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Taliban and Al Qaeda: If there's no war, there won't be an alliance

But all bets are off if the United States starts rekindling a civil conflict there.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

The U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan was about counterterrorism. Had it not been for a traumatic terrorist attack in the United States, 20 years of U.S. warfare in Afghanistan never would have occurred. Most Americans would have been oblivious to events there, and U.S. policymakers would have given the country only the minimal attention it had received ever since U.S.-aided mujahedin chased out the Soviets in 1989. During those 20 years of war the United States did pick up some obligations to individual Afghans who aided it, but otherwise everything else about refashioning the internal affairs of Afghanistan represented mission creep.

Assessing events in Afghanistan in counterterrorist terms therefore is appropriate, although the heavy emphasis on eradicating a possible physical haven overseas — as a way supposedly to preclude a terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland — is less so. Of all the factors affecting the ability and willingness of any group to attack the United States, having a place to set up camp in a land thousands of miles away is one of the less important ones. The 9/11 operation itself is an example, having been prepared at least as much in apartments in Hamburg, resorts in Spain, flight schools in the United States, and cyberspace as it was in Afghanistan.

To the extent that an overseas physical safe haven matters at all, there is nothing unique about Afghanistan. If a group needs some unstable country for a place to pitch its tent, there are numerous other options. Americans’ focus on Afghanistan is part of the historical baggage that the trauma of 9/11 placed on their thinking. The closest calls in attempted post-9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States have come from groups based elsewhere, such as Yemen.

Current cries of alarm about the Taliban victory in Afghanistan ignore these realities. This includes concerns ostensibly focused on terrorism, such as Representative Michael McCaul of Texas, the ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, proclaiming, “We are going to go back to a pre-9/11 state — a breeding ground for terrorism.”

The alarms are off base in another respect, which is to assume that the Taliban will resume an alliance with Al Qaeda resembling their relationship as of 2001. For example, Nathan Sales, who was the Trump administration’s counterterrorism coordinator in the State Department, asserts, “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.” The Taliban, he says, will not break with “their stalwart ally, Al Qaeda.” Such expressed certitude badly misreads history.

When the Taliban previously was regarded as being in power, from 1996 to 2001, they never ruled all of Afghanistan — only about three-fourths of it. Civil war continued to rage. The Taliban’s principal opposition was the Northern Alliance, a coalition whose strength was centered in non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the north of Afghanistan. The alliance’s best-known leader was the Tajik commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, the celebrated “Lion of Panjshir” who was assassinated two days before 9/11.

During this period, the Taliban’s top priority was fighting the civil war and attempting to expand their rule to the portions of the country they did not yet control. In doing so, they welcomed the help of Al Qaeda’s fighters, which the group at the time was strong enough to give.

The story of the war in Afghanistan this year has been much different. There is no Northern Alliance and no Massoud. The Taliban’s seizure of the seat of government in Kabul climaxed a nationwide campaign in which they had already captured cities and provinces throughout the country, including the north. They accomplished their victory without help from Al Qaeda on the battlefield, and incurred no new political debts to any such group in the process. Insofar as the Taliban’s victory becomes total in the sense of securing their control over the whole country, they will have no need for, and no interest in, assistance from the likes of Al Qaeda as they did two decades ago. They will have more reason to be interested in economic assistance and political recognition from outside powers.

Except for any interest in such assistance and recognition, the Taliban are as insular a bunch as one can find anywhere. They have always been narrowly focused on power in Afghanistan and the political and social order of Afghanistan. They have shown no interest in international terrorism. This insularity is perhaps reflected in how Afghans have been virtually absent from jihads in Syria, Bosnia, and anywhere else outside Afghanistan itself.

Being a radical Islamist does not equate to having an interest in allying with another radical Islamist group. To the contrary, any such group operating independently in Afghanistan would be — in the absence of an overriding military priority such as fighting the Northern Alliance — more of a complication and challenge to the Taliban than an asset. This is illustrated by the current fierce conflict between the Taliban and the Afghan branch of the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. For anyone hoping to see this branch of ISIS quashed, the Taliban represent the best bet for doing so. 

Just as Americans have conceptual historical baggage from 9/11, one can expect that the Taliban have such baggage too. They will remember that the biggest setback — by far — that the group ever suffered was a direct consequence of Al Qaeda’s 9/11 operation, with the resulting U.S. military intervention ousting the Taliban from what power they had and setting back by two decades their effort to take control of all of Afghanistan. There was no prior consultation with the Taliban about 9/11 or about Al Qaeda’s other international terrorist operations, despite the enormous damage to be caused to the Taliban themselves. So much for being a “stalwart ally.”

The only development that might cause the Taliban’s thinking about Al Qaeda to return to anything like it was in the 1996-2001 period would be a rekindling of the Afghan civil war, to the point of opposition groups mounting armed challenges comparable to what the Taliban faced back then. Accordingly, the United States and other outside powers should refrain from stoking such armed opposition, notwithstanding the urge to do so in circles that like to talk about regime change and consider subversion of someone else’s regime to be a normal tool of statecraft. To resist succumbing to such an urge is not a matter of believing what the Taliban are saying in their current charm offensive about how they have changed. Nor is it a matter of being nice to the Taliban in the hope that they will be nice in return. Rather, it is a recognition of circumstances that really have changed and a self-interested avoiding of recreating earlier circumstances in which an awful terrorist attack took place.

Avoiding a rekindled Afghan civil war serves other U.S. objectives as well, including ones included in the mission creep, no matter how distasteful many of the Taliban’s policies and practices no doubt will continue to be. Unrelenting warfare has hurt Afghans badly. Those arguing for a continued U.S. military presence who like to point out how few American casualties have been in the last couple of years omit reference to how heavy Afghan casualties continued to be. Continuing warfare has hurt innocent Afghans in many other ways, including the Afghan women whose future status under the Taliban has been the subject of much worry and comment. 

Kabul, August 18, 2021. (Shutterstock/John Smith 2021)
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