* The Taliban victory in Afghanistan has given an enormous boost to the morale of terrorists throughout the region.
* The role of ISKP in Afghanistan is very murky as it is not a monolithic organisation and has ties to Taliban factions. These include the Haqqani Network who also have a long association with al-Qaeda.
* The Pakistani military’s strategic support for the Taliban in Afghanistan strengthens the forces of terrorism that threaten the very nature of the Pakistani state.
* Iran has aspirations to be the dominant player in both the Persian Gulf and the Middle East.
* Backed by Iran, the Houthis in Yemen are a very well organised, disciplined organisation and have advanced their strategic interests in Yemen against Saudi Arabia.
* The combination of location, leadership, and success in counter-terrorism has made Jordan a key and stable ally against al-Qaeda and ISIS.
SG – Dr. Sajjan Gohel
BR – Bruce Riedel
SG: Hello, and welcome to DEEP Dive, brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. Each episode, we speak to experts and practitioners in international security and defence, counter-terrorism, and geopolitical current events to gain insight into the most pressing matters of global affairs.
In this episode, we speak to Bruce Riedel, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and director of the Brookings Intelligence Project and Centre for 21st Century Security and Intelligence. In addition, Bruce serves as a senior fellow in the Centre for Middle East Policy. He retired in 2006 after 30 years of service at the Central Intelligence Agency and is a recipient of both the Intelligence Medal of Merit and the Distinguished Intelligence Career Medal. Bruce served as a senior advisor on South Asia and the Middle East to four U.S. presidents as part of the National Security Council. He was also Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for the Near East and South Asia at the Pentagon and a senior advisor to NATO. Bruce is the author of several books including The Search for al Qaeda, Deadly Embrace, Avoiding Armageddon, JFK’s Forgotten Crisis, and Kings and Presidents.
Bruce Riedel, welcome to NATO DEEP Dive.
BR: It’s a pleasure to be here with you.
SG: And we’re honoured to have you with us.
There are so many things that have been taking place in the region of Asia, the Middle East—and you are an expert on both South Asia and the Middle East itself, so to get your perspectives on a lot of the key geopolitical security related issues is going to be very important for our discussion. If we can start with Afghanistan: we are witnessing a country that is now going into a humanitarian crisis, the Taliban takeover has been completed, and yet there is still so much insecurity inside the country. If we could track back a little, could anything have been done differently in order to either prevent the Taliban takeover, or to perhaps have had some kind of power sharing arrangement as some people had hoped or were wanting to achieve?
BR: The crisis in Afghanistan, which is now heading in the direction of a humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions, was entirely preventable. We had in place, at the beginning of 2021, a sustainable force posture in Afghanistan. 3000 plus American troops, another 7000 or so NATO troops, contractors, airpower. The Afghan urban areas were very much under the control of the Afghan government. The rural areas were contested in many places, and in some places controlled by the Taliban. The Pakistanis were providing the Taliban with support, as they have for the last 20 years. The number of casualties among the foreign forces, especially American forces, had been low for more than five years, long before the Taliban announced that they were no longer to fire on American forces.
This was all a sustainable operation. It was not under significant public criticism in the United States. There were no demonstrations against the war. This is entirely a product of a bad decision to move forward with an evacuation and withdrawal that was not necessary, that was not required. And that was, in the long run, deeply unpopular in the United States, and marked the point at which President Joe Biden’s popular approval ratings in the United States dipped significantly, so that he is now the unpopular American president. It all could have been prevented. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in now, and we have to cope with the reality of the disaster that is facing us in Afghanistan.
SG: Well, before we go to how we cope with this new environment in Afghanistan, or the environment that we are now having to become accustomed to, let me ask you about the role of Zalmay Khalilzad, who was the Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. Was he in an impossible position, or some critics say, was in many ways the architect to the problems that have emerged? Where do you stand on this situation?
