The Taliban Are Back. Now Will They Restrain or Support Al Qaeda?
The United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to terrorism, and many worry that Al Qaeda and other radical Islamist groups will again find safe haven there.
BRUSSELS — The United States and NATO invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago in response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11 by Al Qaeda, harbored by the Taliban.
Now that the Taliban are back in power, there are already worries that Afghanistan will again become a breeding ground for Islamist radicalism and terrorism, aided by new technologies and social media.
These are early days and experts disagree on how the Taliban may choose to govern, and on how big a threat they might become — or how quickly — even as the Taliban try to persuade the world they are different than before. But there is little doubt that the Taliban victory is a huge propaganda boost for Islamist terrorism worldwide.
Some predict that after 20 years, the Taliban have learned some lessons and are unlikely to repeat their support for groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, knowing the consequences.
In the accord that former President Trump negotiated with the Taliban in February 2020, the group agreed to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including Al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.”
But that agreement now seems to have little value, and many doubted at the time that the Taliban would or could keep its promises on that score.
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Others, especially in Washington, believe that the Taliban is almost certain to repeat its encouragement of Islamist terrorist groups and think that the chances of another attack on the United States and its allies are much higher now.
Nathan Sales, former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, argues that “the terrorism risk to the United States is going to get dramatically worse.” With the Taliban back in power, he said, “it is virtually certain that Al Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.’’
Other experts are less sure. “We went into Afghanistan to address the terrorist threat, and it will be a critical measure of whether what we have is just a bad situation or a truly awful one,” said John Sawers, former head of Britain’s foreign intelligence service, known as MI6. “To have a friend of terrorists, which Taliban have been, running a whole country is not a good thing.”
But the Taliban will have “learned some lessons in the last 20 years,” said Mr. Sawers, executive chairman of Newbridge Advisory, a risk-analysis firm. “The question is always how much control the leadership negotiating in Doha has over the fighters, since traditionally in civil wars those on the battlefield have more power than those who sit in five-star hotels,” referring to the Taliban leaders who have conducted diplomacy from Qatar.
Islamist radicals all over the world will get “a much-needed boost” from the Taliban’s victory over the Great Satan, the United States, said Peter Neumann, professor of security studies at King’s College London.
“The supporters of Al Qaeda are all celebrating this,” he said. “It’s a victory over America, which is what they hope to achieve — these fighters coming down from the mountains to defeat the United States. A lot of groups will piggyback on this victory in propaganda terms — if the Taliban can do it, you can do it.”
On social media and in chat rooms, “You can already see this wind of success blowing through the sails of the global jihadist movement,” said Raffaello Pantucci, a terrorism analyst at the Royal United Services Institute, a defense research body, and at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
“They see victory in Afghanistan as the apex of a number of successes in the world, in parts of Africa, in parts of Syria, with the French pulling out of Mali — it’s a narrative of success,” he said. “They will push it and argue that you can fight for 20 years and get power.”
So a more immediate risk will be the encouragement of “lone actors” to commit local acts of terrorism, one of the main goals of the social media campaign, Mr. Neumann said.
But he believes that the likelihood that the Taliban will quickly provide a safe haven for groups like Al Qaeda and Islamic State is small. The Taliban are in power again without the help of Al Qaeda, and they have understood that they lost their government and their country in 2001 because of Al Qaeda, Mr. Neumann said.
The United States might intervene again, “not to protect human and women’s rights, but if the Taliban allowed international terrorism to flourish,” he said.
The Taliban will have to deal with remnants of Al Qaeda and Islamic State already present in Afghanistan, Mr. Sawers said. “They won’t move against them, but they don’t want to attract international hostility again.”
Their first priority, he said, will be to consolidate control over a fragmented Afghanistan, including “some kind of understanding” with minorities like the Uzbeks and Shia Muslims like the Hazaras and Ismailis. “The Talib have won this great victory and won’t want to mess it up now,” he said.
Others, like Mr. Sales, the former U.S. coordinator for counterterrorism, are sure that the Taliban will allow Al Qaeda to operate again against the United States.
He notes that American intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan will be degraded with no military or diplomatic presence on the ground and with American troops and drones based hundreds of miles away.
The Taliban have always refused to break with “their stalwart ally, Al Qaeda,” even though they promised to do so in the February 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, Mr. Sales said. He expects Al Qaeda, flush with new money and recruits, to reestablish itself in Afghanistan in the next three to six months.
In June, Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were asked by senators about the chances that groups like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State could re-emerge in Afghanistan and pose a threat to the U.S. homeland within two years of the American military withdrawal.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
“I would assess it as medium,” Mr. Austin replied then. “I would also say, senator, that it would take possibly two years for them to develop that capability.”
On Sunday, General Milley told senators on a briefing call that U.S. officials were rapidly revising those earlier assessments, Pentagon officials said. Officials now believe that such groups could grow considerably faster and are working on a new timeline, he told the senators.
A United Nations report in June said that “the Taliban and Al Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
The report said that Al Qaeda is present in at least 15 Afghan provinces, primarily in the east, south and southeast, and concluded: “Al Qaeda maintains contact with the Taliban but has minimized overt communications with Taliban leadership in an effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position vis-à-vis the Doha agreement,” referring to the deal signed with the Trump administration.
But Afghanistan’s neighbors have more pressing concerns, Mr. Pantucci noted. Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban and its combination of the Quran and the Kalashnikov against Indian influence, has already seen a resurgent Pakistani Taliban encouraged by the success next door. The Pakistani Taliban have loose relations with the Afghan group, but they are committed to overthrowing the Pakistani state and have had havens along the border.
Pakistan can put pressure on the Afghan Taliban to rein them in, “but the dilemma is how much they will actually control the territory,” Mr. Pantucci said. “The narrative of victory and success resonates in Pakistan, and Pakistanis themselves sometimes overestimate how much they control these various groups.”
Iran is concerned with new movements of refugees, the continual flow of opium across the border, which has been a source of cash for the Taliban, and anti-Iran groups like the Baluchis that can use Afghanistan to attack Iran.
Central Asians, too, will worry about instability and cross-border attacks from Islamist militants stemming from Afghanistan. In 1999 and 2000, under the last Taliban government, there were serious incursions into southern Kyrgyzstan and support for the civil war in Tajikistan; in 1999, there were six bombs set off in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan.
China, too, has had terrorist incidents in Xinjiang. While the connection to Afghanistan is not clear, Uyghur extremists have operated from there across the narrow border with China. China is trying now to find some accommodation with the Taliban.
China warned against instability arising from a rapid American withdrawal from Afghanistan, but like Russia and most of the neighbors, is likely to recognize the new Taliban government. Late last month, Chinese officials met with a Taliban delegation including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban who spent years in Pakistani jails.
“So all these countries have a history and will worry that it will repeat itself,” Mr. Pantucci said. Given those concerns, Mr. Sales hopes that these countries will collaborate quietly with the United States to ensure that Al Qaeda is constrained.