Pax Americana Died in Kabul

Biden’s Afghan disaster ranks as one of the biggest foreign-policy failures of any US president since World War II. Yet Biden remains tone-deaf to the realities, including damage to America’s international credibility and standing.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

The terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, following President Joe Biden’s precipitous and bungling military exit, has brought an ignoble end to America’s longest war. This is a watershed moment that will be remembered for formalizing the end of the long-fraying Pax Americana and bringing down the curtain on the West’s long ascendancy.

At a time when its global preeminence was already being severely challenged by China, the United States may never recover from the blow this strategic and humanitarian disaster delivers to its international credibility and standing. The message it delivers to US allies is that they count on America’s support when they most need it at their own peril.

After all, the Afghanistan catastrophe unfolded after the US threw its ally – the Afghan government – under the bus and got into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists, the Taliban. President Donald Trump first struck a Faustian bargain with them, and then the Biden administration rushed to execute the military exit dictated by the deal, even though the Taliban had been openly violating the agreement.

The dramatic collapse of the Afghan defenses and then the government was directly linked to the US betrayal. Biden admits Trump “drew US forces down to a bare minimum of 2,500” in Afghanistan. By refusing to retain that small military footprint and by ordering a rapid exit at the onset of the annual fighting season, Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan military’s feet, thus facilitating the Taliban’s sweep.

The US had trained and equipped the Afghan forces not to play an independent role but to rely on American and NATO capabilities for a host of battlefield imperatives – from close air support, including drones for situational awareness, to keeping US-supplied weapon systems operational. Biden’s calamitous troop pullout without a transition plan to sustain the Afghans’ combat capabilities unleashed a domino effect, with 8,500 NATO forces and some 18,000 US military contractors also withdrawing and leaving the Afghan military in the lurch.

As former CIA Director General David Petraeus has explained, ever since US combat operations in Afghanistan ended on January 1, 2015, Afghan soldiers had been bravely “fighting and dying for their country” until the US suddenly ditched them this summer, mortally compromising Afghan defenses. This assessment is reinforced by the number of military deaths: Since the US combat role ended more than six and a half years ago, Afghan security forces lost tens of thousands of soldiers, while the Americans suffered just 99 fatalities, many in non-hostile incidents.

This is not the first time the US has dumped its allies – or even the first time in recent memory. In the fall of 2019, the US abruptly abandoned its Kurdish allies in northern Syria, leaving them at the mercy of a Turkish offensive.

But in Afghanistan, the US sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Its self-inflicted defeat and humiliation have resulted from a failure of political, not military, leadership. Biden, ignoring conditions on the ground, overruled his top military generals in April and ordered all US troops to return home. Now, two decades of American war in Afghanistan have culminated with the enemy riding triumphantly back to power.

Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) were killed in Vietnam, 2,448 US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan. Yet, the geopolitical implications of the US defeat in Afghanistan are much more significant globally than the American defeat in Vietnam.

The Pakistan-reared Taliban may not have a global mission, but their militaristic theology of violent Islamism makes them a critical link in an international jihadist movement that whips hostility toward non-Sunni Muslims into nihilistic rage against modernity. The Taliban’s recapture of power will energize and embolden other violent groups in this movement, helping to deliver the rebirth of global terror.

In the Taliban’s emirate, al-Qaeda, remnants of the Islamic State (ISIS), and Pakistani terrorist groups are all likely to find sanctuary. According to a recent United Nations Security Council report, “the Taliban and al-Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, a front for Pakistani intelligence.

The unraveling of the effort to build a democratic, secular Afghanistan will pose a far greater threat to the free world than Syria’s meltdown, which triggered a huge flow of refugees to Europe and allowed ISIS to declare a caliphate and extend it into Iraq. The Taliban’s absolute power in Afghanistan will sooner or later threaten US security interests at home and abroad.

By contrast, China’s interests will be aided by the Taliban’s defeat of the world’s most powerful military. The exit of a vanquished America creates greater space for China’s coercion and expansionism, including against Taiwan, while underscoring the irreversible decline of US power.

An opportunistic China is certain to exploit the new opening to make strategic inroads into mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran, and Central Asia. To co-opt the Taliban, with which it has maintained longstanding ties, China has already dangled the prospect of providing the two things the militia needs to govern Afghanistan: diplomatic recognition and much-needed infrastructure and economic assistance.

The reconstitution of a medieval, ultra-conservative, jihad-extolling emirate in Afghanistan will be a monument to US perfidy. And the images of Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters transporting Americans from the US embassy compound in Kabul, recalling the frenzied evacuation from Saigon in 1975, will serve as a testament to America’s loss of credibility – and the world’s loss of Pax Americana.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

America’s self-inflicted defeat and humiliation

The US has grievously hurt its international credibility with a self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. Its enemies can only be celebrating. The security and humanitarian disaster that the Biden administration has unleashed in Afghanistan will likely unravel whatever is left of American primacy.

 Brahma Chellaney  | OPEN magazine

BETRAYAL, VIOLENCE AND surrender have defined Afghanistan’s history for long, especially as the playground for outside powers. The US-midwifed terrorist takeover of Afghanistan fits with that pattern. When an ageing US president, refusing to consider conditions on the ground, overrules his military generals and intelligence agencies and orders a precipitous and ill-planned action, it is a sure recipe for a foreign policy disaster. The blame for the international humiliation wreaked on the US by the terrorist capture of Afghanistan must be laid squarely at the door of Joe Biden, the oldest person to ever assume the American presidency.

The fact that the US, however unwittingly, aided the Taliban conquest of Afghanistan is likely to redraw attention to American policies which, over the decades, have spawned dangerous jihadists. America’s troubling ties with violent Islamists were cemented in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan’s administration used Islam as an ideological tool to incite armed resistance to the Soviet military intervention Afghanistan. In 1985, at a White House ceremony attended by several Afghan mujahedeen (jihadists), Reagan gestured toward his guests and declared, “These gentlemen are the moral equivalent of America’s founding fathers.”

Within years, however, many of the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers, including Osama bin Laden, came to haunt US security. Yet, there was never any debate in the US on the lessons for the US from the CIA’s creation of jihad-extolling mujahideen. In fact, under President Barack Obama, the US ruined two countries—Libya and Syria—by arming jihadists to topple governments there.

The experiment in Syria, the second largest covert operation in CIA’s history after the clandestine war against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan in the 1980s, failed to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad. But the US-led intervention in Libya led to seven months of NATO airstrikes in the name of democracy, resulting in the overthrow of the secular dictatorship that Muammar el-Qaddafi ran for 42 years and the still-continuing jihadist chaos there.

Afghans injured by the Taliban’s use of guns, whips and sticks to control the crowd on the road to the airport in Kabul, August 17 (Photo: Getty Images)

Against this background, it is worth remembering how the US got into an overt war in Afghanistan that became the longest armed conflict in American history. The US-led invasion in October 2001 ousted the Taliban from power in Kabul for harbouring the Al Qaeda planners of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, the key Al Qaeda leaders, including Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, Abu Zubaida and Ramzi Binalshibh, were later found holed up inside Pakistan. Yet, paradoxically, the US, while raining bombs on Afghanistan for almost 20 years, rewarded Pakistan in the same period with tens of billions of dollars in aid.

It was the US reluctance to take the war to the other side of the Durand Line by targeting the Taliban’s command-and-control bases in Pakistan that undercut America’s war effort in Afghanistan. Rather than degrade and decapitate the Taliban, the US sought “reconciliation” with its battlefield enemy, allowing the medieval, jihadist militia to gain strength and terrorise Afghans. As General John Nicholson, the then US military commander in Afghanistan, admitted in 2017, , “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” The reluctance to target the Taliban’s cross-border network structure in Pakistan hobbled the US military mission in Afghanistan right until Biden’s bungling military exit.

The fact is that, in modern world history, no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border state sponsorship and safe havens. This also explains why terrorists remain active in the Kashmir Valley. As former CIA Director General David Petraeus said recently, “the Taliban, Haqqani Network and the other associated extremists and insurgents have their headquarters, their major bases, outside of Afghanistan and beyond our reach in Pakistan, where our Pakistani partners refuse to eliminate them from their soil. So, you could never truly win.”

US President Joe Biden speaks about Afghanistan from the East Room of the White House, August 16 (Photo: AP)

The protracted search for a Faustian bargain with the Taliban also explains why that ruthless militia was never added to the US list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This approach counterproductively led to an ascendant Taliban expanding their territorial control and killing government forces in growing numbers.