BR: I think he was a poor choice for the job of negotiating. He is widely disliked among Afghans. He had no support within the Afghan government, which felt that he had marginalised them in the process. He had negotiated the terrible deal that the Trump administration made, in which it promised to leave in return for vague promises from the Taliban that they would break their relations with al-Qaeda—promises they never fulfilled. I think it was very curious, and a big mistake, that the Biden administration kept in place a political appointee who had a long track record of working only for Republican presidents. It’s a mystery to me, in some ways, as to why Zalmay Khalilzad was kept on. He now clearly has been booted out and is trying hard to salvage his reputation. I think the administration recognised in retrospect that they made a mistake.
SG: And his legacy will be felt in Afghanistan for perhaps generations to come as a result of what’s transpired from Doha.
BR: Yes, the Taliban are deeply entrenched. They don’t face any significant resistance, except from even more extreme jihadist elements, like the Islamic State in Khorasan. Remnants of the Afghan national government and National Army have, for all intents and purposes, been swept from the field. And the Taliban are now clearly in charge, along with their Pakistani backers.
SG: In terms of dealing with the Taliban, what are our options? Or is it that there are no options, and we cannot deal with them? How do we pursue this very odd situation, uncomfortable situation, and frightening situation in 2022?
BR: It is very difficult, and you’re right, a frightening situation. It seems to me our first priority has to be to try to get aid to the Afghan people. The Afghan people have been dependent upon outside sources of assistance for decades now. If that means we have to have some kind of dialogue with the Taliban, then I think the imperative here has to be the humanitarian one, particularly this winter. We don’t have much time. Winter is descending upon Afghanistan. And we know that the conditions are deteriorating and could deteriorate very grievously. I think that should be our priority.
SG: One of the challenges tied to this is that you have the Haqqani network that has effectively taken over Afghanistan under the guise of the Taliban, and the head of the Taliban’s refugee ministry is Khalil-ur-Rahman Haqqani, who is the uncle of Sirajuddin Haqqani. How does one deal with the Haqqanis? Because there are some in, say, the Biden administration, who believe that you can separate the two, but in many ways they seem very much fused and attached to each other. And it’s worth reminding everybody that the Haqqanis are a proscribed terrorist group, who have killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers as well as thousands of Afghans—men, women, and children. Is there any way of dealing with Afghanistan without the Haqqanis?
BR: We should also bear in mind that the Haqqani Network has a long association with al-Qaeda, with the leadership of al-Qaeda in South Asia. That is one of the reasons, among the others that you mentioned, that it is a proscribed terrorist organisation. I don’t see much chance that you’re going to be able to split the Haqqanis off from the Taliban; I think the two are deeply entrenched together. I don’t see much chance that we’re going to split the al-Qaeda network off from the Taliban or the Haqqanis. I’m not an expert in the legal procedures, which determine who you can talk to and who you can’t talk to. A lot of what we need to do in Afghanistan, we’re probably going to have to do through the Pakistanis, who, after all, have excellent contacts with all of these groups, and who are not a proscribed state-sponsor of terrorism. Although in many ways, they certainly qualify for that position. I think we probably have to work through the Pakistanis, through the international community. But the notion that we’re somehow going to be able to put a good Taliban in charge of Afghanistan, I think, is a fantasy.
SG: So, we need to dismiss that narrative that somehow there are moderate elements within the Taliban that we could see eye to eye with. I know there was a lot of hope in Mullah Baradar, who was in many ways leading the negotiations for the Taliban in Doha. But he seems to have become isolated, ironically, by the Haqqanis themselves. So, our options have become severely limited in Afghanistan as well. You mentioned, Bruce, about al-Qaeda. Has al-Qaeda now got the ability to reconstitute and replenish now that their allies, the Haqqanis, control Afghanistan? Do you see al-Qaeda then becoming more ambitious in 2022? Where do you see them fitting in now when it comes to the threat of transnational terrorism?
BR: Well, the good news is that beginning in 2009, under President Obama, the United States, and many of our allies, focused relentlessly on going after the infrastructure of al-Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan. The mechanism for doing so was primarily the drones. And they were very, very effective. In 2006, al-Qaeda had been fully regenerated back to where it had been in 2001. Ten years later, that was no longer the case. The question, which you’ve just posed is, of course, the key one: can they regenerate again, now that they’re no longer under the surveillance and pressure of American forces operating in Afghanistan? That’s a function of many variables, some of which are under our control, but most of which are not under our control.
