Ex-CIA official says US needs presence on the ground in Afghanistan

A former CIA official said on Tuesday that Washington should have an official presence in Afghanistan and engage with the Taliban leadership in order to achieve its goals of combating terrorism.

Douglas London, the former CIA case officer and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute, said he believes Washington should engage with the Taliban to achieve its own objectives in the fight against terrorism, and to influence and change the way in which the Taliban govern the country.

He said: “The Taliban are not a homogenous group, none of them are progressive in any way, but they have different interests, different interests that can be influenced and incentivized.”

London went on to say in order to achieve this there is a need to understand the Taliban and as such, he said he would like to see the United States have a presence on the ground and “not just in Kabul but particularly in Kandahar.” He conceded however that this might “not be feasible” at present.

He said Washington speaks about an over-the-horizon policy but that “it’s largely remote in terms of intelligence. But it’s not the same as having a presence on the ground, an official presence on the ground.”

However, “the reality is the United States is already talking to the Taliban, the State Department is talking to the Taliban, the CIA is talking to the Taliban,” London said, adding that there is already cooperation with the fight against the Islamic State (Daesh).

Others argued that Washington must refuse to deal with the Taliban because their ideology and actions since regaining power in August 2021 prove that they are irredeemable.

Another panelist, Lisa Curtis, a senior fellow and director of the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security, argued that the US government should not engage with the Taliban because of the group’s treatment of women and girls, including heavy restrictions on their right to education.

She said attempts by US President Joe Biden’s administration to engage with the Taliban on issues related to terrorism was “a mistake,” and “instead, the US should be focusing on helping the women of Afghanistan.”

Ronald E. Neumann, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, said Washington has no strategy on Afghanistan or for dealing with the Taliban. He said while Washington has taken some decisions regarding Afghanistan since its forces withdrew from the country, they did not constitute a clear policy, much less a strategy.

Neumann supported the idea that the US should engage with the Taliban and said an American presence in Kabul would also help advance US policies.

According to him, the US also has a moral responsibility to help the people of Afghanistan, especially in economic terms. He pointed out that about $500 million of private funds belonging to people in Afghanistan is currently frozen in US banks as a result of sanctions imposed on the Taliban adding that this money was deposited by private banks in Afghanistan and has nothing to do with the regime.

“The US has no moral right to keep that money,” he said. “Giving it back it will be a shot in the arm to the Afghan economy.”

Another panelist, Javid Ahmad, a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former Afghanistan ambassador to the UAE, described the Taliban as an oppressive and irredeemable group.

He also supported London’s opinion that there was already some degree of cooperation between Washington and the Taliban but said: “It’s not publicly voiced or expressed.”

He also said he thinks that in future, “cooperation will become a lot more socialized” in public spaces such as the think-tank’s discussion.

Ahmad said that for now there is a sense of “political predictability” brought about by the Taliban along with a semblance of security but that Afghanistan nationals “have not yet adapted to the new context”. He also stated that “there is no appetite or patience among [non-Taliban] Afghans to listen to each other”.

He stated while everyone is looking for the “perfect solution, this does not exist”, noting that he feels there is a lack of desire in the US and Europe to attempt to destabilize the Taliban because there is no desirable alternative.