On October 7, 2001, the United States began bombing Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in a military retaliatory campaign against Al Qaeda for orchestrating the September 11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people.
Twenty years later and almost two months after Washington ended its war in Afghanistan, Al Qaeda is down but not out.
With its Taliban allies firmly back in power, the global terrorist network could quickly reclaim its sanctuary in Afghanistan. However, it is believed that Al Qaeda is considering a new approach to advancing its global jihadist goals.
“Al Qaeda literature shows that it planned the 9/11 attacks to drag the United States into a long war with the jihadists in Afghanistan so that they could be defeated there,” said Abdul Sayed , a researcher who follows radical Islamic groups in South Asia. .
In light of this strategy, he said, it’s easy to see why the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other jihadists have declared the US withdrawal from Afghanistan a victory against the global superpower.
Sayed said Washington was unable to achieve its primary goal despite a long-drawn-out military campaign that cost billions of dollars and led to protracted conflict. “The United States fought for two decades against Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the group is not eliminated and still benefits from shelters in the country,” he told RFE / RL’s Gandhara.
Senior US security officials are now warning that Al Qaeda is able to quickly rebuild its base in Afghanistan and orchestrate attacks on US soil within one to three years.
“We are concerned, of course, that there is an opportunity for a safe haven to be recreated there, which we have seen in the past,” FBI Director Christopher Wray told a Congressional panel at the end of last month.
The Taliban, however, reiterated that they would not let Afghanistan again become a threat to regional or global security. “We are attached to the fact that, from Afghanistan, there will be no danger to any country,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid recently said.
But experts remain skeptical about the strength of the Taliban’s voice. Michael Semple, former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan, said that even after pledging to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for Al Qaeda as part of its deal with states -United signed in Doha in February 2020, the Taliban acted only to keep its foreign militant allies out of sight instead of overpowering them.
Semple, who worked in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s first term in power in the 1990s, said he was not surprised the Taliban was acting against what its leaders have publicly promised. Instead of the inclusive and moderate government they promised, the Taliban formed a government made up exclusively of its top leaders and reimposed the strict policies of its former hardline regime. Semple said the Taliban is unlikely to honor their counterterrorism commitments in the Doha deal, which specifically promised that the Taliban would not allow Al Qaeda to operate from there. ‘Afghanistan.
“The department that sells the Taliban is different from the department that runs Afghanistan. They don’t pay attention to each other,” Semple told RFE / RL’s Gandhara. “One department makes the pretty picture to go on the box while another department puts things inside the box, and the two departments aren’t really related to each other.”
Semple, now a professor at Queen’s University in Belfast, sees the rise of the intransigent Haqqani network, a Taliban military wing, within the new government as proof that Al Qaeda will have no problem reclaiming its power. sanctuary in Afghanistan.
“If you are a member of Al Qaeda and trying to make arrangements to keep your leaders and key operatives safe and out of sight and avoid trouble with local authorities, what more can you dream of than see your supporters take control of the Minister of the Interior? ”Semple, alluding to the appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, to the post of Minister of the Interior.
Washington has named Haqqani a global terrorist, and he still holds a $ 10 million bounty for information leading to his capture. The Taliban have not released a photo of him since he took office late last month. Several sources in Kabul told RFE / RL’s Gandhara that he frequently changed locations and kept his movements secret lest Washington would target him using unmanned drones.
Semple, however, said Al Qaeda is savvy enough to avoid drawing attention to its emerging Afghan base or Taliban hosts, perhaps by orchestrating attacks from Afghanistan.
“The alternative model is that they inspire and then advise or aid sympathetic Muslim militant organizations that are fighting against Western-leaning governments in other parts of the Muslim world,” he noted. “It’s not something that will take two years to deliver; it is something that they are already busy doing. ”
Neighboring Tajikistan, where the government is fiercely opposed to the Taliban takeover, has complained that the Taliban is equipping a militant group that includes its dissident citizens. Dushanbe has banned the Jamaat Ansarullah group, which has the avowed aim of overthrowing the secular government of Tajikistan.
The emergence of such groups has further eroded confidence in the Taliban’s counterterrorism promises. Activists have already opposed long-range US drone flights which Washington officials say are part of their “on the horizon” strategy to control terrorist groups.
“We do not have an agreement with a neighboring country,” General Frank McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, recently told lawmakers to explain the challenges of using planes to monitor possible terrorist groups. in Afghanistan. “We are not based in any neighboring country.”
Semple said counterterrorism concerns were at the heart of the Russian and Chinese regional giants’ relationship with the Taliban. He said the two have been fairly advanced in their engagement with the Taliban-led government, but their calculations could change if the Taliban does not address their concerns about terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan.
“You can imagine a situation in which Russia and China are part of a larger international effort to support a more responsible administration in Afghanistan,” he said.