The Biden administration has made the decision to extend the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan past the May 1, 2021 deadline agreed to with the Taliban. However, all U.S. forces will be withdrawn by September 11, 2021, bringing to a close America’s longest war. Yet as strong as the urge may be to move on, the U.S. still has a security interest in Afghanistan that it must safeguard. As stated repeatedly over the years, that interest is for Afghanistan to never again be a safe haven from which terrorists launch attacks against the United States or its allies. Relative to the future of U.S. policy on Afghanistan, securing this interest is typically associated with two options: leaving behind a residual counterterrorism force in perpetuity as an “insurance policy” against terrorist threats, or withdrawing forces and relying on the threat of future U.S. military action to deter the Taliban from breaking their commitments to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan to conduct international attacks. With the Biden administration’s decision to withdraw by September irrespective of conditions on the ground, it would seem as though it is taking the latter course.
However, a third option exists. Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in Afghanistan, U.S. forces there have shifted to a primarily virtual posture to advise Afghan security forces. Even prior to this, the United States was providing “fly-to-advise” support to some Afghan partner units. These experiences open the door to the possibility of conducting long-term, over-the-horizon advisory support without a sustained U.S. presence in Afghanistan. While this topic has been discussed in general terms, it has yet to be closely examined in the context of Afghanistan. Here we introduce and explore the concept of a remote advisory cell designed to help secure the primary U.S. security interest in Afghanistan.
In order to design such a cell, it is necessary to determine how it should be focused and what capabilities it needs. The primary U.S. security interest in Afghanistan is focused on al-Qaeda (and its regional affiliate in the Indian subcontinent) and the Islamic State-Khorasan. Despite years of persistent military pressure applied against these groups, they have proven resilient. As CNA found in a previous study, when counterterrorism pressure is removed from terrorist groups that are resilient, they will regroup and expand into areas of reduced pressure. Therefore, in recent years, the U.S. has sought to strike al-Qaeda and Islamic State targets in Afghanistan with its own forces and build and leverage capabilities within Afghan partner forces to do the same. If by the time U.S. forces fully withdraw from Afghanistan, the U.S. has not shifted to a stance of fully trusting the Taliban to secure its counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan, the Biden administration may want to maintain capabilities that are sufficient for Afghan security forces to generate adequate pressure on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. The Afghan units best suited to do this are the Afghan Air Force and Afghan special operations forces (SOF). These elements have been partnered with U.S. units conducting counterterrorism operations as part of Operation Freedom's Sentinel since 2015 and Operation Enduring Freedom before that. As such, they represent the minimum viable capability for Afghan security forces to maintain the necessary level of military pressure on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan.
Periodic reports on the capabilities of Afghanistan’s air force and SOF make clear that these units are operationally proficient. For example, in the 4th quarter of 2020, Afghan SOF conducted 94% of their operations independent of U.S. and coalition assistance. Their operational prowess notwithstanding, these units continue to struggle with the support capabilities necessary to enable success, including logistics, personnel management, and maintenance, as our prior independent assessments and more recent work has made clear. Thus, a remote advising cell would need to primarily focus on improving (or least preventing the failure of) these supporting functions while also maintaining an emphasis on operational aspects.
There are a number of ways to configure a remote advisory cell, but we will discuss three here. The first option would be a cell located outside of Afghanistan. Such a cell would consist of a group of advisers with open communications channels to the Afghan Air Force and Afghan SOF. These advisers would provide persistent, virtual advisory support to better enable these units to conduct counterterrorism operations but would never physically enter Afghanistan.
Subsumed within this option are two additional possibilities concerning the cell's location. The cell could be located somewhere in proximity to Afghanistan or located somewhere inside the continental United States. The benefits of the cell being in the region include minimizing the time difference between advisers and Afghan units and decreasing the number of distractions for the cell’s personnel. However, the quality of communications and connectivity may be reduced in this option. It may be harder to find high-quality volunteers with the right skillsets to persistently deploy to a forward location. Conversely, a cell located in the continental United States would likely have better, more reliable communications channels and access to a broader pool of volunteers, but it would have a substantial time difference from Afghanistan, and its members would have the normal distractions of daily home life.
The second option for a remote cell builds on the first. In addition to having a remote cell outside of Afghanistan to provide virtual advice to the Afghan Air Force and SOF, this cell would maintain the capability to conduct limited duration face-to-face engagements with these units’ personnel. These engagements could be structured in two different ways. First, cell members could conduct limited duration fly-to-advise missions into Afghanistan. These missions could be conducted by either military or non-uniformed personnel (civilians or contractors). This would better allow the cell to maintain personal relationships with the leaders of Afghan partner units and would enable the cell to conduct face-to-face training courses for, especially complex matters. Alternatively, the United States could sponsor Afghan Air Force and SOF visits to the cell’s location for limited training programs or conferences in “fly-to-be-advised” operations. The United States has enabled Afghans to attend training courses in the U.S. and other countries in the past (such as pilot training). Given the current needs of the force, one could imagine hosting logistics conferences, training on personnel systems or similar activities focused on sustainment of unit capabilities.