By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers and unleashing the Afghanistan disaster, Biden must shoulder the blame for America’s international humiliation. Let us be clear: there was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout

The Taliban, like Al Qaeda, evolved from the violent jihadists that the CIA trained in Pakistan to wage war against the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan. It was only after the September 11th, 2001, terrorist attacks at home that the US turned against the Taliban. Then, in search of a face-saving exit from the military quagmire in Afghanistan, America embraced the Taliban by concluding a “peace” deal with them. That development eventually led the US to unwittingly enable the conquest of Afghanistan by the same thuggish group that it had removed from power in 2001.

AMERICA’S FATEFUL DEAL WITH TALIBAN

It was US President Donald Trump’s capitulation to the Taliban at the negotiating table that set in motion events that culminated under his successor in America’s humiliating rout in Afghanistan. The deal was clinched after more than a year of negotiations, with US and Taliban representatives signing the agreement on February 29th, 2020 at Doha, Qatar.

Desperate to exit Afghanistan, Trump accomplished what his predecessor set out to do but failed—to cut a deal with the Taliban. It was with the aim of facilitating direct talks with the Taliban that Obama allowed the militia to establish a de facto diplomatic mission in Doha in 2013. Then, to meet a Taliban precondition, the Obama administration freed five hardened Taliban militants (two of them accused of carrying out massacres of Tajiks and Hazaras) from Guantánamo Bay. The five were described by the late US Senator, John McCain, as the “hardest of hard core”.

But when the then Taliban chief, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, defiantly refused to revive stalled peace negotiations, the CIA, on Obama’s orders, assassinated him inside Pakistan with a drone strike in 2016. Although Obama hailed Mansour’s killing as “an important milestone”, it did little to change military realities on the ground.

Kenneth F McKenzie, the commanding general of US Central Command, inspects an evacuation control centre at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, August 17 (Photo: Reuters)

After Trump came to power, he promised to reverse the worsening Afghanistan situation that he inherited from Obama by “winning again”. Yet, two years into his term, he embarked on fulfilling his predecessor’s quest for a deal with the Taliban. Trump’s message, including from his drawdown of US troops in Syria, was unmistakable: To exit from messy situations of its own making, the US doesn’t mind throwing its allies under the bus—from the Afghan government to its Kurdish partners in Syria.

Instead of the promised Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, Trump clinched the deal with the Taliban without prior consultations with Kabul and then sought to sell it to a sceptical Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. In doing so, Washington involuntarily aided the Taliban effort to delegitimise the elected Afghan government. Given that Ghani was blindsided by the “peace” accord, it was no surprise that Washington did not care to take India, its supposed “major defence partner”, into confidence either.

Under the largely one-sided deal, America committed to the withdrawal of all US and NATO forces by May 1st, 2021. By promising a terrorist militia a total American military exit in about 14 months as well as a pathway to power in Kabul, the US, in essence, entered the terms of its surrender in the agreement.

The accord US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad finalised with the Taliban in Qatar read more like US capitulation to a terrorist organisation. The US, despite having earlier signed a security pact with Kabul in 2014 to maintain nine military bases, conceded the Taliban’s main demand for a total American exit. In exchange, the terrorist group offered a fig leaf—a promise to deny other terrorist networks a foothold on Afghan soil. However, as a recent United Nations Security Council report pointed out, “the Taliban and Al Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Pakistan-based Haqqani Network, a veritable arm of Pakistani intelligence.

The deal was a major diplomatic win for the Taliban’s sponsor, Pakistan, which, until the Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan, sheltered the top Taliban leadership and provided cross-border sanctuaries to Taliban fighters. A year before the deal with the Taliban, Trump had cut off most security assistance to Pakistan, saying, “The US has foolishly given Pakistan more than 33 billion dollars in aid over the last 15 years, and they have given us nothing but lies and deceit, thinking of our leaders as fools. They give safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan, with little help.”

Yet in February 2020, Trump agreed to abandon Afghanistan to Pakistan’s machinations. Under successive US presidents, Pakistan has been rewarded for sponsoring cross-border terrorism.

The Doha agreement document, as revealed to the public, was short. It, however, contained classified appendices that were never declassified. Two of the elements contained in the secret appendices, as acknowledged in US congressional testimony, were: one, the Taliban pledged not to attack US or allied forces or civilians during the period through the promised US and NATO military exit by May 1st, 2021; and two, the Taliban and the US agreed to jointly target their common enemy, the Islamic State (ISIS)-Khorasan, on the basis of US intelligence shared with the Taliban.

The Taliban, by all publicly available accounts, did stick to their first promise other than committing one violation, when they attacked a joint US-Afghan base. But that promise left the Taliban free to escalate their hit-and-run attacks against Afghan forces and civilians, which they did with increasing brutality. What was dubbed as a “peace” deal engendered greater bloodshed and, as Biden admits, “left the Taliban in the strongest position militarily since 2001.”

Indeed, the “peace” deal not only granted the Taliban respectability and legitimacy, but also meant war on Afghan women and civil liberties. By concluding the deal behind the Afghan government’s back and by excluding the lawfully constituted government from the agreement, the US left intra-Afghan reconciliation talks to move on a separate track. But the Taliban, with their determination to impose a military solution, had no incentive to negotiate in good faith with the Afghan government, let alone to make concessions, because the US had unconditionally agreed to gradually draw down its forces and leave Afghanistan.

In this light, the die had been cast in February 2020 that the US would exit Afghanistan, no matter what. The deal led not only to greater terrorist attacks by the Taliban but also eventually to the unravelling of the elected Afghan government.

BIDEN’S RECORD OF BLUNDERS

Robert Gates, who served as defence secretary under presidents George W Bush and Obama, wrote in a 2014 memoir that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades”. Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the terrorist Taliban vindicates Gates’ grating assessment. By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers and unleashing the Afghanistan disaster, Biden must shoulder the blame for America’s international humiliation.

Let us be clear: There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the US force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted a day before Kabul fell, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor left office.

Taliban fighters assault a crowd trying to raise the national flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan in Kabul, August 19 (Photo: Getty Images)

The small US force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Not a single American soldier had been killed in fighting in the past more than a year-and-a-half, essentially because only Afghan soldiers were on the frontlines since the US combat role in Afghanistan ended on December 31st, 2014. The residual US force was mainly playing a supporting role.

Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice in April and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”

When the Taliban were previously in power, their brutal record evoked the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge. The reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilise the region

In fact, an unclassified version of the US intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April that, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” Biden, however, refused to listen to any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on US and NATO capabilities—from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.

The irony is that Biden was facing no public pressure to quickly end the Afghanistan War. Contrary to the American media trope about “war weariness”, there was no evidence that Americans were tired of the military entanglement in Afghanistan, especially given the very small number of troops involved in the mission and the minimal casualties.

In fact, Gallup polling over the course of the 20-year war in Afghanistan repeatedly found Americans to be more supportive than opposed to that military intervention. The sustained public support to the longest war in American history was in stark contrast to previous US wars, including in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, during which the majority public opinion at some point turned unfavourable, giving rise to anti-war movements.

It was only after Biden had effectively ended the Afghanistan War on July 1st (when US forces secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Airbase, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country) that an American partisan divide over the war became distinct. (The Biden administration, in unpublicised negotiations with the Taliban, had secured a short extension of the original May 1st deadline for exit.) In a July 6-21 Gallup poll, 47 per cent Americans (the vast majority of them Democrats) said the war was a mistake, while 46 per cent said it wasn’t.

If there was any imperative for a rushed withdrawal, it was Biden’s woolly-headedness to honour a one-sided US deal with the Taliban that Trump had bequeathed. The Taliban, Pakistan’s longstanding proxies whose brutal attacks over the years made them the world’s deadliest terrorists, had been openly violating the deal, so Biden’s sticking to it made little sense.

Indeed, Biden’s clinging to a blighted deal seriously compounded a US pattern of undermining the Afghan government, including forcing Afghan authorities last year to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists (a number equivalent to the size of two US army brigades or regiments). The freed terrorists helped spearhead the Taliban reconquest of the country.

If Biden did not want to retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, he could have reduced their number to just 1,000 to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. That would have averted the disaster that has unfolded. But Biden, seeking to imprudently safeguard a deal that had already been wrecked by the Taliban, ruled that option out.

Former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani speaks at an emergency parliamentary meeting in Kabul on August 2. He fled the country on August 15 (Photo: AP)

As one Afghan city after another fell to the Taliban and several American Senators and retired generals urged the White House to immediately unleash US military might to halt the militia’s further advances so as to save Kabul, Biden issued a statement on August 14th that proved the final nail in the coffin for a secular Afghanistan. Biden adamantly stated that, “I was the fourth President to preside over an American troop presence in Afghanistan—two Republicans, two Democrats. I would not, and will not, pass this war onto a fifth.”

