And much of the blame lies squarely with Joe Biden
August 21st, 2021
If the propagandists of the Taliban had scripted the collapse of America’s 20-year mission to reshape Afghanistan, they could not have come up with more harrowing images. As insurgents swept into Kabul, desperate Afghans, terrified about what the victorious zealots might do, chased departing American cargo planes down the runway, trying to clamber into the landing gear and inevitably falling to their deaths. The American-backed government had surrendered without a fight—something that American officials were insisting would not happen only days before. Afghans were left in such a horrifying bind that clinging to the wheels of a hurtling aircraft seemed their best option.
America has spent $2trn in Afghanistan; more than 2,000 American lives have been lost, not to mention countless Afghan ones. And yet, even if Afghans are more prosperous now than when America invaded, Afghanistan is back to square one. The Taliban control more of the country than they did when they lost power, they are better armed, having seized the weapons America showered on the Afghan army, and they have now won the ultimate affirmation: defeating a superpower.
The insurgents have made a show of magnanimity, pledging that they will not take revenge on those who worked for the toppled government and insisting that they will respect women’s rights, within their interpretation of Islamic law. But that interpretation kept most girls out of school and most women confined to their homes when the group was last in power, in the 1990s. Brutal punishments—floggings, stonings, amputations—were common. The freedoms that urban Afghans took for granted over the past 20 years have just gone up in smoke. It is an appalling outcome for Afghanistan’s 39m people, and deeply damaging for America.
It is not surprising that America failed to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Nation-building is difficult, and few imagined that it could become Switzerland. Nor was it unreasonable for Joe Biden, America’s president, to want to draw the conflict to a close. America has spent 20 years in a place of only modest strategic importance about which most American voters have long since ceased to care. The original reason for the invasion—to dismantle al-Qaeda’s main base of operations—was largely achieved, though that achievement could now be reversed.
The claim that America is showing itself to be a fickle ally by allowing the Afghan government to fall is also overblown, given the duration, scale and expense of the American deployment. The defunct regime in Kabul was not an ally in the way that Germany or Japan is. It was far weaker, more corrupt and completely dependent on America for its survival.
But none of that absolved America of the responsibility to withdraw in an orderly fashion. Mr. Biden failed to show even a modicum of care for the welfare of ordinary Afghans. The irony is that America had a plan to do just that, which had been in the works for several years. It had hugely scaled down its garrison, from around 100,000 troops in 2011 to fewer than 10,000 by 2017, along with a similar number from other nato countries. They were not supposed to defeat the Taliban, but prevent the Afghan army’s collapse, largely through airpower, and so force the Taliban to the negotiating table.
Apologists for Mr. Biden argue that his predecessor, Donald Trump, had already scuppered this plan by trying to rush it to a conclusion before last year’s presidential election in America. It is true that Mr. Trump was so desperate to strike a quick deal that he accepted preposterous terms, agreeing to end America’s deployment without even securing a ceasefire, let alone a clear plan to end the civil war. He had already reduced the American presence to little more than 2,000 soldiers by the time Mr. Biden took office, and had promised to get the rest out by May 1st.
But Mr. Biden did not have to stick to this agreement. In fact, he didn’t entirely, refusing to keep to the original timetable. The Taliban were clearly not holding up their end of the bargain, pressing their advantage on the battlefield instead of negotiating in good faith with the Afghan government. That could have been grounds to halt or reverse the American withdrawal. There was little political pressure within America to bring the war to a speedy conclusion. Yet Mr. Biden was working to an arbitrary and flippant deadline of his own, seeking to end the war by the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Although the speed of the Afghan government’s implosion surprised most observers, including this newspaper, America’s soldiers and politicians were among the most naively optimistic, insisting that a total collapse was a vanishingly remote prospect. And when it became clear that the Afghan army was melting away, Mr. Biden pressed on intransigently, despite the likely consequences.
As a result, America’s power to deter its enemies and reassure its friends has diminished. Its intelligence was flawed, its planning rigid, its leaders capricious and its concern for allies minimal. That is likely to embolden jihadists everywhere, who will take the Taliban’s victory as evidence that God is on their side. It will also encourage adventurism on the part of hostile governments such as Russia’s or China’s, and worry America’s friends. Mr. Biden has defended the withdrawal by arguing that Afghanistan was a distraction from more pressing problems, such as America’s rivalry with China. But by leaving Afghanistan in such a chaotic fashion, Mr. Biden will have made those other problems harder to deal with.
