The World

Could al-Qaida Make a Comeback in Afghanistan?

Why it’s not the same as other “safe havens.”

Taliban fighters ride in the back of a pickup truck through a crowded market area
Taliban fighters in Kabul on Tuesday. Hoshang Hashimi/AFP via Getty Images

In his remarks from April on why he decided to issue the order to withdraw the remaining 3,500 U.S. troops from Afghanistan, President Joe Biden declared, “Over the past 20 years, the threat has become more dispersed, metastasizing around the globe.” He went on to mention terror cells in Africa and Asia, noting that “with the terror threat now in many places,” keeping U.S. troops concentrated in Afghanistan “makes little sense to me and to our leaders.” Essentially, the Biden administration’s argument is that the terror threat from a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan will be no different from the threat from any number of other ungoverned spaces and failed states around the world, where thousands of U.S. troops are not currently deployed.

Advertisement

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the importance of safe haven and sanctuary for transnational terrorist groups. None of the other places where the U.S. and its allies are fighting jihadis—Somalia, Yemen, Mali, and other parts of Africa’s Sahel—is ruled by an organization like the Taliban, an organization that boasts tens of thousands of militants under arms and continues to have a close relationship with al-Qaida. Indeed, the entire proposition that because the U.S. is combating terrorists elsewhere, it should be less concerned about Afghanistan is a bit confounding. Afghanistan is a country that has experienced four decades of continuous conflict, dating back to the Soviet invasion in 1979. It is a country awash in weapons and battle-hardened fighters. The infrastructure necessary to wage a terrorist campaign, to include external operations against the West, is already firmly in place.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

The last several U.S. presidential administrations have sought to extricate the U.S. from Afghanistan. The Biden administration is the only one to have done so, although judging from events that have unfolded over the past few weeks, the operation was far from the “responsible withdrawal” that the president promised in speeches and policy documents. On the contrary, the chaos that ensued as Taliban fighters swept through numerous Afghan provinces has been described by some as an intelligence failure. But the onus for what has transpired cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of the intelligence community. What has occurred in Afghanistan is a failure on multiple levels—intelligence, but also diplomacy, foreign policy, and the 20 years of capacity-building efforts by the U.S. military and Department of Defense that aimed to build competent Afghan security forces capable of defending the population.

Advertisement

The United States initially invaded Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaida—the group responsible for the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 American citizens. Yet after two decades, the U.S. has withdrawn without accomplishing its objectives.

Numerous al-Qaida leaders have been captured or killed, including the group’s longtime leader Osama bin Laden, but tactical gains have failed to amount to anything close to a strategic victory. Al-Qaida numbers between 400 and 600 fighters in Afghanistan, but this number is expected to grow exponentially as the jihadis reinforce their ranks with fighters from throughout the region. With no U.S. intelligence assets on the ground in Afghanistan, Washington will have few indications and warnings about a highly dynamic environment where things are likely to change quickly. Human intelligence and signals intelligence will both suffer, and the U.S. will be forced to rely more than ever on unreliable allies like Pakistan for morsels of information.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Will the Taliban be as tolerant of its terrorist guests as it was in the past? There are reasons for the group to attempt to keep al-Qaida in check. After all, the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were an unequivocal setback for the movement. As a result of the U.S. invasion in October 2001, the Taliban’s so-called Islamic Emirate government was toppled, and its leadership and midlevel commanders targeted. It took 20 years for the Taliban to regain power, and its leaders are likely aware that another major terrorist attack planned from Afghan soil would be met with a response from the West. However, this also presupposes a level of command and control that the Taliban just might be able to exert over al-Qaida—which, in plotting its comeback on the jihadi world stage, may feel compelled to stage a spectacular attack in the West.

Advertisement

In his remarks to the American people on Monday afternoon, Biden implied that the U.S. would hold the Taliban accountable when it comes to ensuring Afghanistan does not become a safe haven for al-Qaida. Yet he provided no details on exactly how the U.S. could do that, especially with no presence on the ground.

Advertisement

The president also sought to dispel the notion that the United States needs “boots on the ground” in a country in order to wage an effective counterterrorism campaign. He referenced operations in Somalia, Syria, and Yemen as proof that the U.S. could maintain robust over-the-horizon capabilities. Here again, the president was not being fully transparent. U.S. counterterrorism operations in those countries are focused on training, advising, and building the capacity of host-nation counterterrorism forces—and include a modest presence of American forces active in these countries, something that will no longer be possible in a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Advertisement
Advertisement

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan has been nothing short of a complete debacle. Biden is focused on conveying his certainty that this was the right decision for the United States. But the administration has gotten a lot wrong on Afghanistan so far, from whether the Taliban would break with al-Qaida to how long the Afghan security forces could withstand the Taliban.

Biden justified his decision by arguing that preventing another terrorist attack on American soil has always been the overarching national interest for the United States, rather than protecting Afghanistan’s democracy or stability. But his decision may very well have made such an attack more likely.

Advertisement