By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, the statement led next day to two momentous events—President Ashraf Ghani’s hurried escape from Afghanistan, followed quickly by the fall of Kabul.

This background illustrates how Biden’s actions aided and abetted the terrorist capture of Afghanistan. As a lawmaker from Biden’s own Democratic Party, Dean Phillips, put it, it is the Biden administration’s execution of the Trump-initiated exit strategy that “clearly, by any measure, has been a dramatic failure and stain on the United States.”

By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, Biden’s statement led next day to two momentous events—president ashraf Ghani’s hurried escape from Afghanistan, followed quickly by the fall of Kabul

When the Taliban were previously in power, their brutal record, including destroying historic and cultural artefacts, , evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979. The Taliban’s reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilise the region.

The US and its Western allies are located far away. But with the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, India is being encircled by the China-Pakistan strategic nexus. In fact, the Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan will facilitate an even stronger China-Pakistan axis against India, while aiding the Pakistani intelligence’s proxy war against Indian targets.

The stepped-up threat from the axis may not be of immediate nature, yet the Taliban’s success creates greater strategic space for the two revisionist allies, China and Pakistan, to collaborate and advance their interests at India’s expense. This, coupled with Pakistan’s long-coveted acquisition of “strategic depth” in Afghanistan, holds significant, long-term implications for the security of India and the wider region.

Simply put, after the Afghan people and Afghan nation, India will be the biggest loser from Biden’s Afghanistan blunder.

THE END OF THE AMERICAN ERA

The US has grievously hurt its international credibility and standing with a self-inflicted defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. And its enemies can only be celebrating.

The US, the world’s preeminent power since 1945, has long prioritised the safeguarding of that privileged position. But even before the Afghanistan debacle, America’s global primacy had been slowly eroding. The security and humanitarian disaster that the Biden administration has unleashed in Afghanistan will likely unravel whatever is left of American primacy.

Biden’s fantasy that US security could be advanced simply by bringing back American troops enabled terrorists to recapture Afghanistan. The debacle shows how a fawning media can be dangerous. The US mainstream media had literally spearheaded Biden’s presidential campaign, trashing his opponent and concealing the Hunter Biden scandal. They still slobber over him.

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai (centre left), senior Haqqani group leader Anas Haqqani (centre right), head of Afghanistan’s National Reconciliation Council Abdullah Abdullah (second from right) and other members of a Taliban delegation at a meeting in Kabul, August 18 (Photo: AP)

When Biden ordered a hasty total withdrawal from Afghanistan by overruling top military generals, the US media didn’t question his decision. Contrast that with the way the US media had roasted Trump when, ignoring military advice, he drastically cut troop levels in Afghanistan. It was with the domestic media’s support that Biden embarked on a path of self-delusion, with him and his team naively believing that the US could use aid and sanctions relief to moderate the Taliban and prevent that militia from pursing a military solution.

In his headlong rush to exit Afghanistan, Biden neglected to consult with America’s allies on the tactics or timing. Instead, Biden acted more like his predecessor, whose unilateralism he had repeatedly criticised. Biden’s unilateralist actions that precipitated the Afghanistan disaster, according to one news report, have left America’s closest ally, Britain, “embarrassed and embittered”.

Like a Santa Claus at Christmas, Biden delivered three gifts to the world’s most brutal militia.

First, Biden facilitated the Taliban’s lightning conquest of Afghanistan, including the bloodless takeover of Kabul. The capture of the capital without firing a shot represented a major propaganda success for the Taliban, given that the new rulers need international recognition and economic assistance to govern Afghanistan. A bloody seizure of Kabul would have made the task of securing recognition and aid very difficult.

The Taliban reconquest of Afghanistan will facilitate an even stronger China-Pakistan axis against India, while aiding the Pakistani intelligence’s proxy war against Indian targets. After the Afghan people and Afghan nation, India will be the biggest loser from Biden’s Afghanistan blunder

Second, the Biden-enabled terrorist takeover of Afghanistan has boosted the Taliban’s terrorising capabilities with massive caches of US-made weapons, including artillery, Humvees, helicopters, planes and armoured vehicles. Thanks to Biden, the Taliban now have what they had never dreamed of—an air force.

According to fleet data from Cirium, the Afghan Air Force and Special Mission Wing had 284 aircraft in active use before the Taliban completed its sweep of Afghanistan on August 15th. Between August 14th and 15th, Cirium reported that “a large number of Afghan Air Force aircraft and helicopters were flown by ‘escaping aircrew’ to Termez, Uzbekistan.” A few helicopters and aircraft were also flown to Tajikistan.

But some US-supplied assets that remained on the ground at Afghan airbases have come under Taliban control. These include armed MD530 rotorcraft, UH-60A Black Hawk helicopters, A-29 Super Tucano armed turboprops and MD-530F light scout attack helicopters, as well as Soviet-made Mi-17s. Given China’s longstanding ties with the Taliban, the US has a difficult task at hand in the present circumstances to prevent its technological knowhow from falling into Chinese hands.

Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, admits that a “fair amount” of US weaponry has fallen into Taliban hands. Some reports suggest that a lot of arms, ammunition, military equipment and military vehicles have moved across the border into Pakistan, the Taliban’s procreator.

Third, Biden has helped deliver to the Taliban Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth, estimated to total between $1 trillion and $2 trillion in value. The untapped resources open the path for the Taliban to move from their traditional reliance on opium and heroin trade for income to developing the country’s mining industry with China’s help, which has long sought to exploit Afghanistan’s rich lithium, copper, iron, cobalt and rare-earth deposits.

The Taliban may have an “emir”, or spiritual leader, who was long holed up near Quetta in Pakistan, but in Biden, they have found a godfather.

Old age is usually associated with caution and judiciousness. But the 78-year-old Biden has lived up to the adage “Act in haste, repent at leisure”. In doing so, he has undermined the trust of allies in US leadership. America’s allies henceforth will balk at unquestioningly toeing its line on issues in which they have a stake. Biden, by handing Afghanistan to terrorists, has also undercut the US-led global war on terror. The US may not be able to recoup from the Afghanistan disaster.

Yet, Biden refuses to accept any responsibility for bringing the Taliban back to power. In his August 16 speech to the nation after the Taliban completed its sweep, Biden blamed everyone—from Trump to the Afghan government and Afghan military—except the Taliban and himself. As The Wall Street Journal put it editorially, Biden is “determined in retreat, defiant in surrender, and confident in the rightness of consigning the country [Afghanistan] to jihadist rule.”

In fact, to escape culpability for the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, Biden has pinned the blame on Afghan troops for not putting up a fight—a myth the US mainstream media has been quick to embrace. In truth, Biden pulled the rug out from under the Afghan forces’ feet, with his precipitous withdrawal leaving the Afghan military high and dry.

It is America’s misfortune that, at a critical juncture when China is aggressively expanding its strategic footprint and clout, it is led by a weak president whose repeated bungling in a short time has triggered major crises from the southern US border with Mexico to Afghanistan. America’s enemies can only be emboldened by a president who rationalises his bungling in Afghanistan as strategic prudence. Foes will see such fecklessness as an opportunity for them to seize.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.

Biden surrenders Afghanistan to terrorists

BY BRAHMA CHELLANEY, The Hill

Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obamawrote in a 2014 memoir that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” President Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the terrorist Taliban vindicates Gates’s grating assessment.

By spurning the advice of his civilian and military advisers, Biden must shoulder the blame for the international humiliation wrought on the United States by the terrorist capture of Afghanistan. There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the U.S. force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted over the weekend, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor, Donald Trump, left office. 

The small U.S. force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Not a single American soldier had been killed in fighting in the past more than a year and a half, essentially because only Afghan soldiers were on the frontlines since the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan ended on Jan. 1, 2015. The residual U.S. force was essentially playing a supporting role.

Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice in April and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”

In fact, an unclassified version of the U.S. intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April that, “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

Biden, however, refused to heed any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on U.S. and NATO capabilities — from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.

The irony is that Biden was facing no public pressure to quickly end the Afghanistan War. Contrary to the myth that the U.S. was tired of the war, Gallup polling over the past 20 years repeatedly found Americans to be more supportive than opposed to that military entanglement. The sustained public support to the longest war in American history was in stark contrast to previous U.S. wars, including in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq, during which the majority public opinion at some point turned unfavorable, giving rise to antiwar movements. 

It was only after Biden had effectively ended the Afghanistan War on July 1 (when U.S. forces secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Airbase, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country) that an American partisan divide over the war became distinct. In a July 6-21 Gallup poll, 47 percent of Americans (the vast majority of them Democrats) said the war was a mistake, while 46 percent said it wasn’t.