After the fall
The shambolic withdrawal does not reduce the obligation of America and its allies to ordinary Afghans, but increases it. They should use what leverage they still have to urge moderation on the Taliban, especially in their treatment of women. The displaced will need humanitarian aid. Western countries should also admit more Afghan refugees, the ranks of whom are likely to swell, and provide generous assistance to Afghanistan’s neighbours to look after those who remain in the region. The haste of European leaders to declare that they cannot take in many persecuted Afghans even as violent zealots seize control is almost as lamentable as America’s botched exit. It is too late to save Afghanistan, but there is still time to help its people.
The defeat in Afghanistan is, like that in Vietnam, a turning-point. Many fear America’s foes will be emboldened; others hope it will now be more able to confront them
August 21st, 2021
“The Taliban is not the North Vietnamese army,” declared President Joe Biden on July 8th, days after America abandoned Bagram airbase, the hub of its war in Afghanistan for 20 years, without telling its Afghan commander. “They’re not remotely comparable in terms of capability. There’s going to be no circumstance where you see people being lifted off the roof of the embassy of the United States from Afghanistan.” By August 15th Chinooks were rattling windows in Kabul, shuttling American diplomats from their hulking embassy. At the city’s airport, desperate Afghans swarmed the runway; some clung to the undercarriage of a c-17 transporter, falling to their deaths.
The chaos on the runway contrasted with the Taliban’s nearly bloodless capture of Kabul a day earlier. The Taliban now control more of Afghanistan than they did in 2001, when America swept them from power in response to the September 11th attacks (see map). At the presidential palace in Kabul, Taliban fighters in dusty sandals seemed surprised at their victory as they posed around the desk abandoned by Ashraf Ghani, the country’s president. “We have reached a victory that wasn’t expected,” admitted Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader.
In the tense drama around the airport, the foes have treated each other warily. The Taliban have so far allowed America to run evacuation flights, but have forced back crowds trying to get onto them. With thousands of Americans left in Kabul the situation could grow more dangerous. The Taliban may grow impatient with thousands of American and British troops on Afghan soil, and angry at America’s decision to block access to foreign reserves.
America’s flight from Kabul, like its departure from Saigon in 1975, is a defining geopolitical moment: the world’s mightiest country has again been defeated by a weaker enemy. In both cases—then as a senator, now as president—Joe Biden advocated a rapid exit. And then as now, fierce critics of America predicted that such a chaotic abandonment would alarm allies and embolden adversaries. Neighbouring states and rich countries farther away can expect an unsettling new influx of refugees. Global jihadists, thousands of whom are thought to be sheltered by the Taliban, will see a divine hand in the way holy warriors have defeated two superpowers in Afghanistan—first the Soviet Union in 1989 and now America.
The consequences will be felt, above all, in Afghanistan itself. It is too early to say whether the Taliban’s triumph marks the final, or merely the latest, chapter in the country’s 42-year-old war—with more than 117,000 Afghans killed since 2001 (see chart 1). Afghanistan remains one of the world’s poorest countries. If Western aid is cut off, it stands to lose even the modest economic and social gains—such as the education of girls—of the past two decades (see chart 2). Much will depend on how the Taliban govern.
When they last ruled in Kabul, from 1996 to 2001, they plunged a country long ravaged by war into a theocratic tyranny. They halted female education and employment, banned most art and music, and massacred minorities. And they harboured militants of all stripes, notably al-Qaeda, which sought to export jihad around the world. The “emirate” was so repulsive that it was recognised only by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan, a long-time sponsor of the Taliban.
This time around, the Taliban want to show a gentler face. On August 17th one of their officials appeared on Afghanistan’s main television network to be interviewed by a female presenter—an unimaginable scene during the first Taliban era. The group has also applied a light touch in the capital. “We were expecting a lot more brutality,” says Obaidullah Baheer, a lecturer at the American University in Kabul. Instead, he was “pleasantly surprised at their discipline and respectfulness”. Mr. Baheer notes that the Taliban’s vehicles do not honk at civilian cars, forcing them off the road, as Afghan military ones used to.
