By hastily withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan, US President Joe Biden has made a grave mistake, or so many argue. US Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, for example, has called the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country an “even worse sequel to the humiliating fall of Saigon in 1975.” That sequel, top US generals, conservatives, and even some liberals predict, will be characterized by the resurgence of transnational terrorism.
The prediction is straightforward. As an Islamist militant group, the Taliban will inevitably provide al-Qaeda – and potentially other extremist groups, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) – with a sanctuary to recruit, train, and plan attacks against the West. By next month, McConnell warns, al-Qaeda and the Taliban will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, by “burning down [the US] embassy in Kabul.”
But there is a flaw in this assessment: it assumes that there is not much daylight between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. In reality, while the two groups do share a similar religious ideology and worldview, they have very different objectives.
The Taliban aims to establish a theocracy, or Islamic Emirate, in Afghanistan, but has indicated no ambition to expand beyond that country’s borders. By contrast, al-Qaeda has no national identity, nor does it recognize borders. It is a borderless movement, with branches in scores of countries worldwide, that seeks to spread its ideology near and far by any means, including violence.
It is also worth noting that al-Qaeda is a shadow of its former self. Relentless US attacks have substantially degraded its ability to mount major attacks against Western targets from either Afghanistan or Pakistan. It now lacks the necessary operational capabilities. Meanwhile, transnational jihadism had metastasized well beyond Afghanistan, throughout the Middle East and into Africa and South Asia.
One might counter that, with sanctuary from the Taliban, al-Qaeda could rebuild in Afghanistan. This possibility, and the security threat it poses to the West, should not be ruled out. But, for now, the group lacks the charismatic leadership and skilled cadres it would need to restore and reinvigorate its ranks. It is not even clear whether Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s current (divisive) leader, is alive.
More important, the Taliban are unlikely to allow al-Qaeda to establish new bases in the country immediately. At last February’s talks with then-US President Donald Trump’s administration in Doha, they promised as much, declaring that they would not allow al-Qaeda or other militants to operate in areas they controlled.
This was not mere appeasement. The Taliban were describing a course of action that was – and remains – in their own interest. Over the past year, the Taliban have pursued a diplomatic “charm offensive,” talking to their bitter foes, including the Americans, Russians, and Iranians. They want to cement their control of Afghanistan and gain international recognition and legitimacy.
Hosting al-Qaeda would not advance these objectives. On the contrary, it was al-Qaeda’s attack on the United States on September 11, 2001, that sent the Taliban into exile in the first place. They may be back in power, but it took 20 years, and they are not about to risk what they have regained.
This is not to say that there is nothing to worry about. While the Taliban’s impressive military victory implies discipline and coherence, the movement is not politically monolithic. Rather, it comprises competing factions and clans. So, there is always the risk that some elements of the Taliban could link up with al-Qaeda and other radical groups in Pakistan.
There is a precedent for this. In the late 1990s, a majority of the Taliban consultative council (its executive body) voted to expel al-Qaeda and its then-leader, Osama bin Laden, from Afghanistan, in response to international pressure. Yet the head of the movement, Mullah Omar, decided to allow bin Laden to remain, demanding only that he desist from launching attacks from Afghanistan. As the world clearly saw on 9/11, the wily Saudi played his Afghan host for a fool.
So, while the Taliban is unlikely to welcome al-Qaeda with open arms, the terrorist group does have some chance of benefiting from the Taliban’s return to power. The same cannot be said of ISIS, which the Taliban fiercely opposes. In fact, the Taliban has waged a war against ISIS in the areas under its control, to neutralize any potential threat to its domination of the country.
The world should not ignore the risk that Afghanistan could become a breeding ground for international terrorism. But nor should it be so fixated on this prospect – which is far less likely than many seem to believe – that it neglects the humanitarian catastrophe that is unfolding before our eyes. Images of desperate Afghans clamoring to get onto flights out of Kabul and stories of women being forced from their jobs – or worse – by Taliban fighters make it all too clear that the US and its allies have abandoned the people of Afghanistan, leaving them at the mercy of the brutal and repressive movement.
America’s 20-year-old “War on Terror” is the greatest strategic disaster in the country’s modern history. It should never have been fought. And while the US has decided to cut its losses, Afghans will continue to pay an ever-higher price for it.
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