If there was any imperative for a rushed withdrawal, it was Biden’s woolly-headedness to honor a one-sided U.S. deal with the Taliban that Trump had bequeathed. The Taliban, Pakistan’s longstanding proxies whose brutal attacks over the years made them the world’s deadliest terrorists, had been openly violating the deal, so Biden’s sticking to it made little sense.

Indeed, Biden’s clinging to a blighted deal seriously compounded a U.S. pattern of undermining the elected Afghan government, including striking a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back and then forcing Afghan authorities to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists (a number equivalent to the size of two U.S. army brigades or regiments). The freed terrorists helped spearhead the latest onslaughts. 

If Biden did not want to retain 2,500 troops in Afghanistan, he could have reduced their number to just 1,000 to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. That would have averted the disaster that has unfolded. But Biden, seeking to imprudently safeguard a deal that had already been wrecked by the Taliban, ruled that option out.

Last week, as one Afghan city after another fell to the Taliban and several senators and retired generals urged the White House to immediately employ military might to halt the terrorist militia’s further advances, Biden issued a statement on Saturday that proved the final nail in the coffin for a secular Afghanistan. By confirming that his dumping of the Afghan government was irrevocable, the statement led to President Ashraf Ghani’s escape from Afghanistan and the fall of Kabul.

This background illustrates how U.S. actions unwittingly aided and abetted the terrorist capture of strategically located Afghanistan. As Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) put it, it is the Biden administration’s execution of the Trump-initiated exit strategy that “clearly, by any measure, has been a dramatic failure and stain on the United States.”

When the Taliban was previously in power, from 1996 to 2001, its brutal record, including destroying historic and cultural artifacts, evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and1979. The Taliban’s reestablishment of a jihadist, theocratic dictatorship in Kabul will likely destabilize the region and come to haunt U.S. security.

Biden, the oldest American to ever assume the presidency, has lived up to the adage, “Act in haste, repent at leisure.” In doing so, he has undermined America’s international credibility. The U.S. may not be able to recoup from the latest debacle.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

Exiting Afghanistan will go down in history as Joe Biden’s big blunder

The disaster in Afghanistan is unfolding just the way top U.S. generals had forewarned in the event of a hurried U.S. exit. But Joe Biden overruled them in April and ordered all U.S. troops home. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost. EVELYN HOCKSTEIN/REUTERS

BRAHMA CHELLANEY, SPECIAL TO THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Afghanistan is turning out to be U.S. President Joe Biden’s first foreign-policy disaster.

Ending America’s 20-year war there made sense, but the sudden and poorly planned U.S. military exit has facilitated the Taliban’s rapid advances, which have included the capture of a string of provincial capitals. The Taliban, long-standing proxies of Pakistan, have already managed to expand their control to two-thirds of the country, leaving the Afghan government in Kabul teetering on the brink, with its forces retreating from rural areas to defend cities.

The hasty exit order is especially foolhardy given that Mr. Biden, who has been quick to overturn many of his predecessor’s actions, is honouring Donald Trump’s one-sided deal with the Taliban. The U.S. could have quit Afghanistan without getting into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists and thereby undermining the security of the country and the region. Instead, by following in Mr. Trump’s footsteps in Afghanistan, the White House has undercut U.S. leverage by vacating all its bases there, leaving the administration to chant the mantra that “there’s no military solution in Afghanistan” – even as the Taliban demonstrate in blood and territory that one indeed exists.

The geopolitical fallout from the Taliban’s success in forcing out Americawill extend far beyond Afghanistan. By signifying U.S. defeat, it will energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the global jihadist movement. If the Taliban seize Kabul, they are likely to declare an Islamic caliphate, as they did in 1996, when they seized power and ruled brutally until the 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

Make no mistake: The disaster in Afghanistan is unfolding just the way top U.S. generals had forewarned in the event of a hurried U.S. exit. But Mr. Biden overruled them in April and ordered all U.S. troops home. Now, the chickens are coming home to roost.

The U.S. has launched air strikes, but they have failed to halt the Taliban’s ruthless offensive. With the situation on the ground increasingly dire, many embassies in Kabul have advised their nationals to flee Afghanistan before commercial flight operations cease. Canada is bringing in Afghans who assisted the Canadian military’s mission in the country.

When Mr. Biden took office, there were just 2,500 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, compared with more than 100,000 at the height of the war. After the U.S. combat role ceased at the end of 2014, U.S. financial costs and casualties dramatically plummeted. In the period since, Afghan security forces have lost tens of thousands of men while the Americans suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents.

Mr. Biden could have left behind a small residual force to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces in a cost-effective way. This would have prevented the security and humanitarian nightmare that is now developing. But the President, seeking to safeguard a deal that the Taliban had already been violating, ruled that option out.

Clinging to a blighted deal, Mr. Biden has compounded a Trump-initiated pattern of undermining the elected Afghan government, including Mr. Trump’s actions in striking a deal with the Taliban behind Kabul’s back and then forcing Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release 5,000 jailed Taliban terrorists, many of whom are now in the vanguard of the latest onslaughts. Just before Mr. Biden’s withdrawal decision was announced, a leak of his administration’s draft peace proposal revealed that he sought to replace Mr. Ghani with a transitional government in which the Taliban held half of all positions – which only further emboldened them.

The primarily ethnic-Pashtun Taliban have now stepped up their campaign of targeted killings while seeking to militarily oust Mr. Ghani’s government. Their capture of key cities in the north – dominated by ethnic-minority groups – is part of a strategy to forestall the re-emergence of the “Northern Alliance,” whose ground operations aided U.S. air power in overthrowing the Taliban regime in 2001.

The Taliban’s brutal record in power, including destroying historic and cultural artifacts, evoked some of the horrors perpetrated by Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. A recent United Nations Security Council report said the Taliban and al-Qaeda “remain closely aligned” and co-operate through the Pakistani-based Haqqani Network, known as an arm of Pakistani intelligence.

The Taliban’s swift advances raise the spectre of a reconstituted extremist emirate emerging in Kabul – one that is likely to deliver the rebirth of global terror. And just as the rise of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq led to U.S. reintervention, a Taliban emirate in Kabul will likely trigger the same awful cost eventually – which would only affirm Mr. Biden’s decision as a historic blunder.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water: Asia’s New Battleground.

China moves swiftly to exploit the void in Afghanistan

US military exit is likely to become Beijing’s strategic gain

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi claps after signing a memorandum of understanding on cooperation in fighting terrorism, with Afghanistan’s then Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, and Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi and in Kabul in December, 2018.   © Reuters

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asia

China has long shielded Pakistan from international pressure over its harboring of terrorist groups, including blocking United Nations Security Council sanctions against Pakistani terrorists and opposing moving its close ally from the gray to black list of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, the global terrorist-financing watchdog. In fact, China has often praised Pakistan’s commitment to the fight against terrorism.

But after nine of its dam engineers were killed this month in a terrorist-triggered bus explosion in Pakistan, China changed its tune. It has demanded that Pakistan, in the words of Premier Li Keqiang, “use all necessary means” against terrorists and bring “the perpetrators to justice.” Beijing has squarely blamed America’s “hasty withdrawal” from Afghanistan for creating cross-border volatility and insecurity.

The U.S. must be stopped, according to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, from “creating more problems and dumping the burden on regional countries.” The U.S. effectively ended its 20-year Afghanistan War on July 1 when it secretly pulled out at night from the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which had long served as the staging ground for operations in the country.

In private, Chinese officials cannot be unhappy with the exit of a defeated America. It not only opens greater space for China’s expansionism but also shows how U.S. power is in decline.

The bus explosion, however, has made China realize that the fallout from the deteriorating Afghanistan situation threatens its regional interests. Wang has proposed that Pakistan — the largest recipient of Chinese financing under President Xi Jinping’s marquee Belt and Road Initiative — collaborate with Beijing when it comes to Afghanistan and help “defend regional peace together.”

The fallout offers China a rationale for exploiting the void in Afghanistan — and the country’s vast mineral wealth. In addition, Afghanistan’s location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia makes it geopolitically attractive for Beijing, which wants to link Kabul with the Belt and Road’s flagship project, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor.

Advancing such interests hinges on violence abating in Afghanistan, which explains why Xi has called for a political solution to the country’s long-standing conflict.

China’s strategic ambitions, however, underscore a jarring paradox. Beijing views Islamic extremism as a pressing threat and, in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi era, is holding more than a million detainees in a Muslim gulag. Yet it has built cozy ties with the Taliban, the marauding Islamist force created in the mid-1990s by Pakistani intelligence to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.

