This Could Be the Next Afghan Insurgency

Two leading anti-Taliban figures are ready to fight. One is a close CIA ally. What could possibly go wrong? 

Edited by Sam Thielman


Who’s ready for a franchise reboot? 

The U.S. has yet to depart from Afghanistan, the human horror at the Kabul airport has yet to subside, and already two (well, one and a half) prominent Afghans have declared that they will rally forces to resist the Taliban. Naturally, they’re looking for foreign support, and may end up giving American hawks a path to re-escalation in Afghanistan. 

Already you can hear from certain people who want to pretend they didn’t negotiate a withdrawal with the Taliban cries that an unacceptable American “surrender” has taken place. This week has featured an intensification of the politics of the War on Terror. And should President Biden decide that he needs an intelligence network for visibility into Taliban Afghanistan, these Afghan would-be conquerors can leverage that into U.S. support for their war. 

One of the would-be resistance leaders is less a prominent Afghan in his own right than the heir to a famous name. Ahmed Massoud, son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir – who led the last insurgency against the Taliban – claims to have a growing anti-Taliban army in Panjshir and “stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father’s time, because we knew this day might come.” 

That may or may not be true. But he certainly has his father’s touch with the international media, judging from an extraordinary op-ed he placed in the Washington Post seeking material support from “our friends in the West.” The 32-year old Massoud hit some vintage notes of the rebel-seeking-CIA-backing genre, including a reminiscence of the time he met Bernard Henri-Levy and a reference to America as the great Arsenal of (I know) Democracy. 

Likely more formidable is Amrullah Saleh, the country’s vice president until this Tuesday, when president Ashraf Ghani fled to the United Arab Emirates. Saleh has declared himself the legitimate president of Afghanistan. Reportedly, Saleh is also in the Panjshir, where a fighting force believed to have small arms and no artillery is mustering. The virgin Massoud wrote an op-ed asking for support in the Post; the chad Saleh announced his presidency by tweet

Saleh claimed in a subsequent New York Times interview to be focused on a “genuine” peace process. “If [the Taliban] insist on military conquest, then they better read Afghan history,” he quipped. 

Saleh is no joke. While recent news accounts have emphasized his vice presidency of an overthrown regime, his real power comes from his six years helming the National Directorate of Security, the internal-security, counterterrorism and intelligence apparatus that the U.S.’ three-letter agencies constructed. His relationship with the CIA is deep and he’s motivated. 

“Saleh is, over the years, one of the staunchest [in] opposition to the Taliban and also to Pakistan,” said a former senior Afghan security official who has worked with Saleh. 

Saleh also ran an enterprise that the U.S. no longer has access to: local, on-the-ground  intelligence. As long as President Biden reserves, as he has said, the right to bomb Afghanistan in accordance with what he defines as U.S. security interests, that intelligence will be currency. 

“Saleh is very good at collecting intelligence,” said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA official at the Brookings Institution. “He poses a serious problem for the Taliban and their Pakistani patrons.  He is also at the top of the ISI’s [Pakistani intelligence, sponsors of the Taliban] hit list.”

There’s a key distinction to consider. Former intelligence officials interviewed for this story said that, in the immediate term, the Biden administration will be in the market for proxies on the ground who can convey the emerging scope of Taliban Afghanistan. Intelligence-gathering, they say, is different from backing those same proxies in an insurgency against the Taliban, which would require Biden to authorize a covert action program.

Me talking now: yes, sure, that distinction holds in the abstract. But the history of proxy operations is one where this distinction blurs by degree, drawing the U.S. in deeper. That’s because it provides a lot of leverage to the client.

“They’re not gonna get that intelligence for free. There’s going to be some desire for support, covert or overt,” said Doug London, who capped a three-decade career in CIA operations as chief of counterterrorism for south and southwest Asia, and who has a book coming out next month that I’m interested in reading

For an intelligence-gathering relationship, the CIA would fund someone like Saleh individually. But for a covert action program to destabilize Taliban rule, the U.S. would “work with organizations on the ground, and they’ll expect money, supplies, et cetera,” notes London.  

Riedel doesn’t think that’s the direction the administration will go, particularly when considering the logistical challenges. “If [Biden] is interested it will be very difficult to run a serious operation without a base nearby, [and] Pakistan and Iran are non-starters,” he said. “I doubt [Biden will fund an insurgency], especially with [CIA Director Bill] Burns in charge. He’s not a cowboy.” Jeff Stein, a careful reporter who gave me my first freelance assignment in D.C., agrees.

Perhaps they’re right. But if Biden begins any kind of ongoing relationship with anti-Taliban forces, pressure will build on the U.S. for destabilization, especially if the Taliban act in ways the administration considers intolerable. Once established, the fact of the intelligence network can function as a lever to start doing increasingly buck-wild shit. Even if Biden opts not to return the CIA to the days of Rambo III-style resistance in Afghanistan, a successor might. The simple act of deciding the U.S. retains a security interest in Afghanistan creates an escalatory pressure. “I hate to say this: I hope we don't have to go back there, but it will be a threat to the homeland in a matter of time,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) recently told Jake Tapper. Whatever he hopes, the senior Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is signaling his willingness to re-escalate.

Massoud, however, may not end up benefiting. “I don’t think, generally, in the country, they look at him as another [Ahmed Shah] Massoud,” said the ex-senior Afghan security official. “Ahmed’s not his dad,” said London. Riedel simply said, “I don’t know him,” while someone somewhere played “Cold Blooded” by Rick James

The relationship between the CIA and Saleh “was very close,” said London. But he cautioned that “people are [the] CIA’s man – until they don’t need to be anymore.”