, how important will be the role of the Haqqanis in managing finances for the regime in Kabul?

The Haqqanis are looking after their own finances. Their priorities are money, the family and their own establishments in the north and northeast. I hear the commentary by the White House and other governments, which suggests that because of this great financial need that the Taliban will have in governing, that there will be leverage on the part of the West. I’m not so confident because what the Taliban does not want is interconnectivity between Afghanistan and the rest of the world. There’s a reason they would like to keep Afghanistan free from global integration.

I believe they’re prepared to look for ways to finance essentially an agrarian subsistence economy but they’re going to have more trouble in the cities, where 20 years of development and education have raised expectations. I don’t see the Taliban, despite their lip service, wanting significant industrial development for the country that could provide more influence and presence to the West, which for them brings with it all the problems of keeping its own society in line with a very reactionary and repressive philosophy. In a way, I see a similarity between the Taliban leadership and the hardliners in Iran, who want to be free from the threat of sanctions, influence and pressures the West can use in its investments to leverage change in their country. I think the Taliban will be content to find a way to be self-sufficient to the point of subsistence, which I think is in their power to do over time based on their regional relationships with China and other sources of income. They’re going to court a variety of foreign investments from China and others without becoming overly reliant on any one, particularly Western sources. China’s desire to press ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative will make them an enthusiastic partner. They’re going to benefit from foreign remittances among Afghan labourers abroad, donations and criminal enterprises such as the narcotics trade. I think their preference is not to get too far down the line with great development projects, which will leave them vulnerable politically to outside influence and pressure and require global integration that might threaten their control at home.

The Taliban seem to have learned how to handle public relations better and the projection of issues such as human rights in an apparent effort to get some sort of legitimacy. But will the world community be able to hold them to these commitments?

I think they became very media-savvy because they pursued a very concentrated disinformation programme throughout the war, for which we gave them lots of material to use, what with the civilian casualties and the errant airstrikes. It totally fed into their narrative, and they became very aware of how successful that was. It worked very well and they got better press than the Afghan government did. A lot of their success was making more out of their gains than was really happening militarily, because they weren’t winning military battles in their final conquest. They were basically paying people off and negotiating their way from city to city and town to town, similar to what they had done in 1996.

The West kept talking about this great juggernaut, which really played into their strategy. If you’re sitting up in Balkh or somewhere else in the north or west, you’d be thinking they’re going to take over the country and it would be better to cut a deal. And in terms of the Taliban’s pledge to be different than they were in regards to the rights of women and other basic civil liberties, that dialogue and messaging is not from the people who’ve been making the decisions for the Taliban for the last 20 years. Sher Mohammed Abbas Stanekzai has been out of the country for 20 years. He was part of the Taliban five who were traded for [kidnapped US soldier Bowe] Bergdahl. Moreover, Stanekzai was under house arrest by the Taliban before 9/11 and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar was left to rot in prison for eight years. If the Taliban really wanted Baradar out, I guarantee you they could have gotten him out. They made no such effort because he was long out of favour with the Taliban’s senior leaders then living in Pakistan.

So, all these people that are talking about Taliban 2.0, a kinder, gentler Taliban are under the lights of cameras, whereas we don’t know what’s going on where we have no visibility, nor what’s in the minds of the Taliban’s actual decision-makers.

The reflections I see on social media suggest rather that it’s the same old Taliban, they’re hunting enemies, they’re executing people, they’re torturing, and they’re keeping women at home. That’s the Taliban, and decisions are not being made by Baradar, Stanekzai or any of these folks now on camera. The decisions are being made by a much closer circle of people from whom we don’t hear.

Given your focus on South Asia in your last role in the CIA, what implications will the rise of the Taliban have for this region and primarily for India? There is evidence out there of the presence of fighters from Pakistani groups in Afghanistan and what does that mean for regional security?

I think India has good reason to worry. Pakistan’s policies of supporting various jihadist groups and the Taliban were all done through the prism of Pakistan-India rivalry. They obviously see your country as an existential threat and any issue or challenge to them is viewed through that prism.

My concern is that Pakistan’s support of these jihadi groups has unleashed forces that could eventually go beyond their control and threaten the rule even of the generals in Pakistan. What comes then, if the generals are overthrown by jihadist, religious or an ISIS-like set-up, would be very disconcerting.

I don’t think India has helped itself by its virulent anti-Islamic campaigns and use of nationalism and religion for political gain at home. I think it will leave India as well pretty vulnerable to threats from within as well as from without.

Tensions obviously have only increased with China, which is a closer partner with Pakistan and is trying to cultivate a stronger relationship with Afghanistan. China is concerned about what will happen if the Taliban support and cultivate Uyghur separatism in China, and so wish to discourage giving Afghanistan any reason to do so but I see the Taliban leaders as willing to promote and facilitate the jihadist groups with which they have long fought, partnered and even intermarried, and that’s a threat for Pakistan, India and the Central Asia republics.

Now you have the Taliban in charge of Afghanistan, and I don’t see them cutting their ties with any of these groups, with the Kashmiri liberation groups that fought with them over the course of the war, the Lashkar-e-Taiba and the Jaish-e-Mohammed.

I think the time has come for regional players like India, the generals in Pakistan, Iran and the Central Asian states to realise that they need to start making some changes and finding a way to work together so as to impede forces that could lead to greater turbulence and instability across the region.

I think people need to start talking. I think the Pakistani generals need to realise that time is not on their side, [because of] having cultivated a lot of these forces that can consume them as well. I’m just worried the timing is not right because the Indian government has not extended a hand to the Muslim community inside of India, and is therefore probably not in a real great position to start looking at compromise with the Pakistanis or the Chinese.

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