History Is Repeating Itself in Afghanistan
Updated: Nov 14, 2021
Update: Since the writing of this paper, the Afghan army has fled and Kabul has fallen much quicker than expected. These events do not alter the overall analysis of this paper. With the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud announcing the presence of a resistance movement in the Panjshir Valley, a civil war seems likely. Even if the Taliban decide to break with history and take a harder line against al-Qaeda, a civil war will make it very difficult for them to carry out that intent. More likely is the reemergence of another historical trend: al-Qaeda painting the fight between the Taliban and the resistance as a holy one in order to attract fighters from across the Muslim world. An interesting wrinkle is ISIS-K, who traditionally has not gotten along with al-Qaeda or the Taliban. How they will behave in the coming conflict is hard to predict. In any event, Afghanistan today looks very similar to the Afghanistan of 1996. This does not bode well for the security of the United States and its allies.
After the Soviets retreated from Afghanistan in 1989 and rebel factions ousted the communist ruler Mohammad Najibullah in 1992, two things happened simultaneously. First, the country descended into civil war as various factions vied for control of Kabul. Meanwhile, after years of overt and covert support to the mujahideen, the United States decided that it no longer had much interest in the war-torn country. It was time for Afghans to figure things out for themselves. On his way out, as Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Peter Tomsen warned against this new policy direction. In a confidential memo written to his superiors, he argued that “we are in danger of throwing away the assets we have built up in Afghanistan… at great expense.”¹ His opinions were informed by contacts in the Afghan resistance, one of whom feared that Afghanistan would become “a training ground and munitions dump for foreign terrorists.”² His warnings went unheeded and eventually proved prescient. By the end of the decade, Afghanistan became a haven for al-Qaeda and its Saudi-born leader, Osama bin Laden. He was able to move freely through Taliban-controlled territory, favoring the eastern mountains along the Pakistani border. Under the Taliban umbrella, bin Laden was able to build a “constellation of operational al Qaeda sleeper cells spread out around the world.”³ We solemnly remember the climax of this story every September 11th. Despite the horrendous consequences of previous mistakes, the United States is on a path to make the same mistakes again. Our attitude toward Afghanistan today is strikingly similar to our attitude of the early 1990s. Back then, we celebrated the fall of the Soviet Union and looked forward to the spread of liberal internationalism around the world. Meanwhile, radical Islamists plotted against us over a laundry list of grievances. They found a place to train and plan in Afghanistan. Today, our national security establishment frets over potential large-scale combat operations against pacing and peer threats in the Pacific and Eurasia. With this dramatic shift in focus, and by giving in to the temptation of ending our longest war, we are handing over the same haven to the same radical groups. It is only a matter of time before the Taliban takes advantage of our absence and regains control over much of the country. Our own intelligence community assesses that Kabul could fall in as little as six months.⁴ However, Kabul falling to the Taliban is not a prerequisite for a return of terrorist safe haven in Afghanistan. As long as the government in Kabul is focused on defending itself from the Taliban, it will not be focused on counterterrorism in its rural areas. This is where the infrastructure that bin Laden built twenty-five years ago exists. This infrastructure has only expanded over the course of the past two decades. It is worth pointing out that American forces attacked and destroyed one of the largest al-Qaeda training camps ever discovered in Afghanistan just six years ago.⁵ Do we think that as we pull out, these extremists will not immediately seek to take advantage of our absence?
Paul Pillar, a prominent character in Steve Coll’s “Ghost Wars,” warned us twenty years ago that the threat posed by terrorism and Islamic extremism would not be easily extinguished. He argued that the war on terrorism would not “be won outright – it can only be managed.”⁶ Pillar made this argument just months before the attacks of September 11, during a time when Islamic extremism was not at the forefront of American foreign policy. Like Peter Tomsen, Pillar’s words seem prophetic. After twenty years of policy focused heavily on the “global war on terror,” Islamic extremism still exists and is still a significant threat. This threat has only grown as the United States shifts its focus away from Afghanistan and the Middle East and toward great-power competition with Russia and China. Joint Force Quarterly published an article in its 1st Quarter edition of 2020 that highlights the resurgence of al-Qaeda. The key takeaway from this article is the argument that al-Qaeda is resurgent “due in part to its ability to exercise strategic patience.”⁷ As the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria grabbed headlines with its extreme tactics and rapid expansion across the Levant, al-qaeda took a more subtle approach. Even with a small American presence in Afghanistan and a hostile government in Kabul, al-Qaeda has continued to seek refuge in Taliban-controlled areas. Al-Qaeda has also spread to other trouble spots in the Middle East, notably Syria, and has put down significant roots throughout Africa. To be fair, this dispersion of al-Qaeda forces around the Middle East and Africa is due in large part to the pressure that has been applied to the group by the United States and its counterterror allies. But again, we have heard this story before. After several high-profile attacks in the late 1990s, the United States strongly encouraged the governments of Sudan and others to rein the problem in. The fighters went where they thought they would be safe, and where networks of support already existed: the rugged and remote mountains of Afghanistan. Additionally, as American forces have drawn down, ISIS-K (ISIS’s Afghan branch) has stepped up their attacks on minority groups. As the group tries to stay competitive in the global extremist marketplace, “chaos in Afghanistan and internal schisms between different ethnic groups and their elite powerbrokers are nothing but positive.”⁸ A letter from the Chair of the United Nations Security Council Committee, written to the President of the council in July of last year, raised similar concerns. Several member states of the UN Security Council believe that ISIS-K is “seeking to pursue a global agenda.” They intend to facilitate this agenda by implementing a leadership approach that considers “Afghan territory a base for spreading terrorist influence” across the region.⁹
The Office of the Director of National Intelligence published the most recent “Annual Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” in April. The report assesses that “ISIS and al-Qa’ida remain the greatest Sunni terrorist threats to US interests overseas.”¹⁰ The report follows up that assessment with a very interesting observation. It acknowledges that these two groups still seek to attack the United States’ homeland but claim that “sustained US and allied CT pressure has broadly degraded their capability to do so.”¹¹ This is a fair statement, but the report inadvertently reinforces the argument of this paper just a few sentences later. It notes that “decreased Western CT assistance probably will expand opportunities for terrorists and provide them space to recover.”¹² These opportunities will present themselves to al-Qaeda and ISIS in Afghanistan by the end of this year.
In conclusion, the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan will exacerbate an already significant threat from radical Islamic terrorism. It mirrors the policy direction that we took in the early 1990s, a policy that had drastic consequences. Afghanistan is strategically located and provides infrastructure, such as extensive cave networks and remote camps, that terrorist organizations can utilize to train fighters and plan attacks. We have not reached President Biden’s deadline for our complete withdrawal and Taliban forces have already captured several key provincial capitals. Al-Qaeda, and to a lesser extent ISIS, stand to reap significant benefits from this sequence of events and therefore increase the threat they pose to the United States and our interests.