And the most important fact is we no longer have any surveillance mechanisms to know what’s going on in Afghanistan and Pakistan. We cannot fly drone missions in Afghanistan. The Taliban won’t let us do that. Whether the Pakistanis will tolerate some in their territory remains to be seen. From what Prime Minister Imran Khan has said, I think it’s highly doubtful. We don’t have any boots on the ground. We have no human sources. The good news is the CIA was able to evacuate many of its supporters and informants out of Afghanistan. That’s good for them. The bad news is that means we don’t have any informants and contacts on the ground in Afghanistan again. We are essentially flying blind in Afghanistan and much of Pakistan today. So, if al-Qaeda does regenerate, we will find out about it, I think—only too late.
SG: That sends a chill down my spine. It is a deeply perturbing scenario that could then unfold. What about the over-the-horizon capability? Is that not viable? Or is that, as you were mentioning, contingent on neighbours such as countries like Pakistan?
BR: It’s entirely contingent on neighbours. And we know that we’re not going to get support. The Iranians are not going to let us fly drones over their territory to monitor western Afghanistan, the Taliban are not going to allow drones in their territory at all, and I think if the Pakistanis allow any, it’ll be under very high strictures that limit their effectiveness. Over-the-horizon is often referred to in the intelligence community as “over the rainbow.” And I think that tells you everything you need to know.
SG: Yes, I think that certainly does provide full perspective of what the intelligence community must be thinking about it. If we look at the other group in Afghanistan, Bruce, ISKP—the ISIS affiliate, the Khorasan faction—there are some beliefs based on U.S. estimates that they potentially have the capability of launching transnational attacks. There are some others that feel that they are more localised, that they don’t have the same ambitions as ISIS core have had. And there’s also a perspective that in many ways, they have a very murky relationship with the Taliban and the Haqqanis themselves, because nothing in Afghanistan is ever black and white. What is your take on ISKP?
BR: I think your last point is exactly right: this is all very murky. And I suspect that ISIS-KP is not a monolithic organisation. I suspect it is composed of various different groups, who have a generalised commitment to the ISIS notion of creating a caliphate, but who are far from being in a command-and-control relationship. Some will work with the Taliban; some will work against the Taliban. Some will focus on regional issues, and probably there will be some who, in time, start to focus on going after Western targets outside of South Asia. How successful it will be in doing that is hard to say.
The world has changed a lot in 20 years. The capacity for terrorist jihad organisations to operate freely in the West is not the same as it was when Osama bin Laden and the Hamburg clique were operating in the United States in 2001, thank God. But we should have no illusions. Defence is critical but allowing these groups to have large staging areas to train, recruit, practice—like Afghanistan—we know from history puts us at a severe disadvantage when it comes to fighting.
SG: So that’s just another additional challenge that we’re going to have to face on top of everything else that is occurring. You have mentioned several times in our discussions about Pakistan. So, let’s look at that a little further in depth. What can we say about the role of Pakistan in the region? Are they still potentially going to be an ally in name, but will question marks still remain about their role? The fact that President Biden has still not spoken to Prime Minister Imran Khan as yet—does that matter? The fact that it seems Pakistan’s military worked with the Taliban to enable their takeover of Afghanistan in 2021—what can we say about the role of Pakistan and where that’s heading in 2022?
BR: I think the single issue that worries me the most in the current global environment is whether or not the Pakistani army, particularly the officer corps, and particularly those officers associated with the intelligence department, ISI, come away from Afghanistan with a sense of victory in jubilation. After all, a very convincing case can be made that the Pakistani army has now defeated two superpowers in the course of the last several decades—first the Soviets, and now the Americans. Will that sense of enthusiasm that they’ve done it again—will they now start turning their attention to enemy number one, which is India. And will they look to increase tensions in Kashmir and elsewhere to try to put pressure on the Indians to compel the withdrawal of Indian forces from the Kashmir Valley. It’s too soon to say whether that’s going to be the case, but I’m very concerned about that.
