When the United States expelled the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan from the country 20 years ago, it was regarded as a major step in bringing global Islamist terror to heel by robbing al-Qaeda of its home base.
Fast forward two decades, the Taliban are on a comeback trail and in all likelihood will rule all or most of Afghanistan again. As the United States and its allies leave, Taliban forces are, day-by-day, wresting control from President Ashraf Ghani’s beleaguered Afghan government.
The Afghans could barely hold their own when they had the help of quick-strike air power and US intelligence support. They are faring far worse without it. Does this mean that when the Taliban return, al-Qaeda will too?
They are already there in latent form, US CIA director Williams Burns said in April, so that’s a given. He told the US Congress that al-Qaeda was operating in Afghanistan and its militants “remain intent on recovering the ability to attack US targets.”
In American official thinking, however, al-Qaeda and its offshoots have evolved in ways that make Afghanistan a less important potential terrorist center.
The version of jihad – Islamic holy war – that Osama bin Laden made famous and threatening centered on hierarchy and control. Having a base for training, indoctrination, planning and execution was important. Afghanistan played the role of safe haven.
The passenger aircraft attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, sanctified the model, or so it seemed.
But after the Taliban’s expulsion and, with it the destruction of al-Qaeda Central, as it was known, jihad ideologues saw a flaw in that model. Chief among the critics was Mustafa Abdul Qadir al-Set Mariam, better known as Abu Musab al-Suri. Al-Suri is a Syrian who was involved in major terror assaults in London and Madrid in the aftermath of 9/11.
Pakistan captured al-Suri in 2005 and turned him over to the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, who then released him into parts unknown in 2012.
In his critiques, al-Suri replaced the preeminence of al-Qaeda’s hierarchical structure with a call for individual Muslims to take jihad into their own hands. “Al-Qaeda is not an organization, it is not a group, nor do we want it to be,” he wrote. “It is a call, a reference, a methodology.”
According to al-Suri, a Muslim could commit himself to jihad if armed “to believe in the idea, be absolutely certain in his intention, join the call, and educate himself and those with him.”
This guide created a new kind of militant, an anonymous next-door terrorist who could spread havoc and death in faraway places. Prime examples were attacks in Bakersfield, California, and Orlando, Florida; at the Boston Marathon; on a US army base in Texas; as well as in Paris, Nice and Berlin.
The Internet became the virtual safe haven where ideas and training could be shared in bedrooms across the globe instead of in the mountains of Afghanistan.
When President Joe Biden announced the American withdrawal last week, he was relating a mission-accomplished story appropriate for 2001, not for jihad 2.0.
“Our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place: to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective,” Biden said.
Still, do-it-yourself jihad was only a tactical guide. The strategic goal was the creation of a space where a pure Islam could be practiced and serve as an example for an Islamic utopia. That would be a caliphate.
Afghanistan was out of the picture. Perhaps, anyway, it wasn’t central enough to host such a grand objective. The Islamic State, a movement first triumphant in parts of Iraq and then in chunks of Syria, served the purpose.
Its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, declared himself a caliph, set up a realm that obliterated national borders set up after World War I, and called it the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
But like al-Qaeda Central and its Taliban host, the Islamic State could not hold onto its conquest. In Iraq, an alliance of convenience – between the Iraqi government, the United States, Iraqi Kurds and militias largely sponsored by Iran – reconquered ISIL-held parts of the country.
In Syria, another awkward alliance – between the Syrian government, Russia and various militias, some of which also had Iranian backing – triumphed over ISIL jihadists. American and Russian airpower proved key to both campaigns. Like bin Laden, Al-Baghdadi was killed by American commandos in Syria.
Where this trajectory leaves Afghanistan as a jihad center under future Taliban domination is unclear. Image-wise, the Taliban will benefit from having, for the second time in 40 years, driven a major infidel power from its country: the Soviet Union in 1989 and the Americans and their allies in 2021.
It’s possible the Taliban will be cautious in flaunting the jihad triumph for fear of attracting American aerial assaults. But if the Taliban tolerates renewed jihadist activity, will the country really restore its place as a key Jihadi hub?
For one thing, active groups are operating independently elsewhere, especially in south Saharan Africa, and are engaged in local civil wars rather than the bigger scheme of besieging the West.
Moreover, governments across the globe, be they in Washington, Beijing, European capitals or the Middle East, have developed numerous defensive and offensive programs to battle jihad. Another moreover: Priorities have shifted since 9/11, and anti-terrorism is not at the top of the list.
In March, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin listed his top defense priorities. China was the number one challenge. Threats from “non-state actors” (read: terrorists) were included but with a pledge to “right-size” the American response. The exit from Afghanistan is an example of this perspective.
For example, the Biden administration is likely to cut a special anti-terror slush fund, to support “overseas contingency operations,” that was first funded in the wake of 9/11. In 2008, the US spent $187 billion out of this fund for its 187,000 troops stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq. That came to $1 million per soldier.
As the troop numbers shrank dramatically to less than 5,000 soldiers in each country as of the beginning of 2020, heavy spending was still maintained. Without his having said it, one rationale behind Biden’s Afghan withdrawal is simple frugality.
But for Afghanistan, the cost will be enormous. Likely civil war looms, as various ethnic groups resist a Taliban takeover. In areas under their control, Westernizers will be hunted down, or at best marginalized. Advances in education, especially for women, will disappear. Terrorist wannabes will likely flock in.
The American withdrawal will also likely attract other outside players to intervene politically or even militarily. Some of them will be interested in suppressing a jihadist rise, especially China and Russia. Beijing is also interested in extending its Belt and Road infrastructure program through Afghanistan to Pakistan and the Arabian Sea
Others have contending interests. India charged Pakistan with supporting anti-Indian terrorist groups based in Afghanistan. Shiite Muslim Iran is content with the Taliban, so long as it threatens the US but not Shiites living within Afghanistan.
Turkey hopes to burnish its tarnished reputation with Western allies by helping keep Kabul’s airport out of Taliban control. Europe is fearful of a refugee wave coming from Afghanistan but doesn’t know what to do about it.
Perhaps the outcome in Afghanistan has less to do with its place in the world of jihad than the American place in global influence. This is, after all, a kind of slow-motion replay of the abandonment of a partner that took place in the 1970s with South Vietnam.
Despite the complaints about the length of America’s involvement, a withdrawal from Afghanistan was signaled as far back as 2011 when US troop strength peaked at 100,000. It then shrank to 3,500 by the time Biden took office.
But that tiny number raises another question: Why abandon Afghanistan altogether?
The US has for decades kept many thousand more troops in countries it once defeated and then rehabilitated (Germany, Italy and Japan) as well as countries it joined in war (South Korea). So what’s the harm of keeping a few thousand soldiers, some airplanes as well as intelligence and logistical help for Afghanistan, however flawed an ally?
Evidently, it’s seen as not worth the effort. In April, Secretary of State Antony Blinken laid out Washington’s view of the reduced stakes in Afghanistan.
“The terrorism threat has moved to other places,” he said, excusing the coming withdrawal. “We have other very important items on our agenda, including the relationship with China, including dealing with everything from climate change to Covid.”
The climate will certainly change soon in Afghanistan.
Journalist Daniel Williams is a former staff foreign correspondent for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald. He is now based in Rome.