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What will be the Mideast Crises facing Biden in the Coming Year? US Intelligence Threat Assessment

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The Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community is out. It has a Middle East section and a report on Afghanistan in the South Asia section.

Although the threat assessment aims at highlighting potential threats to the US and US interests, I am struck by how little their analysis of flashpoints in the Middle East throws up any real threats to America, as opposed to US troops abroad.

The report, at least what was made available publicly, has some gaps. I think the Israeli crushing of the five million militarily occupied Palestinians is a continuing security threat to the United States, since the rest of the world knows that Washington is complicit in it, and it fuels anti-Americanism. The Israeli occupation of Jerusalem was cited by Usama Bin Laden as one of three reasons he launched the 9/11 attacks.

I also think the Egyptian government's extreme authoritarianism and disallowal of all dissent is dangerous and could eventually produce problems for the US, given how identified the US is with Cairo.

Since President Biden just announced a US departure from Afghanistan, let us begin there.

    "We assess that prospects for a peace deal will remain low during the next year. The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.

    "Kabul continues to face setbacks on the battlefield, and the Taliban is confident it can achieve military victory.

    "Afghan forces continue to secure major cities and other government strongholds, but they remain tied down in defensive missions and have struggled to hold recaptured territory or reestablish a presence in areas abandoned in 2020."

I think we may conclude that the US intelligence analysts don't have high hopes for the long term survival of the Kabul government of Ashraf Ghani and his military.

Afghanistan is a country of about 36 million. The Afghan National Army (ANA) has 175,000 men under arms. It appears to be an almost completely infantry army. Globalfire says they don't have a single tank. Admittedly, tanks are not all that useful in Afghanistan because they cannot navigate the rugged terrain, a lesson the Soviets learned to their dismay in the 1980s.

The ANA does have 1,065 armored vehicles, which doesn't sound like many for an army of 125,000. They only have 120 towed artillery pieces.

The essential equipment for fighting the Taliban effectively are helicopter gunships and drones, which are light and mobile and can follow them when they withdraw into the hills and mountains. The ANA does have 193 helicopters, the bulk of its air force, but no helicopter gunships according to Globalfire. It only has 23 attack aircraft of any sort.

Obviously, the ANA has been depending on the U.S. Air Force and has not developed its own. The likelihood is that even after the remaining US special forces troops are pulled out, the US will continue to supply at least drone support against the Taliban.

But it looks to me as though the US ought to have trained an air force and not just an infantry, and ought to have equipped the ANA better. President Biden is still going to sell the UAE $128 billion in sophisticated weaponry, but Washington seems not to be as interested in bolstering a key ally like Kabul.

The ANA costs about $5-$6 billion a year, most of it paid for by international donors (the U.S. pitches in almost $2 billion). If the donations fall off after the US and NATO are completely out, no one can imagine how Afghanistan could keep its military going at that scale. Afghanistan itself appropriates around $250 million a year for the military. The whole annual government budget is only $5.55 billion, so about 5% of it is going to the military. In a desperately poor country, that is huge, but you'd have to shut down most of the military if that was its entire budget.

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Juan Cole is an American academic and commentator on the modern Middle East and South Asia.  He is Richard P. Mitchell Collegiate Professor of History at the University of Michigan. Since 2002, he has written a weblog, Informed Comment (more...)

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