In that environment, is Imran Khan going to be a hedge, is he going to be a constraint on them? Imran Khan is all over the map on these issues in the course of his career, but most recently, since he became prime minister, he’s been very closely associated with the Pakistani army. That’s not a reason for ignoring him. If we can talk to Vladimir Putin, we can certainly talk to Imran Khan. That doesn’t mean we’re going to agree. There are going to be many things we disagree on. But it’s very, very important to engage the Pakistanis on these issues. Pakistan is the fourth largest country in the world in terms of population. It has the fastest growing nuclear arsenal in the world. It is China’s number one ally. This is a very, very important country in its own right. Leave aside Afghanistan. Pakistan should be considered one of the most important countries in the world for the United States to engage with. Iran, in many ways, is a Pakistan wanna-be—it doesn’t have nuclear weapons yet, it doesn’t have delivery systems, it doesn’t have a working military-to-military relationship with China. This is a country that we need to pay much more attention to, and that starts with a phone call from the president to Imran Khan.
SG: Is Imran Khan ultimately the main power in Pakistan, or does it remain the fact that the military under the leadership currently of General Bajwa, he is in fact the real authority and the decision-maker? How do you see that military civilian relationship?
BR: Pakistan has a very complex military civilian relationship, and a lot depends on the issue. Issues of national security are the prerogative of the military and General Bajwa. Many of the issues of domestic interest, economic interest, are much more in the civilians’ hands. It’s a complex, evolving situation. What I think we can say is that Imran Khan understands very well how much he needs General Bajwa’s support and is very careful to keep the general happy on national security issues.
SG: We know that Pakistan, as you were mentioning, has supported various different extremist groups in Afghanistan, which has resulted in the instability of the country. But those same forces have bedfellows in Pakistan itself. Do you see that the goal of Pakistan’s strategic depth strategy in Afghanistan can conversely result in extremist forces gaining a foothold inside Pakistan and destabilising the country?
BR: Yes, in many ways, Pakistan’s victory in Afghanistan strengthens the forces of jihadism that threaten the very nature of the Pakistani state and threaten the Pakistani army. The Pakistani army, though, has become more and more adept over the last decade in controlling these elements. It’s not perfect. They don’t have them under 100 percent control, but they have corralled many of them and moved them in the direction that the Pakistani army wants them to be there. It also allows them to have a bit of a stick to hit the civilians with from time to time by saying, “We have to accommodate these people, we have to listen to their interests.” So, it’s a very complex phenomenon. Is it under full control? No, by no means. Is it as out of control as it was five years ago? No. It’s under much more control than it was, say, in 2014, 2015.
SG: So, the fact that it is under more control, does that, in other ways raise more concerns that one needs Pakistan to exercise that control in clamping down on these extremist groups that can actually create further instability in the region?
BR: Well, this is the beauty of the Pakistani system, they can always say to their western interlocutors, “if you don’t deal with me, you’ll have to deal with that crazy guy with the beard.” We’ve seen this phenomenon for a long, long time. I think we have to recognise that you don’t have to have a beard to be an Islamic jihadist terrorist. And we now know, from excellent new reporting in Afghanistan, that the Taliban had extensively penetrated the Afghan urban areas by sending in recruiting individuals who didn’t look like they were the Taliban, they looked like they were the moderates, but that was all a deception.
The United States and its allies have a new opening with Pakistan, which we should seize. For the last 40 years, our policy towards Pakistan has been very much constrained by our need to support our allies in Afghanistan. First, the Mujahideen in the 1980s and then the Afghan government after 2000. And the only way we could support them was through supply lines through Pakistan. That meant the Pakistanis had tremendous leverage over everything we wanted to do. And they could use that leverage whenever they wanted to. That leverage is gone. We don’t need Karachi anymore, to fuel ISAF forces in Herat, or Kabul. We don’t need Karachi to get arms to the Mujahideen anymore. We are free of that constraint. And that allows us to develop a Pakistan policy, which is Pakistan focused rather than Afghan focused. And that’s what I would hope the administration and our allies would focus on in the future.
