Appeals from Afghanistan’s last standing resistance leaders for US support are almost certainly going to fall on deaf ears in Washington, longtime observers say. Even if the US and its NATO allies had a deep desire to re-engage the Taliban on the battlefield—which they don’t—the new political landscape across Central Asia essentially forbids it.
Earlier this week Afghanistan’s self-proclaimed Acting President Amrullah Saleh, who fled to the northern Panjshir Valley, appealed for Western aid via Twitter, saying he was “reaching out to all leaders to secure their support and consensus.” At about the same time, Ahmad Massoud, 32, son of the legendary anti-Soviet resistance leader and “Lion of the Panjshir” Ahmad Shah Massoud, took to the opinion page of The Washington Post to say he couldn’t hold out much longer without foreign support. “The mujahideen resistance to the Taliban begins now. But we need help,” the headline said.
“The United States and its allies have left the battlefield, but America can still be a ‘great arsenal of democracy,’ as Franklin D. Roosevelt said when coming to the aid of the beleaguered British before the US entry into World War II,” Massoud wrote. “To that end, I entreat Afghanistan’s friends in the West to intercede for us in Washington and in New York, with Congress and with the Biden administration. Intercede for us in London, where I completed my studies, and in Paris, where my father’s memory was honored this spring by the naming of a pathway for him in the Champs-Élysées gardens.”
But Western powers no longer have the benefit of Central Asian strongmen who gave comfort and aid to the CIA when it arrived in October 2001 to topple the Taliban, some seven weeks after the elder Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda agents posing as Belgian journalists. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the CIA gradually built up a robust base in nearby Dushanbe, Tajikistan’s capital. In 2001 the agency also had a strong (if odious) local ally in Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum, who teamed up with CIA paramilitary officers and Green Berets to rout the Taliban. Last weekend, Dostum vowed to fight on after his troops sold out and surrendered to the Taliban—but from exile in Uzbekistan. Also in the 1990s and onward, the notorious Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout was also in his Tajikistan homeland supplying the elder Massoud’s Northern Alliance with guns and ammo, perhaps paid for with CIA cash. But he’s gone, too: Since 2012 he’s been serving a 25-year sentence in a US federal prison for illegal arms trafficking to terrorist enemies of the West.
Gone Grid: And today, the former Soviet central Asia republics are practically off limits to the CIA, at least as staging grounds for a resistance to the Taliban. While the US was struggling to nation-build in Afghanistan for the past 20 years, Moscow was busy rebuilding its political and military presence across the region. It views Central Asia “as part of its privileged sphere of influence,” the Center for Strategic and International Studies wrote last year, explaining Russia’s “military buildup” across the ‘Stans. It also hardly needs saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin, helping spur political chaos in the US the past several years, has no interest in aiding Washington anywhere, especially in regions where he’s worked hard to reclaim Moscow’s sway.
Putin “will never let the CIA into Tajikistan to arm a rebellion,” says Robert Baer, a former CIA officer who was stationed in Dushanbe in the 1990s. “They could do it themselves,” Baer tells SpyTalk, but “right now they’re taking the Taliban’s temperature.” Some say Putin might even consider taking out the younger Massoud, as a favor to the Taliban, whom it has a strong interest in cultivating as another arena to diminish America’s standing.
The CIA does not comment on covert action. US relations with Pakistan, meanwhile, which gave shelter to the Taliban and Al Qaeda for decades, have been frosty for years, and can only worsen now. China, Iraq and Iran look eager to come to terms with the new rulers of Kabul. Increasingly Islamist Turkey, too, cannot be counted on to help Washington undermine the Taliban. Rearming a resistance is just a nonstarter, no matter how painfully hearts may be breaking in Washington.
Disconnected: Amrullah Saleh, meanwhile, the former Afghan intelligence chief who claims to have inherited the presidency after Ashraf Ghani’s flight into exile in the UAE, has just lost a key channel to rally supporters. On Thursday, Saleh’s Twitter account appeared to have been disabled—whether by Twitter or other parties could not be learned. “Something went wrong,” came the automated Twitter response to several clicks on his account. “Try reloading.” We did. It still didn’t work.