Atheist, communist China has for more than half a century been close to Pakistan, the first Islamic republic of the postcolonial era. Likewise, it has become strange bedfellows with the Taliban, responsible for the world’s deadliest terrorist attacks. Such is the transactional approach that has long been a hallmark of Chinese foreign policy.

When the Taliban seized power in 1996 and declared an Islamic caliphate, China established a closer relationship with the regime than any other non-Muslim country, launching flights between Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi and Kabul. On the same day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, visiting Chinese officials signed an agreement for greater economic and technical cooperation with the Taliban.Security guards stand at the gates of what is officially known as a vocational skills education center in Huocheng County in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region. © Reuters

After the Taliban was ousted from power by a U.S.-led military invasion, Beijing quietly maintained ties with the militia in Pakistan, where the Taliban leadership took refuge. To this day, the Taliban’s top leaders remain ensconced in Pakistan, even as their fighters make gains on the ground in Afghanistan.

Much is being made of the potential for the Afghan conflict to spill over into Xinjiang. But just as China’s secure borders have for years forestalled any trouble in Xinjiang from growing jihadism in Pakistan, intensifying conflict in Afghanistan is unlikely to affect stability in China’s far west. China’s short, 76-km frontier with Afghanistan comprises mainly impassable high-altitude terrain.

China already has thousands of its own troops in Pakistan-administered Jammu and Kashmir, which borders Xinjiang. It also has deployed its own military units in another potential corridor to Xinjiang, Tajikistan, including soldiers on the Tajik-Afghan border.

As the bus explosion illustrates, China’s concerns are essentially centered on its economic interests in Pakistan and Central Asia — especially resource-rich Tajikistan — and the safety of Chinese nationals working on projects there. The threat of terrorism, however, provides a convenient cover for Beijing to advance its geopolitical interests.

With the U.S. in retreat, China is likely to increase its strategic footprint in Afghanistan by leveraging its strategic relationship with the Taliban’s main backer, Pakistan, and its own long-standing ties with that militia.

To co-opt the Taliban, China has already dangled the prospect of providing the militia the two things it needs to govern Afghanistan in whole or in part — acquiescence to its rule, if not formal recognition, and much-needed infrastructure and economic development assistance. And the Taliban, rising to the bait, is going out of its way to assuage China’s concerns. Clearly, a Taliban-dominated Afghanistan will not only be under Pakistan’s sway but also greatly aid China’s designs.

America’s exit has opened the path for an opportunistic China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

Biden’s Afghan Blunder

Former US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates wrote in 2014 that Joe Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hasty US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.

BRAHMA CHELLANEYProject Syndicate

Afghanistan is on the brink of catastrophe, and it is US President Joe Biden’s fault. By overruling America’s top generals and ordering the hasty withdrawal of US troops, Biden opened the way for Taliban terrorists to capture more than a quarter of Afghanistan’s districts. Now, the Taliban is pushing toward Kabul, and the United States is looking weaker than ever.

The US effectively ended its military operations in Afghanistan on July 1, when it handed over to the Afghan government the sprawling Bagram Air Base, which long served as the staging ground for US operations in the country. In fact, “handover” is too generous a description. In a sign of what is to come, US forces quietly slipped out of the base overnight after shutting off the electricity. The resulting security lapse allowed looters to scavenge the facilities before Afghan troops arrived and gained control.

Biden has vehemently defended his decision to withdraw, arguing that the US “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and that “staying would have meant US troops taking casualties.” He has also stood by his rushed approach, insisting that “speed is safety” in this context. “How many thousands more of America’s daughters and sons are you willing to risk?”

The implication was clear: Questioning the wisdom of the US withdrawal is tantamount to supporting the endangerment of Americans. But it is Afghans who are really in jeopardy.

Recall the last time the US left a war unfinished: In 1973, it hastily abandoned its allies in South Vietnam. The next year, 80,000 South Vietnamese soldiers and civilians were reportedly killed as a result of the conflict, making it the deadliest year of the entire Vietnam War. It is also worth noting that in 1975, the US effectively handed Cambodia to the China-backed ultra-communist Khmer Rouge, who went on to carry out unimaginable horrors.

Now, the US is leaving Afghans at the mercy of a marauding Islamist force – one with a long history of savage behavior. Already, the Taliban offensive has displaced tens of thousands of civilians. And while the Afghan government in Kabul teeters, the Taliban is seizing American weapons from the Afghan military and showing them off as they march across the country.

America’s justification for rushing out of Afghanistan is much weaker than its reasoning for leaving Vietnam. Whereas 58,220 Americans (largely draftees) died in Vietnam, only 2,448 US soldiers (all volunteers) died over the course of 20 years in Afghanistan. Moreover, since the US formally ended its combat mission on January 1, 2015, the US has suffered just 99 fatalities, including in non-hostile incidents. During the same period, more than 28,000 Afghan police officers and soldiers have been killed.

None of this is to minimize the blood and treasure the US has sacrificed in Afghanistan, let alone suggest that American troops should stay indefinitely. On the contrary, ending America’s longest war is a worthy goal. But Biden’s approach entails effectively admitting that a terrorist militia has defeated the world’s most powerful military, and then handing Afghanistan back to that militia. This undercuts global trust in the US, jeopardizes Afghan and regional security, and threatens to trigger a resurgence of terror worldwide.

The Taliban’s impending return to power will surely energize and embolden other terrorist groups in the larger global jihadist movement. Furthermore, the Taliban, a creature of Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence, still receives significant aid from Pakistan’s military. So, while Biden says that Afghanistan’s future is now in its own hands, it is actually mostly in Pakistani hands, as Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently noted.

Among those facing the most acute risks is India. When the Taliban was last in power, from 1996 to 2001, it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. Its return to power could thus open a new front for terrorism against India, which would then have to shift its focus from intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas.

The Taliban’s resurgence in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the US withdrawal paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and strategic location between Pakistan and Iran.

China would achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things it desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid. With Russia also likely to recognize the Taliban’s leadership in Afghanistan, the group will have little incentive to moderate its violence, despite its current attempts to polish its image.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday

Biden had a better option: The US could have maintained a small residual force in Afghanistan, in order to provide critical air support and reassurance to Afghan forces. Yes, this would have violated the deal that Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, struck with the Taliban in February 2020. But the Taliban have already violated that Faustian bargain. Biden was happy to overturn many of Trump’s other actions, making his insistence on upholding this deal difficult to understand.

Biden says the US is “developing a counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability” that does not require a physical presence in Afghanistan. But if Afghan security continues to unravel, “over-the-horizon” operations will make little difference. The more likely scenario will be an emergency evacuation of US embassy personnel and other American citizens from Kabul, much like the evacuation from Saigon in 1975. India, for one, has already begun such an exodus, evacuating its consulate staff from Kandahar.

Robert Gates, who served as secretary of defense under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign-policy and national-security issue over the past four decades.” The hurried US withdrawal from Afghanistan is set to extend that pattern.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

Global Terror and the Taliban’s Return

A full US military withdrawal from Afghanistan will likely deliver a rebirth of global terror

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

NEW DELHI – One of the most crucial early tests for US President Joe Biden concerns Afghanistan. An emboldened Taliban have escalated their campaign of assassinations and terrorist attacks since reaching a deal with Donald Trump’s administration that called for power sharing in Kabul and a full US military withdrawal by May 1. Biden’s policy course will not only determine Afghanistan’s fate but also affect regional security, the global war on terror, and America’s international standing at a time when its relative decline has become unmistakable.

The United States came full circle in February 2020, when Trump, seeking to cut and run from Afghanistan, signed a “peace” agreement with the same terrorist militia that the US had removed from power by invading the country in the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001. Trump’s Faustian bargain, struck behind the back of the elected Afghan government, bestowed legitimacy on the Taliban. The surge in terrorist violence since then shows how little Afghanistan gained from the US-Taliban deal.

It makes sense for America to exit a long and futile war that has cost more than $800 billion and the lives of 2,218 US service members. (The US and NATO combat role in Afghanistan actually ended before Trump took office, with Afghan government forces assuming full security responsibility on January 1, 2015.) What doesn’t make sense is what Trump’s one-time national security adviser H.R. McMaster called America’s “Munich-like appeasement” of “some of the most horrible people on earth.”

In effect, Trump set out to abandon Afghanistan to terrorists and their sponsors in Pakistan, whose all-powerful military created the Taliban group, still harbors its leadership, and provides cross-border sanctuaries for its fighters. Pakistan’s military would be the real winner from a deal that threatens to turn Afghanistan into a weak, pliable neighbor that Pakistan can influence at will.