SG: Well time will see as to how that unfolds in 2022. You said earlier that Iran is wanting to be a kind of ‘wannabe Pakistan’ to use your term. What is happening in terms of Iran right now? What are their main strategic objectives, agendas, and in that, what poses a concern for global security?
BR: Well, Iran has aspirations to be the dominant player. And not just in the Persian Gulf, but in the Middle East writ large. And it has done a great job of achieving that status. Iran is the dominant player in Lebanon, and increasingly in Syria. It has a very important role in Iraq. And it now has a foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, in northern Yemen, with its partner, the Houthis. This is a remarkably successful foreign policy for the Iranians. A lot of their success is of course, a derivative of major mistakes made by the United States and its allies. The toehold in the Arabian Peninsula is a direct result of the Saudi intervention in the Yemeni civil war in 2015 The Iranians had very little connection with the Houthis then. That has now changed dramatically in Iran’s favour. Iran is now able, through the Houthis, to fire missiles at Riyadh and other Saudi cities, seemingly with impunity, certainly with impunity for Iran itself. Iranians had some setbacks in Iraq in the last year, but I think they’re far from being removed as a major player in that area. Iran has achieved a measure of influence in four Arab capitals, Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sunnah. That would be the envy of any previous Iranian government, including the Shahs.
SG: Well, they seem to have extended their reach, quite significantly, based on what you’re saying, if we perhaps could break down two of those particular areas. One you were talking about Yemen. So, you’ve written extensively about this. How do you see the situation continuing to unfold there? And also, the proxy nature of the different actors in the area, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, what concerns you? And what could have wider implications?
BR: Well, the difference between the proxies in Yemen is that the Iranians picked the winner, and the Saudis picked a bunch of losers. The Houthis are a very well organised, disciplined organisation. They are serial human rights abusers, but they have succeeded in securing for themselves, the mantle of being the nationalist patriotic defenders, of Yemeni, of Yemen, against Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia is very unpopular and has been very unpopular in Yemen for decades, after all parts of Yemen were taken over by Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. That is still resented, particularly in the North. The Houthis have successfully made themselves the patriotic faction; the Saudis have connected themselves with elements which are highly unpopular, or highly problematic, like the Southern Secessionist grouping, who basically want to recreate the Old People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen.
The Iranians have largely had this cake put in their lap by the mistakes of the Saudis, but they’ve been smart to quickly grab hold of it and take hold of it. The Houthis are not a puppet of the Iranians. They’re not under the Iranians control. But they have very similar interests. And both the Iranians and, to a certain degree, the Houthis, have an interest in keeping the war going. After all, they’re winning. It’s costing the Yemeni people a horrendous price. But it’s not costing the Iranians hardly anything. And it’s not costing the Houthis very much either. It’s to some extent in their interest to keep this war going indefinitely, certainly it is in Tehran’s interest to keep it going indefinitely.
SG: In terms of this war continuing to drag on, where does the al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), sit within this melee and this disaster?
BR: It’s very hard to tell. Because of the Saudi blockade of Yemen, there’s very little media reporting from on the ground in Yemen, about the war in general, and especially about the activities of al-Qaeda. We have every reason to believe it’s still there. But how much pressure is it under? It’s very hard to tell from the outside. I think that the US intelligence community has a better handle on these issues, it should, but this is a constant worry and a constant danger. And another reason to want to bring the war to an end: so that the various parts of Yemen can focus on their own internal security and keeping groups like al-Qaeda locked up as much as possible.
SG: Again, another situation that I think tragically, we’ll probably start seeing the impact of at a wider level, in the next many months to come. The other thing Bruce that you mentioned was Iran’s role in Iraq and that they’ve had significant influence. Do you see that becoming more extended? More visible than it perhaps already is? And does that then impact on the US troops that are acting in an advisory capacity in Iraq itself?
