Wednesday, December 8

“Bad options everywhere”: Biden’s promise to avenge the Kabul attack could take years | Afghanistan

US spies and special forces will be able to hunt down those responsible for Thursday’s suicide bombing in Kabul, although the effort may take years, experts and former CIA officials believe.

Joe Biden vowed Thursday to avenge the 13 US service members who died in a suicide bomb attack at the Kabul airport, telling the extremists responsible: “We will hunt them down and make them pay.”

Analysts say, however, that the president of the United States has few options that will allow him to fulfill this promise, at least in the short term, with the withdrawal of American troops in a few days, and the pressure for quick results is immense. .

“Your options are absolutely limited. They are bad options everywhere. We lost 13 boys. People are sad and angry and there is a perception that America is being humiliated, “said Colin Clarke, principal investigator at the US-based Soufan Center.

But Philip Mudd, a former deputy director of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, said he was confident that Biden, or possibly a successor, would deliver on the promise.

“It is really a question of timing. We have capabilities that have been honed over 20 years, ”he said. “My friends will go after these people. It may take a while, and there may not be a strike in 30 days, but in five years, whoever did this will find themselves on the wrong side of a strike. “

A second former US intelligence officer and two former military consultants involved in previous hunts of Islamic militants contacted by The Guardian agreed.

There is no doubt that the challenge of tracking down a clandestine network of extremist militants in a lawless country is significant, even when an intelligence service has a network of informants, surveillance capabilities available on the ground, and the cooperation of a force or government. local capable.

In Iraq, between 2005 and around 2010, US special forces encountered, killed or captured hundreds of extremists in thousands of raids. In 2019, the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, was found and killed.

Even in Pakistan, where authorities offered only partial support, the CIA was able to capture a series of high-level al Qaeda operatives while using drone strikes to deny the group easy use of rugged and inaccessible tribal areas, killing more senior leaders. albeit at the cost of civilian casualties.

Also in Afghanistan, with the help of the US-backed government, US and allied special forces have carried out weekly or even daily raids on fighters and leaders of the Taliban, al-Qaida and the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP).

But all of these operations require two things: accurate and timely intelligence combined with “assets”, either on the ground or very close to the target. The two often go together, experts say. America’s counterterrorism agencies work to “find, fix, and kill” a target. The key element is the second, which involves knowing the location of an individual during a specific period so that they can then be attacked by whatever means available, said a former official.

This is where the now limited access to Afghanistan could be a major problem. The United States has withdrawn all its spies, evacuated many informants or paid others, and has no Afghan government agencies to help it either. Neighboring nations are either actively hostile or not expected to cooperate, so they are unlikely to help share intelligence.

In February, CIA Director William J. Burns told Congress bluntly that the withdrawal of the US military from Afghanistan would diminish the US government’s ability to collect and act on threats. “That is simply a fact,” he said.

Neighbors are also unlikely to help with bases for drones or planes, which means much longer approach times and more complex logistics for any attack.

Biden appears to have given himself some leeway, which is significant, analysts say. The president told the nation that the answer would be “with force and precision in our time, in the place we choose.”

“The president has given himself some leeway,” Clarke said.

But expectations of a swift attack for revenge may be disappointed.

Mudd said the first takedown of a top al Qaeda operative came six months after 9/11 and that it had often taken US intelligence many years to find fugitives.

Osama bin Laden escaped the American trawl in Tora Bora in December 2001, but was eventually tracked through a combination of painstaking search for clues and cutting-edge technology to a compound in the northern garrison city of Abbottabad. Pakistan, where he was assassinated after a decade. in the race. One of his followers, a suspected leader of the 1998 al Qaeda bombings against US embassies in East Africa, was captured by US special forces in a raid in Tripoli, Libya, after a 13-year manhunt. .

“Clearly access is going to be a problem, but it’s not an impossible job,” Mudd said. “It is not correct that we do not have anyone in the country. We can develop new relationships in Afghanistan and in a year or two someone among the people we are looking for is going to make a mistake. I don’t think the president is too promising. “

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