The third option for a remote advisory cell represents a significant departure from the first two. In the first two options, the United States would maintain control and oversight of the TAA cell since the U.S. military would run it. However, the United States could alternatively provide Afghanistan’s government with the funding necessary to staff and operate an advisory cell using contractors. The Afghan government would then manage its own contracts in this regard, finding a willing company with the requisite expertise to address the needs of the Afghan Air Force and SOF.
Aside from the specific benefits and detriments afforded by each option, one can imagine several overarching advantages and disadvantages of a remote advisory cell more broadly. Advantages include the potential for longer deployments (and thus the chance to develop longer, stronger relationships with relevant Afghan Air Force and SOF personnel), greater force protection for U.S. personnel, and the likelihood of reduced operating costs for the advisory cell as compared to the current situation in Afghanistan. Disadvantages include the burden of building relationships with minimal to no in-person interactions and a reduced ability on the part of the United States to exercise control over how the Afghan government uses the Afghan Air Force and SOF.
Regardless of the model chosen for a remote advisory cell, our analysis of the concept suggests that it should adhere to three common factors to best enable its success. First, it should be focused more on supporting capabilities than operational ones, in accordance with the needs of the Afghan Air Force and SOF. This should drive personnel requirements and associated skillsets needed to staff the advisory cell. Second, any remote advisory cell should be jointly and selectively manned. There are already several U.S. Air Force and Army units that have longstanding relationships with the Afghan Air Force and SOF, respectively. These connections should be maintained via the leadership and structure of the remote advisory cell. Third, the cell should be fully integrated as a single entity instead of having multiple advisory cells independently focused on advising their particular partner unit.
The choice to establish a remote advisory cell as just described would be a bilateral one between the U.S. and the government of Afghanistan, but it is nonetheless useful to consider how the Taliban might react to such a move. To do so, we engaged four experts on the Taliban to explore whether the group would object to a remote advisory cell's existence and, if so, under what pretext. Their collective insights revealed several pertinent findings. First, the United States should prepare for verbal pushback from the Taliban against the notion of a remote advisory cell, though whether or how this would affect Taliban offensive actions on the battlefield is hard to predict. Second, establishing a remote advisory cell would likely curtail any potential future U.S.-Taliban cooperation on counterterrorism matters, as it would send a clear signal that Afghan security forces remain the United States’ partner of choice. Third, if postured properly, a remote advisory cell could prove helpful in negotiations with the Taliban. For example, suppose the U.S. fully withdrew from Afghanistan before a comprehensive peace settlement is reached (as is stipulated in the U.S.-Taliban agreement). In that case, a remote advisory cell could help retain some leverage for the U.S. and the government of Afghanistan while negotiations continued. Conversely, if the United States fully withdrew its forces and did not maintain a remote advisory cell—and the situation in Afghanistan deteriorated—the creation of such a cell at that time could be an option to reinforce the Afghan Air Force and SOF short of sending U.S. troops back into Afghanistan.
In conclusion, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State remain present in Afghanistan, and the U.S. retains an enduring interest in keeping counterterrorism pressure on those groups. As long as the Taliban waver on their counterterrorism commitments, the Afghan Air Force and SOF are the United States’ chief and best options for conducting counterterrorism operations absent a U.S. troop presence on the ground. A remote advisory cell is a feasible option for maintaining security cooperation relationships with critical Afghan partner units, though it should adhere to the common features identified above to be as effective as possible. The Taliban, meanwhile, are unlikely to readily accept the establishment of a remote advisory cell, limiting the idea’s utility to specific circumstances. Even so, a remote advisory cell may have domestic political benefits given the increased force protection and likely reduced costs it would afford over the current U.S. footprint in Afghanistan.
Alexander Powell is a Research Analyst in the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA Corporation, a non-profit, non-partisan research, and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. He has worked extensively on security issues in Afghanistan, traveling there frequently to conduct assessments of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. In 2017, Powell deployed with the Special Operations Joint Task Force-Afghanistan. He holds an M.A. in Security Studies from Georgetown University, where his thesis focused on foreign armed interventions in Afghanistan since the Anglo-Afghan Wars.
Dr. Jonathan Schroden directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the CNA Corporation. His work at CNA has focused on counterterrorism and counter-insurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, including numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. You can find him on Twitter @jjschroden.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.