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The Afghanistan withdrawal and Taliban takeover mean the terror threat is back

Given how wrong the Biden administration's assumptions about Afghanistan have been, it's difficult to buy its assurances that Al Qaeda can't strike the U.S.

On the eve of the 2004 presidential election, Osama bin Laden issued a landmark videotaped statement. In it, bin Laden explained how he and his followers were engaged in a “war of attrition to fight tyrannical superpowers.” He bragged that, just as Al Qaeda and the Taliban’s predecessors had “bled Russia for 10 years, until it went bankrupt and was forced to withdraw in defeat” from Afghanistan in 1989, the U.S. would suffer the same fate.

Al Qaeda’s core operation has acquired new credibility and energy. Crucially, it has also regained its close governing partner in a historically strategic land.

At the time, bin Laden’s threat was largely dismissed as braggadocio. But this past week’s tragic events in Afghanistan have proven him prophetic. Al Qaeda has played a critical supporting role in the defeat of two superpowers three decades apart. Worse still, much like what followed the Soviet Union’s far more orderly withdrawal, the Taliban’s lightning reconquest of Afghanistan recreates the same safe harbor Al Qaeda previously enjoyed. The likelihood that Al Qaeda will soon reconstitute its operating base in its former home and resume terror attacks on the West has again become a salient U.S. national security concern.

Indeed, the terror threat that Al Qaeda now presents must not be ignored or dismissed, as it was in the days leading up to 9/11. Al Qaeda’s core operation has acquired new credibility and energy. Crucially, it has also regained its close governing partner in a historically strategic land — a crossroads of southwest Asia bordering no fewer than half a dozen countries, including China, Iran and nuclear Pakistan.

America’s intentions in Afghanistan immediately after the 9/11 attacks were correct: Use intelligence assets and a light footprint of U.S. military special operations and ground forces working in concert with indigenous partners to stabilize the country and rid it of the terrorist group and its enabling host. Washington had largely achieved that goal before dramatically shifting its attention to Iraq and diverting critical assets from Afghanistan.

That eventually allowed Ayman al-Zawahri, who took over leadership of Al Qaeda after bin Laden’s death, to implement a low-key strategy that diversified or strengthened its geographical bases in the Levant; the Caucasus; north, south and east Africa; South Asia; and Southeast Asia. Even if the number of Al Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan was relatively modest — in the low hundreds — their ability to act as force multipliers for the Taliban, providing much-needed intelligence, logistics and tactical support and expertise, is likely to have contributed appreciably to the Taliban’s rapid seizure of power this past week.

The victory by the Taliban, maintaining this solid foundation both inside and outside Afghanistan, will boost Al Qaeda immeasurably. In particular, it will enhance its narrative, which is all but certain to inspire unrest and greater efforts from all the terrorist elements in the group’s universe.

Close to Afghanistan, Al Qaeda has taken advantage of resurgent Hindu nationalism in India, the country with the world’s second-largest Muslim population, to shift its personnel focus to recruiting disaffected South Asians, in place of its traditional Middle Eastern Arab constituency. Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, for instance, will now therefore directly benefit from being able to operate without constant fear of U.S. strikes.

At the same time, the Islamic State militant group also retains a presence in the region. Already there is speculation that the Taliban’s victory will set in motion a broader reconciliation between ISIS and rival jihadi movement Al Qaeda, as al-Zawahri’s patient strategy of engagement through attrition has been vindicated over ISIS’ more aggressive approach. Furthermore, virtually every extremist faction in Afghanistan will be strengthened by the release of imprisoned terrorists there. It is thus not surprising that U.S. military commanders are warning Congress that the terrorism threat from Afghanistan is likely to rise almost immediately.

President Joe Biden is correct that the U.S. has vastly improved counterterrorism capabilities both overseas and at home compared to 20 years ago. But his withdrawal changes things. To start with, until now we have benefited from an on-the-ground presence providing human intelligence and ensuring a robust response capacity to the discovery of any terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan. That is now gone.

Meanwhile, back home, the U.S. is far more divided politically than it was a generation ago, which makes achieving bipartisan agreement on foreign policy far more difficult. And unlike two decades ago, the U.S. is now preoccupied with multiple terrorist threats — domestic as well as the wider array of foreign ones — following the franchising of Al Qaeda and the rise of ISIS.

Back in 2001, the U.S. also wasn’t nearly as worried about peer competition from China or Russia, and it was far less worried about Iran, which is now closer to having nuclear weapons and thus may feel less constrained in intervening directly to further destabilize southwest Asia.

The one constant in this time has been our proclivity to underestimate our adversaries (who can forget President Barack Obama’s early dismissal of the Islamic State as a “JV team”?). Given how wrong so many assumptions about Afghanistan’s fall have been — most important, that the Afghan government would retain at least some control of the country and the Taliban would engage in peace talks with it — it is difficult to embrace with any kind of confidence the administration’s assurances about Al Qaeda’s not being capable of striking the U.S.

Perhaps the organization won’t be launching operations from a base in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but a reconstituted Al Qaeda in Afghanistan can strategize and inspire and even direct attacks far from South Asia. We know of repeated efforts in recent years by its operatives in Syria, for instance, to organize attacks on Europe and the U.S. That will be far easier now.

And not only does the withdrawal send a clear message to the world’s terrorists that wars of attrition are a winning strategy; it also tells America’s existing and would-be allies that the U.S. isn’t capable of being a reliable ally — reinforcing America’s similar abandonment of Syria’s Kurds. Next time the U.S. needs local alliances, we may be hard-pressed to find them.

Even that fallout, however, would be rosy compared to the worst-case scenario — that the Taliban and Al Qaeda’s resurgence stokes tension between Pakistan and India, nuclear powers that have clashed over Afghanistan in the past.

The Afghanistan withdrawal is an unforced foreign policy error of possibly historic proportions that could have been avoided had the U.S. kept a small permanent military presence in the country so long as the Taliban and Al Qaeda remained active. It’s a blunder that will most harshly be felt by the Afghan people and U.S. counterterrorism interests.