There is so much ineffectual falsehood in US statements on Afghanistan in the wake of the chaotic final stages of the withdrawal of troops; it was underlined by President Joe Biden’s statement after the attacks at the Kabul airport, when he declared, “We will not forget. We will not forgive. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” But Biden appears already to have forgotten and forgiven the deaths of the 2,448 service members and 3,846 American contractors, most of whom were killed by the Taliban, to whom the US surrendered Afghanistan and whose “cooperation” Biden now hopes for.
Before this, Biden had justified the hasty and ill-planned withdrawal from Afghanistan on a manifestly specious argument: “We [the US] went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan … What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?”
There is a continuous effort to package the American defeat in Afghanistan as a mission completed. But if the mission was to ensure that Afghanistan will not, again, become a safe haven for Islamist terrorists — including al-Qaeda — it has very clearly failed.
An Intimate Arrangement
For one thing, al-Qaeda is very much in Afghanistan and has an intimate operational arrangement with the Taliban. Recent fighting, before the collapse of the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), saw numerous incidents of Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters jointly killed in operations, as well as terrorists from a number of other groups, including the Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Jaish-e-Muhammad, and the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, among others.
Indeed, the US Department of Treasury issued a report in January this year, noting, inter alia, “As of 2020, al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” Further, the group sought to capitalise “on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support”.
Haqqani Network leaders were among the most trusted “mentors and advisors” on whom al-Qaeda relied. It is significant that Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Network’s leader, and his forces, have been put in charge of security in Kabul since the Taliban takeover.
Similarly, the UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported in February 2021 that Al-Qaeda and the Taliban continued to maintain close relations, as evidenced by the killing of several Al-Qaeda leaders in Taliban-controlled territory, while being sheltered and protected by the Taliban, and that al-Qaeda members were present in 11 out of 34 Provinces of Afghanistan.
Indeed, as recently as July 2021, about 200 al-Qaeda terrorists of Pakistani nationality, under the command of Abdul Rehman Sindhi, entered the Maywand district of the Kandahar Province.
The ‘Emirate’ As a Terrorist Cradle
A number of Central Asian terrorist groups have also fought alongside the Taliban, and are certain to enjoy a safe haven in the ‘Emirate’ now proclaimed. These prominently include the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari, Islamic Jihad Group, Jamaat Ansarullah and the East Turkestan Islamic Movement, among some 20 foreign terrorist formations with a combined strength of about 10,000, as estimated by the erstwhile Afghan Government.
President Biden has argued that the Taliban’s “self-interest” would ensure the group’s “cooperation” with the US in the foreseeable future. Moreover, where this proved insufficient, the US’s “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism capabilities would suffice to “take out” any direct threats emanating from the region, he said. This is pure fantasy.
The US will now have little or no intelligence capabilities on the ground in Afghanistan, and technical intelligence would have severe limitations.
Of course, there may be a few demonstrative strikes, but they are unlikely to be any more effective than the Cruise Missile strikes at a purported al-Qaeda camp where Osama bin Laden was allegedly present, in Khost, Afghanistan, in the wake of the US Embassy Bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, in 1998.
Most of the dead in this strike were Pakistanis and Afghans, though al-Qaeda subsequently conceded the death of six Arabs as well. Bin Laden was not in the camp. Crucially, with no bases in Afghanistan or its immediate neighbourhood, strikes from the distant sea are the only available recourse, and the time lag between intelligence and retaliation is likely to be significant, thus diluting the impact.
The Islamic State-Khorasan Province (IS-KP) — opposed to both the US and the Taliban — also has a very significant presence in Afghanistan. The UN Security Council’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted, in July 2021, that under pressure in its traditional strongholds of Kunar and Nangarhar, the IS-KP had moved into Nuristan, Badghis, Sar-e-Pol, Baghlan, Badakhshan, Kunduz and Kabul Provinces, and was engaged in an aggressive recruitment drive.
The Taliban is, of course, likely to act as strongly and brutally as possible against IS-KP. But to believe that the terrorist groups that have fought alongside the Taliban for nearly three decades will abruptly be suppressed by the Taliban and be denied operational space in Afghanistan is simply delusional.
Poor Governance, Weak Structures
Crucially, the Taliban has, through this period, been a terrorist-insurgent formation. It principally dominates, but does not significantly administer the ground. The new Emirate has decided not to dismantle the administrative structures of the predecessor government. But these structures are themselves weak and ineffectual, and will be made more so by the chaotic and divisive transition to Taliban rule.
Vast ungoverned and poorly governed spaces will persist and provide, if nothing else, sufficient grounds for credible deniability on the presence and operation of foreign terrorist organisations in such regions. Despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary, the Taliban has already and repeatedly insisted that there were no “foreign terrorists” on Afghan soil. This flagrant falsehood will continue to be maintained, even as multiple foreign terrorist groups consolidate their positions in the country.
The Taliban would, of course, want to ensure that its regime does not end as it did in its previous avatar, and its own principal interest appears to be limited to Afghanistan itself. It is, nevertheless, an Islamist extremist formation with close ties to other Islamist terrorist formations, both within the country and in the wider region, and it is indebted to many of them for the support across nearly three decades of fighting. The example of neighbouring Pakistan, moreover, will have amply demonstrated to it that terrorism can be supported indefinitely without crippling costs, even where credulity is strained by denials. The US and its allies are hardly expected to re-deploy tens of thousands of its forces in Afghanistan once again.
(The writer is founding member and executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management. He can be reached @Ajai_Sahni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)