Yet, after taking office, Biden was quick to embrace Trump’s deal, and retained Zalmay Khalilzad as US Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. The Afghanistan-born Khalilzad has forged close ties with the Taliban but struggled to establish common ground with the Afghan government. The Biden administration’s recently leaked draft peace proposal highlighted its frantic effort to force an Afghan settlement in order to meet the May 1 withdrawal deadline.

The proposal seeks to replace Afghan President Ashraf Ghani with a new transitional government in which the Taliban hold half of all positions. In a letter to Ghani, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed him to develop “a roadmap to a new, inclusive government” and a new constitution, adding that he was asking Turkey’s Islamist government to host a meeting between Afghan government and Taliban representatives “to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter’s peremptory tone prompted Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh to say that Afghanistan will “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.”

Biden’s administration must answer a central question: How can a terrorist group be part of government when it remains committed to military victory and the reimposition of brutal theocratic rule? The Taliban want to secure absolute power over Afghanistan by waiting out the Americans, which explains their foot-dragging in the power-sharing talks with the Afghan government.

With the US strategy threatening to unravel, Biden now says “it’s going to be hard to meet” the May 1 deadline, but he “can’t picture” American troops being in Afghanistan next year. If Biden withdraws all US troops before 2022, a terrorist takeover of Afghanistan on his watch is highly probable. The Taliban, in fact, will take Biden’s statement as confirmation that they need only to bide their time for a few more months before laying siege to Kabul.

The debate in the US over whether al-Qaeda could rebuild a base in Afghanistan following an American exit, or whether the Islamic State (ISIS) could enlarge its footprint there, ignores the fact that Islamist terrorism is a self-organizing ideological movement that unites diverse jihadist groups, without the need to coordinate action. The Taliban militia may not have a global mission, but it is a critical link in an international jihadist movement that whips hostility toward non-Sunni Muslims into violent rage against modernity.

By forcing the Americans to leave and seizing Kabul, the Taliban would inspire jihadist groups elsewhere to escalate their terror campaigns. The perception that jihadists vanquished the world’s most powerful military would nurture the belief that American power is in irreversible decline. Simply put, the Taliban wielding absolute power in Afghanistan would pose a greater jihadist threat to the free world than any other group, including al-Qaeda or ISIS remnants.

To avoid this outcome, the US must keep residual forces in Afghanistan to continue providing reassurance and air support to Afghan forces, as well as logistics aid to about 7,000 NATO and allied troops. The US now has just 2,500 troops in the country, compared to some 100,000 at the height of the war. America’s financial costs and casualties have fallen dramatically since its combat role ended, with no US fatality in the past 14 months.

Biden must choose between a complete US withdrawal, which could well unleash chaos and undermine the Afghan state, and maintaining a small residual force to avert civil war and prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist hub. The first option, far from offering America a face-saving exit from a 20-year war, would make it an accomplice of the Taliban, whose control of Afghanistan would cause lasting damage to the interests of the US and its friends.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

The Message of Islamist Beheadings

In a world wracked by violence, Islamist beheadings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses should not be underestimated, and the lessons it suggests about prosecuting the “war on terror” must not be ignored.

Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

Last month, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant stalked, stabbed, and decapitated a history teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb near the middle school where Paty worked. Soon after, a Quran-carrying Tunisian man beheaded a woman and fatally stabbed two other people in a church in Nice. In the same month, two British-born Islamic State (ISIS) militants were brought to the United States to face trial for their participation in a brutal abduction scheme in Syria that ended with American and other hostages beheaded on camera.

In a world wracked by violence, such killings stand out for their savagery. While the absolute number of victims is relatively small, the threat this practice poses to fundamental principles of modern civilization should not be underestimated.

The ancient Greeks and Romans instituted beheading as a mode of capital punishment. Today, radical Islamists commonly employ it in extrajudicial executions, which have been reported in a wide range of countries, including Egypt, India, the Philippines, and Nigeria. In Mozambique, up to 50 people, including women and children, have reportedly been murdered – and, in many cases, decapitated – by ISIS-linked fighters this month alone.

Such savagery casts a long shadow – especially because perpetrators so often share images of their actions. Ever since the 2002 decapitation of Wall Street Journal journalist Daniel Pearl in Pakistan, terrorist organizations have taken to posting videos of beheadings online. After murdering Paty, the perpetrator tweeted a photo of the severed head.

For Islamists, beheadings are a potent weapon of asymmetric warfare. The gruesome spectacle inspires jihadi sympathizers around the world, while fomenting fear in local communities, to the point that the Islamists are often able to impose their will – including medieval codes of conduct – on the societies in which they operate.

Jihadis represent a tiny minority of the world’s Muslims. But, by making clear their willingness to behave inhumanely, they have ensured that few dare defy them. Just this month, a Bangladeshi cricket star was forced, under threat of Islamist retaliation, to apologize publicly for briefly attending a Hindu ceremony in India. Through such tactics, Islamists are gradually snuffing out more liberal, diverse Islamic traditions in non-Arab countries.

Although beheadings have a particularly visceral impact, they are far from the only way the jihadists incite fear. Earlier this month, ISIS-linked gunmen stormed Afghanistan’s Kabul University, killing at least 35 – mainly students – and wounding dozens more. In Vienna, another Islamist, who had previously been jailed for trying to join ISIS, killed four people and wounded 22 in a shooting rampage.

The persistent scourge of Islamist violence is a clear signal that the global “war on terror,” launched after the September 11, 2001, attacks in the US, has faltered. Even within Western countries, meaningful government action against Islamist extremism has often been stymied by concerns about discrimination. But, far from protecting Muslims, those crying “Islamophobia” often are making Muslim communities less secure, by allowing extremism to grow unchecked.

The truth is that there is only one country in the world today that is truly cracking down on Islam, rather than on radical Islamism: China. In the last few years, China has incarcerated more than one million Uighurs and members of other Muslim minorities in its western Xinjiang region. Under the pretense of fighting terrorism, the authorities are carrying out a methodical, large-scale erasure of Islamic identities.

And yet the international community – including Muslim countries – have remained largely silent about China’s actions. Last year, Malaysia’s then-prime minister, Mahathir bin Mohamad, explained why: “China is a very powerful nation.”

By contrast, after the Nice attack, Mahathir tweeted that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” The incendiary tweet has since been removed for “glorifying violence,” though Mahathir’s account wasn’t suspended – a missed opportunity to push back against incitement.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, for his part, has called for a boycott of French goods, because French President Emmanuel Macron pledged after Paty’s murder to defend secularism against radical Islam. It is clearly far easier to attack a democracy than to stand up to a ruthless dictatorship.

But none of this will protect Muslim communities, let alone end Islamist terrorism. For that, governments must adopt a new approach, based on a better understanding of the enemy they are fighting.

Islamist extremism is not an organization or an army; it is an ideological movement. As recent attacks show, the existence of a clear doctrine of violence obviates the need to coordinate action. That is why eliminating high-level figures in ISIS or al-Qaeda does so little to stop the bloodshed, and why military action alone will always fall short.

Instead, counterterrorism efforts should target the fount of jihadist terrorism: the militaristic Wahhabi theology, which justifies and commands the use of violence against “infidels.” This means, first and foremost, discrediting that “evil ideology,” as former British Prime Minister Theresa May put it, by attacking its core tenets, starting with the claim (unsupported by the Quran) that 72 virgins await every martyr in heaven.

It also means taming the clerics and other preachers of violent jihad. As the late Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew explained, we must target the “queen bees” (the preachers of violence) who inspire the “worker bees” (suicide attackers), not the worker bees themselves. Otherwise, the war on terror will continue to rage, and violent Islamism will become more deeply entrenched in societies.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2020.

The Taliban loves China’s money, but can it forget its Muslim gulags?

Beijing has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan.

Brahma Chellaney, Nikkei Asian Review

On the day two airplanes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center in 2001, Chinese officials signed an economic and technical cooperation accord with Afghanistan’s then-ruling Taliban, in the latter’s capital, Kandahar. The 9/11 attacks led the United States, in partnership with Afghanistan’s Northern Alliance, to launch a military campaign that ousted the Taliban regime.

Now, China is again courting the Taliban to further its regional interests, centered primarily on safeguarding its Belt and Road projects, extracting mineral resources in Afghanistan, and preventing a surge of violent jihadism in Xinjiang, where Chinese authorities have detained more than a million Muslims for “re-education” in the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds in the post-World War II period.

The U.S. plan to exit Afghanistan has added greater urgency to China’s efforts to cozy up to the Taliban. Chinese officials have stepped up contacts with Taliban representatives as President Donald Trump’s administration has steadily cut U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 8,600 and closed several bases.

