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Back to square one: with the Taliban back in power, will Afghanistan again become a haven for terrorists?

After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US invaded Afghanistan to hunt down Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda, to whom the Taliban provided safe haven. Now that they are back in power, will they open their doors again to extremist Islamic groups?
29 Ago 2021 – 10:30 AM EDT
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Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden speaking at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. Crédito: AFP/AFP via Getty Images

There is no doubt that the Taliban’s return to power two decades after they were expelled by U.S. forces is a huge propaganda victory and morale boost for Al Qaeda and militant Islamic jihadists the world over.

Some security experts and politicians are warning that it's almost inevitable that Al Qaeda will seek to put down roots again in Afghanistan in the absence of western allied forces, though its unclear yet how much cooperation they will get this time around.

The Taliban have vowed that they will not allow Afghanistan to be a launching pad for terror attacks in other parts of the world. But it already has its own hands full dealing with more extreme rival groups, like ISIS-K, which carried our Thursday’s suicide bombing at Kabul airport that killed 170 people, including 13 U.S. troops.

The Taliban first controlled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001, and the hope among Western governments is that their leaders realize the consequences of failing to live up to their promises after the experience of being crushed by the U.S. invasion in 2001. Just to recap; Al Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks and its presence in Afghanistan - its leadership and training camps - at the time, was the main reason for the West to intervene militarily.

Besides international outrage over the Taliban's discimination against women and brutal religious laws, an estimated 20,000 recruits from all over the world passed through Al-Qaeda's training camps there prior to the U.S. invasion. It is assumed by some western analysts that the Taliban will now be seeking some degree of international recognition - and financial aid - at the outset of their second chance at ruling one of the world's poorest countries with a population of 38 million.

But, that may be a dangerous assumption, some experts say. Even if it’s not in the Taliban’s own interest to allow its soil to be used by terror groups operating in the region, some question whether they have the territorial control – or political will - to ensure that.

“I think the threat in Afghanistan is going to be dramatically worse," said Nathan Sales, former Ambassador-at-Large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism at the State Department during the Trump administration.

“The Taliban and Al Qaida have had a hand in glove partnership that has survived 20 years of war and 20 years of military and diplomatic pressure from the United States and our NATO allies," said Sales, who is now a fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington DC. "They see this as their moment of triumph.... the vindication of everything they have tried to do for the past two decades," he added.

The cost of war

Critics of President Joe Biden say he should have delayed the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan to make sure the Taliban did not retake power, or at least kept a small force there to back up the Afghan army.

But others hihglight the growing cost of the war, both in terms of the number of lives lost and the amount of money spent. In two decades of fighting, more than 6,000 Americans were killed, over 100,000 Afghans died and the United States spent more than $2 trillion on operations there, according to Harvard University’s Kennedy School and the Brown University 'Costs of War' project.

To be sure, militant Islamic leaders see America's bloody exit from Afghanistan as an opportunity to reassert their ideology. In Pakistan, the leader of Jaish-e-Mohammad said the Taliban victory will inspire holy warriors around the world "to continue their struggle for Islam.” There were scenes of street celebrations by ISIS fighters in Syria.

And this week, ISIS-K boasted of killing Taliban after what it called “the martyrdom operation” at Kabul airport. An editorial in the Islamic State group's newsletter last week derided the Taliban, accusing them of collaborating with the U.S.

There's a real risk of an Al Qaeda comeback, Daniel Byman, a professor at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, wrote in Foreign Affairs. But he added that "Afghanistan's reversion to its pre-9/11 role as a safe haven for jihadi terrorism is unlikely."

"Although the Taliban's victory will undoubtedly make Washington's counterterrorism policy far harder to carry out, al Qaeda's weakness, the Taliban's own incentives, and post-9/11 improvements in U.S. intelligence coordination, homeland security, and remote military operations all reduce the threat," Byman wrote.

The biggest danger, according to the analysts, is in unstable countries with a weak central government and a history of insurgency, in places such as Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Libya. A report to the U.N. Security Council last week said the threat to international security from the Islamic State group is rising, pointing to an expansion of its affiliates in Africa and the potential for its resurgence in Syria and Iraq. The report said IS and other terrorist groups have taken advantage of “the disruption, grievances and development setbacks” caused by the covid-19 pandemic.

“We should be worried because when terrorist groups enjoy safe haven, they can begin to plot external operations," said Sales. "That that's what happened in Afghanistan with al-Qaida before 9/11. That's what happened in Syria and Iraq with ISIS when it was plotting and then carried out the attacks in Paris and Brussels in 2015 and 2016," he added.

He warned that allowing Al Qaida to regain operating space in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, will give them access to money and weapons taken from the Afghan army, as well as reinforcing al-Qaida's ranks with fighters who have been freed from prison.

“We have to assume that all of those thousands of fighters are going to go back to the battlefield, whether it's on behalf of ISIS or al-Qaida or some other terrorist group that we don't have eyes
on just yet," Sales added.

Reduced capacity

The Biden administration has acknowledged that Al Qaeda and ISIS have a presence in Afghanistan, but Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Fox News last Sunday that Al Qaeda's capacity to do what it did on 9/11"is vastly, vastly diminished."

Nearly twenty years after the U.S. invasion, Al Qaeda remains active, though it's suffered major losses, including its legendary leader Osama Bin Laden in 2011.

An April 2021 report from the Department of Defense estimated that Al Qaeda's “remaining core leaders pose a limited threat to U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan because the leaders focus primarily on survival.”

But, another United Nations sanctions monitoring report in May found that Al Qaeda and the Taliban “remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” During the Taliban's recent dramatic takeover of the whole country, there have been numerous reported sightings of "foreigners" in their ranks.

The Taliban reportedly issued orders in February 2021 barring their members from sheltering foreign fighters, “but otherwise do not appear to have taken tangible steps that might constitute a break in ties with Al Qaeda,” according to a report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

Avoiding errors of the past

In the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement, the Taliban committed to undertake unspecified counterterrorism efforts in return for the full withdrawal of U.S. and international military forces, to be completed in August 2021. The U.S.-Taliban agreement commits the Taliban to preventing any group, including Al Qaeda, from using Afghan soil to threaten the security of the United States or its allies.

The Taliban must not let Afghanistan become a breeding ground for terrorism again, NATO reiterated in a statement last week, warning that the alliance retained the military power to strike any terrorist group from a distance.

"Those now taking power have the responsibility to ensure that international terrorists do not regain a foothold," NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Brussels.

"We have the capabilities to strike terrorist groups from a distance if we see that terrorist groups again try to establish themselves and plan, organize attacks against NATO allies and their countries," he added.