As the world marks 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, there’s no shortage of commentary on the tragedy.
But there’s a relatively unexplored angle here: what if the attacks hadn’t happened? What would this have meant for Afghanistan and the Taliban?
Counterfactuals are an analyst’s nightmare. It’s hard to build evidence around assertions that flow from something that isn’t true. Still, one can confidently make this argument: had there been no 9/11, the Taliban would have held on to power — but not necessarily for an extended period of time. Indeed, had the Twin Towers not fallen on that terrible Tuesday 20 years ago, there’s no guarantee the Taliban would control Kabul today.
A Few Immediate Challenges
To be sure, without 9/11, the Taliban would have faced few immediate challenges to its rule after September 2001. The anti-Taliban Northern Alliance would have been denied the critical assistance it started receiving from America soon after the attacks. It would’ve continued to benefit from its alliance with al-Qaeda, as well as its own Haqqani Network faction, which had developed into a military and economic powerhouse well before 2001.
ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), the only major militant challenge to the Taliban over the last 20 years, would never have existed. ISIS emerged only after U.S. forces invaded Iraq, an intervention that the Bush administration cast as part of its global war on terror, and which likely wouldn’t have been launched if 9/11 didn’t happen. Additionally, the Taliban would have continued to receive the backing of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). These three countries ended formal ties with the Taliban regime only after the 9/11 attacks happened. And, of course, there would have been no U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Public Anger Could’ve Been a Significant Factor
But this isn’t to suggest it would have been smooth sailing for the Taliban for the last 20 years. In 2001, the group ruled less territory than it does today. In the late 1990s, about 10 per cent of the nation was under the control of anti-Taliban forces. Also, the Taliban was initially welcomed by many Afghans because of its pledges to eliminate corruption and lawlessness, but its governance was relentlessly brutal.
This all suggests the Taliban may have struggled to hold on to power, with resistance fighters leveraging their sanctuaries within Afghanistan and support from regional actors, and capitalising on public anger at the Taliban’s repressive rule.
Additionally, had there been no 9/11, the Taliban wouldn’t have been able to count on the support of as many militant actors. And that’s because some of the most potent, pro-Taliban jihadists to appear in the region over the last 20 years emerged in response to the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Take the Pakistani Taliban, or the Tehreek-e-Taliban (TTP). The TTP became a close ally of the Taliban. Many of its fighters streamed into Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban, and the two staged joint attacks there.
But the TTP may well not have existed had there been no 9/11. Before it was formally established in 2007, the TTP was a loose movement of Pashtun tribes brought together by their opposition to the US war in Afghanistan.
In fact, many militant commanders that later fronted the TTP originally fought alongside the Taliban during the early years of the war.
The Pak Seige of Lal Masjid
Also, recall one of the most seminal moments of regional militancy over the last 20 years: the Pakistani military’s decision to storm the Red Mosque in Islamabad in 2007. The move triggered retaliatory attacks and new waves of militant violence that didn’t let up for years. What’s often forgotten is that the Red Mosque was a hotbed of radicalism whose preachers focused much of their ire on the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan, and on Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s perceived support for it.
In other words, had there not been a 9/11, the siege of the Red Mosque may never have happened, and if so, the Taliban wouldn’t have been able to draw on the large pool of Afghanistan-focused militants that emerged in its aftermath.
Taliban & al-Qaeda Could’ve Parted Ways
The Taliban would have been left with its al-Qaeda ally — a major advantage, to be sure, given its links to fearsome, preexisting outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, both of which existed well before U.S. forces entered Afghanistan.
And yet, one can’t rule out the possibility, had there been no 9/11 and no U.S war in Afghanistan, of a split between the two.
In the late 1990s, some Taliban members were getting exasperated by Osama Bin Laden’s growing confrontation with America. That confrontation would have continued, even if there was no 9/11.
The Taliban could well have seen a souring of its ties with its most important non-state backer.
U.S. forces have left Afghanistan with the Taliban back in power. But there’s no guarantee the Taliban would still have been in power had U.S. forces never arrived at all.
(The author is Asia Program Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)