After the Taliban’s swift takeover of the country, policymakers, pundits, and terrorism experts have reached no clear consensus as to whether Afghanistan will re-emerge as a terrorist sanctuary for groups like Al-Qaeda. The public discourse is divided into two broad groups with opposing positions.
One group believes Afghanistan will “very likely” or “inevitability” re-emerge as an export hub for terrorism; the other camp thinks the conditions have changed since 9/11, and that the Taliban is interested in nation-building than more hostilities.
The Taliban and al-Qaeda’s close ties will force the new Afghani government to make tough choices.
The one side of the debate believes that al-Qaeda will take advantage of the volatile situation in the country and launch well-concealed attacks. The Taliban will then be forced to either denounce their allies or proclaim plausible deniability. Former US Secretary of State Leon Panetta doesn’t think the leopard has changed its spots: “The Taliban are terrorists, and they are going to support terrorists.”
Those sceptical of the Taliban expect that the organization’s victory march and the US withdrawal will embolden Islamist groups around the globe, especially extremist factions in Afghanistan who will celebrate the release of their incarcerated fighters from prisons in Kabul.
The Taliban comeback will reinforce the perception of American weakness, teach other Islamist groups that patience and perseverance pay off, thus triggering future attacks.
Even if the Taliban are genuinely interested in keeping al-Qaeda from using its territory, the main concern is that some of the Taliban’s fighters and hardline commanders will not follow the leaders’ directives and will strike out on their own or facilitate strikes launched by al-Qaeda.
Implicit in this train of thought is that the whole of Afghanistan is too “mountainous and rugged” to control, and there are plenty of remote hiding places for groups to hide out and stage activities.
Another factor in the thinking of the “terrorism is inevitable” camp is the large cache of weapons at the Taliban’s disposal. In addition to the many shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles the Taliban inherits from the defeated Afghan government, reports show that the Taliban has captured large stockpiles of US weapons, including tanks, aircrafts, and drones. The chances of these weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups is worrisome, but even if they don’t, they serve as a valuable deterrent should any foreign power consider an invasion.
The advocates of the other side of the debate do not completely discount the possibility of Afghanistan becoming a terrorist hotspot but believe the likelihood of this happening any time soon is remote. Proponents of the US withdrawal strategy also argue that the terrorism threat from Afghanistan is overstated.
Daniel Byman, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, stated that “The risk of an al Qaeda comeback is real, but Afghanistan’s reversion to its pre-9/11 role as safe haven for [extremist] terrorism is unlikely.”
This argument notes that since the inception of the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda the two groups have differed on strategic objectives, priorities, and tactics. The Taliban is much more focused on Afghanistan and has never truly embraced al-Qaeda’s global ambitions.
The Taliban are unlikely to crack down on al-Qaeda, but there is some indication that it will seek to regulate the behavior of armed groups with foreign fighters, including al-Qaeda.
The thinking is that the Taliban today are different to the Taliban that were in power at the time of 9/11. The group’s focus now is on consolidating power. To do so they want to avoid major disturbances that might provoke retaliation; in other words, they learned their lesson in 2001.
Al-Qaeda helped train local Taliban commanders to build improvised explosives in the early days of the insurgency, post 9/11. They assisted them in special operations and terrorist attacks, providing specialized skills, technology, and manpower.
The relationship between the two has shifted. Al-Qaeda has been decimated, losing many of its leaders and much of its funding. The Taliban now have the upper hand and are more intent on employing a pragmatic approach to the international community. The Taliban’s focus is on obtaining a degree of international recognition and diplomatic credibility. Allowing al-Qaeda to reestablish bases for a subsequent platform for transnational terror attacks would only undermine this objective.
The Taliban have also come to the realization that they are in dire need of economic trade and investments in their country. China has been eager to strengthen its trade relations with Afghanistan. With the US withdrawal, Beijing would like to extend the Belt and Road Initiative from Pakistan through Afghanistan, but it would only use Afghan territory if it is safe and the Taliban can guarantee stability.
Those that do not believe Afghanistan continues to pose a major threat in the US also point out that America still retains some “over-the-horizon” military leverage because of its superior air and drone strike capabilities.
US Special Forces can also be employed from outside of Afghanistan against “high-value” targets. Intelligence agencies such as the CIA have built up networks that can identify and tackle threats. It also has military bases in most Arabian Gulf countries.
Finally, the experts who are skeptical about the threat of Islamic terror rising from the Taliban takeover reiterate that it is a self-organizing ideological movement that inspires diverse extremist groups and therefore does not require a particular territory or launching pad for terrorist attacks.
Ultimately, only time will tell which of the two scenarios will materialize. Although US President Biden has repeatedly stated that one of his main interests in Afghanistan remains “preventing a terrorist attack on the American homeland” it is not clear what the strategy to target terrorists in the country and beyond is. Those who are more cautious and skeptical of Afghanistan re-emerging as an export hub of terrorism make a more convincing case, at least, for now.