BR: Iran has enormous advantages in Iraq. It has historical connections. It has religious connections with the majority Shi’ite community in Iraq. It has long demographic connections. There are many Iranian Arabs, who would feel just at home in Karbala as they do in Khuzestan in Iran. A lot of those things we can’t really affect. One thing we can do, though, is to encourage our Arab allies to play a balancing role in Baghdad. Jordan, King Abdullah, has been doing this for quite some time. We’re now seeing the Egyptians more and more engaged in doing the same thing. We’ve seen some preliminary indications that the Saudis have finally realised that ignoring the moderate elements in Baghdad only strengthens the hands of the Iranians. They’re not there as much as they should be yet, but the Biden administration and our allies should all be encouraging the Jordanians, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Emiratis, to be a player, be a factor on the ground in Baghdad, to balance and offset the Iranians. It will never be 100%, this is always going to be an ongoing battle, but we need our Arab allies on the ground helping us in doing this. They, in the end, have the advantages that we don’t have demography, of ethnic, religious ties. We need their help. Some of them have gotten that for a long time, like the Jordanians, some of them are only now beginning to realise the importance of doing this.
SG: Speaking of our Arab allies, and in particular, Jordan, for as long as I’ve known you, you’ve always impressed upon me the fact that Jordan is a very important partner, and ally. And you always placed a lot of emphasis on it, and I can say from that it, it certainly led to my work with the Jordanians, and they were actually a critical component in helping to produce NATO’s counter-terrorism reference curriculum. Why is Jordan so important? Why does it have this, this role to play?
BR: Well as any retail agent, real estate agent will tell you, it’s location, location, location. Jordan sits at the crossroads of the Middle East, are bordered to the north by Syria and Lebanon just beyond, a border to the east by Iraq, with Iran beyond that, bordered to the west by Israel and the Palestinian territories, and to the south, by Saudi Arabia, and across the Gulf of Aqaba, Egypt. If Jordan is unstable, the whole region will be unstable. If Jordan is stable, it doesn’t guarantee regional stability. But it does make it much easier to operate from there. The second reason, of course, is leadership. The Jordanians have been fortunate to have two leaders in the last 75 years, King Hussein and now his son, King Abdullah, who have been quite good at understanding the politics around them, at making a poor, water deprived, resource deprived country, a success story. And the combination of location, leadership, and success has made Jordan really a pivot upon which not just the United States, but the West in general, depends for success. And the Jordanian intelligence service in particular is among the finest in the world and have done an awful lot to help us in the battle with al-Qaeda and other extremist organisations.
SG: Very much so including ISIS. Where does ISIS sit now, in 2022? Are they potentially capable of a comeback in the Middle East like al Qaeda in Afghanistan/Pakistan? You also have a lot of those detainee camps of ISIS fighters, the separate camps housing their wives and children, whose children have now become teenagers, and potentially become quite radicalised. Do we see the potential of ISIS 2.0? Or is that already happening and unfolding, and it’s just not getting the attention that it needs to?
BR: The United States and our NATO partners and others are very successful in driving ISIS out of the urban areas, and most of the rural areas of Syria or Iraq in the last decade, it’s quite an accomplishment. In the process, the fallacy of the ISIS strategy, that they could build a caliphate today has been exposed. But they’re not gone. And you’re right, there’s, there’s many of them still in, in camps, their families, they’re undoubtedly sympathisers, whether they will be able to reconstitute or not remains to be seen.
Certainly, one thing is true. And that is that the Taliban victory in Afghanistan has given an enormous boost to the morale of jihadists throughout the region, even jihadists who don’t think the Taliban are extreme enough, like ISIS in Khorasan, still feel a boost in their morale, and seeing the United States and NATO humiliated in Afghanistan, driven out of the area, and an Islamist government, now fully in charge in Kabul. That morale boost is an intangible factor, but it’s one that there’s nothing we can do about, it’s a fact now, it’s happened. And its reverberations are going to be with us for some time to come.
SG: Do you feel that tying this all in, the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, that it’s almost like one of those pivotal moments of the consequences we perhaps can predict to an extent, but we don’t necessarily know the full ramifications. But if we go by, for example, the suicide bombing on the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in the 1980s, which in some ways al-Qaeda got some inspiration from, even though it was from a different group sponsored by Iran. And then the Soviet departure from Afghanistan. That what has now transpired in Afghanistan, in 2020, could act as the next platform for a new generation of transnational terrorists, who are very much emboldened by what the Taliban have done, as you said, may not necessarily be in a total agreement ideologically, but it will motivate them, and that will present a new challenge for counter-terrorism globally.
