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Will the US administration give al-Qaeda the kiss of life?

Khaled Okasha

Published: Updated:

Last week, US President Joe Biden announced the withdrawal of the US troops leading the international “Western” counterterrorism coalition in Afghanistan. The announcement puts into practice the directions of the Democratic administration, which appears to have a distinctive vision on many issues. Terrorism may not be the only area where the new US administration is showing such unique intentions and takes on issues, but it remains the most dangerous one. As these novel visions reveal the nature of the new current that holds the reins of power in the US today, these new trends are soliciting various international reactions that cover issues just as dangerous and important as terrorism. Nonetheless, terrorism remains a unique file, given its ability to regenerate itself and regain control of the risk manufacturing industry.

The US President tried to promote this decision with a seemingly reasonable rationale that nonetheless indirectly condemned all the efforts made by his predecessors since 2001. The two-decade period that has elapsed since then has seen two Republican and two Democratic administrations at the helm of the United States, including the current one. As the fourth president to handle US military presence in Afghanistan during his presidency, Biden wishes not to transfer this responsibility to a fifth President. The peak of this period was in 2011, when the size of US troops reached 100,000 soldiers. It was also during this period that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was killed.

After a $2 trillion war and a death toll of nearly 2,448 soldiers, the new administration believes the objectives of the US are becoming increasingly unclear. After former President Donald Trump negotiated an agreement to withdraw all US troops from Afghanistan by May 2020 but failed to achieve it before leaving office, the responsibility for 2,500 soldiers who remain in the country fell on Biden. The current US president now faces a real dilemma: should the US and allied troops be used as a bargaining chip in the negotiations between the parties in Afghanistan and their foreign puppeteers?

The Taliban movement stipulated the departure of these troops by May -- the deadline agreed with the Trump administration -- as a condition for its participation in any talks on the future of Afghanistan. The movement threatens that security problems will worsen should the deadline not be respected. The movement that was ousted in 2001 is trying to impose an internal equation that would deem it victorious, or at least would give it the ability to seize its demands, in return for a stable security situation with other components. The latter believe the situation in Afghanistan in recent years requires a reexamination of the situation, as its outcome gives no party the advantage of victory, but rather requires looking for realistic ways to co-exist to save their nation from the threats that have yet to ebb.

This problem soon brought al-Qaeda to the front again. After suffering a huge setback following the murder of its historical leader Osama bin Laden, in conjunction with the meteoric rise of ISIS, which pulled the rug of terrorist leadership from under al-Qaeda in Afghanistan while the latter was on the hunt by US troops at the peak of their military and security operations after 2011. Today, the internal situation in Afghanistan seems exemplary for al-Qaeda to gather its forces again and mend the deep cracks in its leadership and grassroots, which scattered in the last decade across several fields of armed activity. At the domestic level, Afghan parties realize that one of Taliban’s bargaining chips is its deep relations with al-Qaeda elements, who are capable of restoring al-Qaeda’s authority within a short period of time if the pursuits by US forces, which once tightened the noose around their necks, loosen up. As effective as counterterrorism missions were, and despite their ability to restrict the movement’s activities, al-Qaeda still has the advantage of knowing the social and tribal geography, which allows the organization to work quickly on the ground due to its familiarity with its paths and maps, giving the Taliban additional power, especially as it recaptures the scene.

Since Taliban’s recent agreement with the US, Afghan security and intelligence officials monitored high and renewed activity by al-Qaeda members, who chose not to wait for the departure of foreign troops. Instead, they effectively began to reassemble their soldiers and restructure their ranks in preparation for this new chapter. Moreover, they managed to recruit large numbers of old Taliban members who had scattered and vanished since the ousting of the movement. Security reports have begun zeroing in on specific places that have precedence and priority over other places, such as Kunar, the eastern province that Biden visited in 2008 when he was Vice President. The reports did not stop there. Some of them mentioned that the al-Qaeda enjoys the protection of Taliban, which gives al-Qaeda social and security protection in around 15 other provinces, i.e., half of Afghanistan, warning of unlimited threats.

The size and form of this link is evidenced by the presence of several al-Qaeda leaders who had been previously targeted by Afghan security forces in regions that fall completely under the control and administration of the movement. Among these is leader Abu Muhammad al-Tajiki, who was killed last March while in the company of Taliban leader Hazrat Ali in the province of Paktika. At the time, Afghan forces announced that this was the third security operation to successfully target al-Qaeda leaders and senior Taliban leaders since the conclusion of the Doha Agreement last year. The new US administration is going forward with its recent decisions. So, are we about to witness a long, intense “kiss of life” should al-Qaeda be able to regain ground on its historical Afghan lands, given the strong indicators leaning toward that probability?

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Egyptian outlet ElWatan News.

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