Trump, calling the U.S. military involvement in war zones “the single biggest mistake in the history of our country,” has said that there would be fewer than 5,000 American troops in Afghanistan by U.S. election day in November. The Pentagon, however, says further troop withdrawals would depend on the Taliban’s honoring of its peace deal with the U.S.

In order to win the Taliban’s cooperation, China is reportedly offering to build roads in Taliban-controlled territories, as well as a number of energy projects, including generating electricity.

Here’s the paradox: Communist China has little in common with the Taliban, a hard-line Islamist militia known for brutal, medieval practices and for demolishing the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan. In fact, China’s concern over Islamic extremism has driven it to take unparalleled steps, including the large-scale deprogramming of Islamic identities in a bid to forcibly assimilate its Muslim population into the dominant Han culture.

Yet China has nurtured long-standing ties with the Taliban — created and armed by Pakistani intelligence — to help Pakistan call the shots in Afghanistan. While the Taliban was in power, China established economic ties with it and launched flights between Kabul and Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi.

Pakistan, which Beijing considers its client-state, has helped facilitate Chinese-Taliban ties. Indeed, the Taliban’s top leadership, as well as its command and control apparatus, have been ensconced in Pakistan since it was ousted from power in 2001. This allowed China, after 9/11, to quietly continue a relationship with the Taliban.

Such long-standing ties with the Taliban, and a strong strategic nexus with Pakistan, have helped China avert any major terrorist strike on its projects in Afghanistan, including the large Aynak copper mine it secured in 2007. By contrast, Indian infrastructure projects and diplomatic missions in Afghanistan have repeatedly come under terrorist attack.

China’s latest overtures to the Taliban underscore its concern that the U.S. military withdrawal could foster greater violence and instability in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, which has long been a terrorism nucleus. Beijing wants to safeguard its heavy investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the supposed crown jewel of its Belt and Road Initiative. It also wants to ensure the Taliban do not aid Uighur militants.

America’s Faustian bargain with the Taliban was sealed in February with Pakistan’s active support. The fact that no counterterrorism campaign has ever succeeded when the militants have enjoyed cross-border havens compelled the Trump administration to sue for peace in order to end the longest war in U.S. history.

Less known is that China also played a part in the peace effort by encouraging the Taliban to enter into a deal with the U.S. Indeed, even before Trump took office, Beijing offered to mediate and help revive the stalled talks between the U.S. and the Taliban.

In return, the U.S. last year heeded Beijing’s call to designate the Balochistan Liberation Army, the main separatist group in Pakistan’s sprawling Balochistan province, as a terrorist organization. The U.S. justified its designation on the grounds that the BLA was striking Chinese targets in Balochistan, which is home to the Chinese-run Gwadar port and a potential Chinese naval base.

Since then, relations between Beijing and Washington have deteriorated to a point approaching a new Cold War. Making matters worse, the U.S.-Taliban agreement appears to be tottering, with Washington accusing the Taliban of repeatedly violating the accord’s terms, including by launching rockets last month at two military bases used by American forces and by stepping up terror attacks on Afghan government forces. Hopes of a U.S.-moderated peace settlement in Afghanistan have dimmed.

Against this background, China, despite its ties with the Taliban, is likely to find it difficult to advance its interests in the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt.

Several factors threaten to act as spoilers to China’s regional ambitions, including sharpening geopolitics, a resurgent Taliban — some of whose local commanders appear to be operating independently — and the role of non-Taliban militant groups such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan that are the nemesis of Pakistani intelligence. Irrespective of the outcome of the U.S. presidential election, a complete American withdrawal from Afghanistan now looks uncertain.

In this conservative region, China’s Muslim gulag and other harsh anti-Islamic measures in Xinjiang are likely to fuel grassroots resentment against it, increasing the vulnerability of its projects.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author of nine books, including “Asian Juggernaut: The Rise of China, India and Japan.”

© The Nikkei Asian Review, 2020.

Don’t disregard the long-term threat from Tablighi Jamaat

Wolf in sheep’s clothing? The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its political mission. Authorities in multiple countries view its missionary training as providing members a stepping stone to later join terrorist groups. 

Tabilighi

Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, chief of the Tablighi Jamaat (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)

Brahma Chellaney, Open magazine

The greatest global health catastrophe of our time has helped shine a spotlight on the role of religious evangelists and other fundamentalists in spreading the China-originating COVID-19 disease. In a number of countries, from the United States and Israel to Iran and Indonesia, religious zealots — whether Christian, Jew, Shia or Sunni — have resisted adhering to government stay-at-home orders.

In some cases, their disobedience has led to spiralling COVID-19 infection rates. In Israel, for example, ultra-orthodox Jews account for 12% of the country’s total population but make as much as 60% of its COVID-19 cases in major hospitals, compelling the government to start policing ultra-orthodox Jewish neighbourhoods in order to protect the wider population.

But no group has played a greater role in spreading the deadly coronavirus far and wide than the Tablighi Jamaat (“Proselytizing Society”), a transnational missionary movement of the Deobandi branch of Sunni Islam that boasts more than 80 million members across the world, including in Europe and North America. It was founded in 1927 near New Delhi in Mewat, Haryana, by a prominent Deobandi cleric, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas Kandhalawi. Some commentators, not familiar with its ideology or larger goals, have presented in benign light the puritanical Tablighi Jamaat, known for its wandering bands of preachers.

In truth, the Tablighi Jamaat represents a fusion of religious obscurantism, missionary zeal and an enduring commitment to global jihad — a toxic cocktail that holds long-term implications for international security and for modern democracies. Basically, the Tablighi Jamaat shuns the modern world and urges its followers to replicate the life of Muhammad and work toward creating a rule of Islam on earth.

Its revivalist and regressive ideology is espoused by radical preachers and Islamist televangelists, such as Junaid Jamshed and Tariq Jamil, both Pakistanis. The Tablighi Jamaat claims to be apolitical, but its ultimate goal — triumph in global jihad — underscores its very political mission.

To be clear, the Tablighi Jamaat itself is not a hotbed of terrorism, despite some individual acts of terror by its associates. However, the ideological indoctrination it imparts to the largely illiterate and semiliterate youths it enlists helps to create recruits for militant and terrorist outfits. In fact, it has long served as a recruiting ground for terrorist groups ranging from Al Qaeda and the Taliban to two of its spinoffs — the Harakat ul-Mujahideen and the Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami. The Harakat ul-Jihad-i Islami has proved a security challenge for India in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) and in states like Gujarat where it has taken over mosques from moderate Muslims and installed radical clerics.

A bigger challenge has been posed by the other offshoot, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, an internationally designated terrorist organization. Founded by the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan branch, the Harakat ul-Mujahideen, as the United Nations has put it, “was responsible for the hijacking of an Indian airliner on December 24, 1999, which resulted in the release of Masood Azhar”. Azhar was not the only terrorist released from Indian jails to meet the demands of the hijackers of the IC-814 flight.

In an ignominious episode unparalleled in modern history, then Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh flew to Taliban-held Kandahar to hand-deliver Azhar and two other terrorists: Omar Sheikh, a purported financier of 9/11, whose subsequent conviction for journalist Daniel Pearl’s 2002 murder was recently overturned by a Pakistani court; and Mushtaq Zargar, who went on to form the Al-Umar terror group. Azhar, for his part, established the Jaish-e-Mohammad, a front organization of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency. Just the way India’s terrorists-for-Rubaiya Sayed swap in 1989 aided Pakistan’s “politico-military decision”, as Benazir Bhutto put it, “to start low-intensity operations” in J&K, the Kandahar cave-in led to a qualitative escalation in cross-border terrorism.

The Tablighi Jamaat came under intense scrutiny in the United States after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. “We have a significant presence of Tablighi Jamaat in the United States,” the deputy chief of the FBI’s international terrorism section said in 2003. “And we have found that Al Qaeda used them for recruiting now and in the past.”

Alex Alexiev, the late American counterterrorism expert of Bulgarian origin, described the Tablighi Jamaat in an essay as “wolf in sheep’s clothing”. The hardcore jihadists the Tablighi Jamaat spawns in its ranks are later recruited by terrorist organizations as replacements for slain warriors. From Morocco and France to Indonesia and the Philippines, intelligence agencies and prosecutors have viewed the Tablighi Jamaat training as a stepping stone to membership in terrorist outfits. French intelligence officers, for example, called the Tablighi Jamaat the “antechamber” of violent extremism, according to a 2002 report in Le Monde.

The current pandemic, for its part, has shown how the Tablighi Jamaat’s religious obscurantism, fanaticism, blinkered delusions of divine protection and open disdain for science can endanger public health and the larger social good. A prominent Tablighi Jamaat leader in Pakistan, Mufti Taqi Usmani, who is also a leading expert in sharia finance, claimed on national television that the Prophet, by coming in the dream of a Tablighi Jamaat activist, revealed “the cure for the coronavirus”, which was the recitation of certain Quranic verses.