BR: Very much so. Afghanistan is a landlocked country, in the middle of Asia. It is remote from London and Washington. But it is a fact that events in Afghanistan in the last 40 years have had truly global impact. The victory of the Mujahideen over the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan was part of the process that led to the collapse of the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union, the liberation of Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, etc. The end of the Cold War, and the origins of the end of the Cold War are, in many places, but one of the most important was the defeat of the Soviet Red Army in Afghanistan. Fast forward to 2001. The attack on the United States of September 11 was organised and staged out of Afghanistan. Without that base of operations, literally, al-Qaeda probably could not have carried out an operation of that magnitude. Again, the 9/11 attack led to a dramatic change in the global environment, the revamping of the American national security bureaucracy, the creation of whole new agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, the National Counter-Terrorism Centre, NATO’s focus on counter-terrorism. Again, events in Afghanistan have had a disproportionate effect on the world twice in our lifetimes already. And I think 2021 will in time be seen as having a third disproportionate effect. We don’t know what that is yet. It’s certainly a morale booster for international terrorism. We’ll see if it’s more than that. If it turns into a tangible boost in their capacities, and capabilities.
SG: We’ll have to watch this space yet again, there’s so many key aspects that you’ve talked about today, Bruce, a real tour de force of South Asia and the Middle East. One final question is that we often hear that great power competition is now becoming the priority and that focus on South Asia and in the Middle East is dissipating and other strategic priorities are gaining ground and in particular, the dimension of China. Where do you see China fitting in when it comes to Afghanistan, Pakistan, as well as the Middle East. Because it seems like they have got a renewed impetus of having a foothold and influence in Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as in the Middle East?
BR: Well, China has been a major player in Pakistan since the 1960s. Really, in the aftermath of the Sino-Indian War of 1962, China and Pakistan found a natural alliance between the two of them. China has an enormous presence in Pakistan today, and is building an even larger presence, including a deep-water port on the Gulf of Oman, at Gwadar. It has been instrumental in the development of the Pakistani nuclear programme. Pakistan probably got its first nuclear material for a bomb from the Chinese. The defeat of the Americans and NATO in Afghanistan will only underscore that China is now the superpower in at least part of South Asia today, and that the Americans are no longer a player on the ground. Will China in time seek more influence in the Persian Gulf itself? I think that’s highly likely; China is still very dependent on imported Persian Gulf Oil, unlike ourselves. And with that interdependence, the Chinese are bound to play a larger role. How that will manifest itself in particular is hard to say at this point. The Chinese don’t look to be all that interested in creating bases, although they’ve created some, one in Djibouti, for example, we’ll see. Great power competition is undoubtedly going to be a more important factor than it has been for the last 30 years, when the United States really didn’t have a rival. It has a rival now in China, but that should not come at the exclusion of dealing with the perennial, deep rooted, terrorist threats that we face in the Middle East. And that will continue to be a source of great anxiety for American national security planners.
SG: Well, then, that anxiety is going to have ramifications, I think, not just with the US, but across the NATO alliance as well. With that in mind, Bruce, we can conclude, knowing that there are so many different challenges, but it is so good to have you providing context and perspective on them. And we are very grateful that you were able to provide the time to discuss this. So, thank you again, so much for appearing on NATO DEEP Dive.
BR: Thank you for inviting me and it’s been great to catch up, Sajjan. So, let’s stay in touch.
SG: Thank you for listening to this episode of DEEP Dive. I’m your host, Dr. Sajjan Gohel. DEEP Dive is brought to you by NATO’s Defence Education Enhancement Programme. The production and research team are Marcus Andreopoulos and Victoria Jones. For additional content, including full transcripts of each episode, please visit: deepportal.hq.nato.int/deepdive.
Disclaimer: Please note that the views, information, or opinions expressed in the DEEP Dive series are solely those of the individuals involved and do not necessarily represent those of NATO or DEEP.