July 23, 2021

Taliban Ascendance in Afghanistan Risks Return of Global Terrorist Hub

By Lisa Curtis

President Joe Biden’s ill-advised deadline to fully withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021—the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks —was the first hint that his administration had done little serious planning to mitigate the negative global impact of such a consequential decision. The designation of the 9/11 deadline, which has since been moved to Aug. 31, demonstrated that Biden lacked appreciation of the terrorist threats still emanating from the country and an awareness that he’d now given the terrorists two reasons for celebrating this infamous date.

The lack of planning for continuing to protect U.S. counterterrorism interests and cushioning the impact of the withdrawal on the Afghan partners with which the United States has partnered over the last 20 years has been evident. Despite Biden’s pledge to maintain an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capability, it is still unclear what this entails, what will be the guiding principles for employing it, and how this option would be any safer or more cost-effective than keeping a minimal counterterrorism presence within Afghanistan. Second, the United States demanded nearly 16,000 contractors depart the country, even though the Afghans rely on them for maintenance and repair of their most critical military equipment, namely fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. Biden has since acknowledged this problem and committed to providing the Afghans what they need to maintain their air capabilities. Finally, it is unclear if the United States will continue to provide air cover for the Afghan security forces and, if so, under what circumstances. Continued U.S. air support for the Afghans, even if performed from bases outside the country, would help them hold on to provincial capitals and resist Taliban military advances in other key terrain.

Walking in the Trump administration’s footsteps, the Biden team is making several miscalculations about the Taliban, which will exacerbate the negative impacts of the withdrawal and undermine the U.S. ability to protect its counterterrorism interests.

Walking in the Trump administration’s footsteps, the Biden team is making several miscalculations about the Taliban, which will exacerbate the negative impacts of the withdrawal and undermine the U.S. ability to protect its counterterrorism interests. Unless the Biden administration develops its policy more in line with ground realities in Afghanistan, it risks facilitating a Taliban return to power and the reestablishment of terrorist sanctuaries.

Seventeen months after the signing of the Doha agreement, the Taliban remain closely aligned with al-Qaeda and have shown no indication that they would treat the global terrorist group any differently than they did before the 9/11 attacks. In a report released in early June, the United Nations said large numbers of al-Qaeda fighters and other terrorist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan and have celebrated the departure of U.S. and NATO forces from the country as a victory for global radicalism. While the Doha Agreement states that the Taliban will instruct its members not to cooperate with groups that pose a threat to the United States and its allies, the U.N. Coordinator for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, Edmund Fitton-Brown, said last October that the Taliban promised al-Qaeda, shortly before the Doha Agreement was signed, that the two groups would, in fact, remain allies. Also in October 2020, Afghan forces killed a top Egyptian al-Qaeda leader in a Taliban-controlled area of Ghazni province, further demonstrating that the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to cooperate.

Read the full article from Just Security.

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