Amid the raging pandemic, the Tablighi Jamaat held ijtemas (or congregations) in several different countries even after Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah pilgrimage, Iran shut the holiest Shia sites, and multiple Islamic nations closed mosques, including Jordan, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Lebanon. Saudi Arabia, after closing off the holy cities of Mecca and Medina to foreigners, has asked the more than one million Muslims planning to perform the hajj from late July to indefinitely delay their trips, raising the possibility that the pilgrimage could be cancelled for the first time in more than 200 years.

For the Tablighi Jamaat, however, the fast-spreading coronavirus was no deterrent to staging ijtemas in several countries. Calling off any ijtema — which is an annual three-day Tablighi Jamaat congregation to help instil a sense of brotherhood and a commitment to jihad among its members — would have amounted to repudiating Allah’s directive, according to Tablighi Jamaat clerics.

In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat’s New Delhi-based chief, Maulana Muhammad Saad Kandhlawi, pushed innocent Tablighis into the jaws of the new disease by talking about the “healing power” of the “markaz” — the mosque-cum-dormitory complex that serves as the organization’s headquarters. Saad, the great-grandson of the Tablighi Jamaat’s founder, told his followers that, in any event, the “best death” for any devout Muslim was in the markaz.

Saad’s sermons that “Allah will protect us” were redolent of how Shia clerics earlier turned the holy city of Qom into Iran’s COVID-19 epicentre. Indeed, Iran’s outbreak of the disease began in Qom, which is visited by some 20 million pilgrims every year and where the 1979 Islamic revolution started. The ayatollahs who run the seminaries in Qom openly discounted the coronavirus risks. Indeed, Mohammad Saeedi, the head of Qom’s famous Fatima Masumeh shrine, released a video message calling on pilgrims to keep coming. “We consider this holy shrine to be a place of healing. That means people should come here to heal from spiritual and physical diseases,” said Saeedi, who is also the representative of Iran’s Supreme Leader in Qom.

The Tablighi Jamaat’s ijtemas amid the pandemic unleashed the largest known viral vector in the Sunni world, spreading the disease in communities stretching from Southeast Asia to West Africa. The February 27-March 1 ijtema of 16,000 activists at the Sri Petaling Mosque in Kuala Lumpur helped spread the disease to six Southeast Asian countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. Nearly two-thirds of coronavirus cases in Malaysia last month were linked to that ijtema.

The Kuala Lumpur gathering was followed by a much larger international ijtema at the Tablighi Jamaat’s Pakistan headquarters at Raiwind, in suburban Lahore. A quarter of a million participants congregated in Raiwind on March 11-12 before authorities privately persuaded the organizers to end the ijtema and disperse. But hundreds of participants contracted COVID-19. Within days, they spread the disease far and wide, not just within Pakistan, but also elsewhere — from Kyrgyzstan to Nigeria.

After Raiwind came the New Delhi ijtema from March 13, although the state of Delhi (which includes New Delhi) had already declared COVID-19 an epidemic and prohibited all large events, besides shutting all schools, colleges and movie theatres. While a large throng packed New Delhi’s Markaz Nizamuddin, Indonesia — in a last-minute decision — banned an ijtema in South Sulawesi just as it was about to begin on March 18 with nearly 8,800 participants. The Tablighi Jamaat initially resisted the Indonesian order but then complied by asking its activists to leave.

Despite knowing all this, including how the Kuala Lumpur ijtema helped spread COVID-19 across Southeast Asia, Indian federal and state authorities allowed the New Delhi ijtema to proceed. Maharashtra state, by contrast, acted wisely by cancelling permission for an ijtema in Vasai. The New Delhi congregation stretched for 18 days until the final 2,346 holdouts were evacuated from Markaz Nizamuddin on April 1.

Permitting this congregation has proved costly for India, including undermining the nationwide lockdown that has been in force since March 22 to combat COVID-19. Nearly one-third of India’s total number of COVID-19 cases have been linked to that gathering. Many contracted the coronavirus at the congregation, which they then spread to families and communities across India after returning home. Such has been the adverse fallout from the ijtema that the national lockdown is likely to be extended beyond April 14.

The fact that many participants from other Islamic countries at the New Delhi ijtema misused tourist visas for missionary activity has also cast an unflattering light on Indian security agencies. Initial investigations suggest that some of the foreign attendees, including preachers from Indonesia and Malaysia, brought the coronavirus to the gathering.

Today, with prayer failing to keep the disease away, Markaz Nizamuddin — which Saad portrays as the most sacred place after Mecca and Medina — has been shut after being disinfected by authorities. Saad, for his part, initially went into hiding to escape police investigations.

Looking ahead, the Tablighi Jamaat will not find it easy to repair the damage to its reputation. Long after the current pandemic is over, it will be remembered for the deaths and suffering that its ijtemas caused in many communities in the Sunni world. The ijtemas became rapid multipliers of the coronavirus.

The rancour over the Tablighi Jamaat’s pandemic-related role could, in fact, exacerbate the factional infighting that has increasingly racked the organization in recent years. The infighting largely centres on the leadership issue, with the more radical Tablighi Jamaat factions in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Britain challenging Saad’s headship. The infighting has triggered even violent clashes between rival groups, resulting in multiple deaths.

Such violence has been recurrent in Bangladesh, which hosts the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bishwa Ijtema (Global Congregation), supposedly the second-largest annual gathering of Sunni Muslims after hajj. Bishwa Ijtema is held usually in January along River Turag in Tongi, just outside Dhaka. The Tablighi Jamaat in Bangladesh, however, has split into two groups, with the more militant, anti-Saad faction supported by radical clerics and the hardline Islamist outfit Hefazat-e-Islam.

This faction, by staging a violent demonstration, forced Saad last year to return to New Delhi without joining the Bishwa Ijtema. At present, Saad’s followers are not allowed into the Tablighi Jamaat’s Bangladesh headquarters — the Kakrail Mosque in Dhaka.

In Pakistan, the longstanding military-mullah alliance, which has facilitated the military generals’ use of terrorist proxies against India and Afghanistan, looks askance at the Tablighi Jamaat’s global headquarters in New Delhi. Control over Islamist and terror groups is central to the generals’ power at home and their regional strategy.

Not surprisingly, the generals have encouraged the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan to be independent of the New Delhi group. In fact, the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan maintains close ties with the generals, at whose behest it allows state-sponsored terrorist groups to enlist some of its best students for military training. Such transfer of students usually takes place at the Tablighi Jamaat centre in Raiwind, where the organization’s star recruits receive four months of special missionary training.

The generals’ backing, however, has not protected the Tablighi Jamaat in Pakistan from attacks by jihadist groups that are outside the control of the military establishment. Several prominent Deobandi/Tablighi Jamaat clerics have been assassinated, including by the Pakistani Taliban — the Pakistan military’s nemesis.

Maintaining state control over clerics is also the reason why Saudi Arabia does not allow the Tablighi Jamaat to operate in the kingdom. A transnational Islamist movement headquartered in a non-Muslim country runs counter to the Saudi policy of keeping the religious establishment on a tight leash and using it to bankroll fundamentalist groups elsewhere.

Against this background, India’s indulgent act in letting the Tablighi Jamaat hold its ijtema in New Delhi, despite pandemic-related state curbs, has stuck out like a sore thumb. In fact, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval’s widely publicized meeting with Saad in the early hours of March 29 to get the holdouts in Markaz Nizamuddin to leave could weaken Saad’s hand in the factional infighting.

More fundamentally, it is past time for India to recognize the threat from the Tablighi Jamaat’s regressive ideology. That ideology is antithetical to secularism and democracy, including religious tolerance and separation of church and state. The Tablighi Jamaat, by not recognizing national borders, also challenges the nation-state system.

Indeed, no counterterrorism strategy can ignore the intersection between religious fundamentalism and violent extremism that this movement symbolizes. Terrorist groups draw sustenance from the Tablighi Jamaat’s ideology of Islamic revivalism. These groups also enlist some of those that the Tablighi Jamaat trains. In a limited number of cases, Tablighi Jamaat associates have directly committed acts of terrorism, including convicted Westerners such as “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “American Taliban” John Walker Lindh, “dirty bomber” Jose Padilla and “Brooklyn Bridge bomber” Lyman Harris.

The manner the Tablighi Jamaat’s obscurantism and obduracy contributed to the spread of COVID-19 is just the latest reminder of the group’s threat to national and international security.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning Water, Peace, and War : Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Open magazine, 2020.