Keeping the lights on
The Taliban’s priority is to keep the existing state going. Lacking technocrats or managers, they have declared a general amnesty for all government officials, urging them to return to work. The health minister and the mayor of Kabul remain in their posts. Antonio Giustozzi of King’s College London notes that the Taliban have cut deals with Salahuddin Rabbani, a former foreign minister, and Hamid Karzai, the first president installed by America. They have recruited army specialists to operate captured equipment and are trying to woo military pilots.
The Taliban’s strategy in rural provinces that they have held for some time may hold other clues. They often piggybacked on government services, allowing teachers and doctors to continue working as long as they abided by Taliban rules. “They are going to assume control of what already exists, at least in the short term, and I think they will try to go for stability, rather than a revolution of any sort,” says Ashley Jackson of the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a think-tank in London.
As they take over the country, says Martine van Bijlert of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a research group, the Taliban are debating how to strike the balance between what many of their fighters see as ideological purity, on the one hand, and the demand for education that exists even among many of the more conservative Afghans. Mustapha Ben Messaoud, the chief of field operations in Afghanistan for Unicef, says he is “cautiously optimistic”.
How long this pragmatism lasts is anyone’s guess. The news out of some newly captured areas is worrying. In Herat, where 60% of the students at the university were women, female students have been ordered back to their homes. Women at work have been told to give up their jobs to male relatives. Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s spokesman, says that media outlets can remain open—as long as they do not “contradict Islamic values” or “broadcast anything that goes against our national interests”. That is hardly reassuring.
Nor will many Afghans be persuaded by the Taliban’s promise that there will be “no revenge on all those who are working with the Kabul administration or with the foreign forces”. After the Taliban took Spin Boldak, a town on the Pakistani border, dozens of government supporters were reportedly massacred. In Kandahar, the Taliban kidnapped and murdered Nazar Mohammad, a popular comedian. Kabul is rife with reports that the Taliban are hunting former us army interpreters and Afghan commanders. One female judge in the city says she, and hundreds of her former colleagues, are terrified of reprisals. In Jalalabad on August 18th the Taliban reportedly killed several protesters waving the Afghan flag rather than the Taliban’s standard.
The hollow Afghan army
Even so, Taliban promises of “mercy” and safe passage for government soldiers who put down their arms goes some way to explaining how they swept away the Afghan army so easily. When the Soviet Union left Afghanistan in 1989, its client regime survived for three years before collapsing (in part because by then the Soviet Union itself had disappeared). The state built this time did not hold out long enough for America even to complete its departure. “We spent over a trillion dollars,” lamented Mr. Biden on August 16th (see chart 3). “We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong…a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies.” Why did it all dissolve in days?
In 20 years of America’s presence, the Taliban had seized only one city, Kunduz, holding it for brief periods. Yet starting with Zaranj in the southwest on August 6th, they took one provincial capital after another, culminating in the seizure of Kabul on August 15th. They control virtually all the territory once held by the former Northern Alliance, an anti-Taliban amalgam that America relied on in 2001. Amrullah Saleh, Mr. Ghani’s vice-president, has fled to the Panjshir valley, declared himself the caretaker president and called for “resistance”. But his cause looks forlorn.
The Taliban’s success owes much to Pakistan’s support, America’s distraction in Iraq, drug money and the corruption of Afghan elites. But the militants also had agility. In the last stage of the war, they often embodied Sun Tzu’s dictum that the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting. “What just happened is probably one of the best conceived and planned guerrilla campaigns ever,” says Mike Martin, a former British army officer in Helmand province, now at King’s College London. “The Taliban went into every district and flipped all the local militias by doing deals along tribal lines.” In Herat, for instance, the head of the provincial council cut a deal with the local Taliban commander (both were members of the Alizai tribe). “Once those local forces had flipped,” says Mr. Martin, “there wasn’t enough weight on the government side, so the army had to surrender.”
That the Taliban could strike such deals reflected a deeper problem. America and its allies acted as the midwives of a highly centralised state, whose constitution in 2004 echoed the monarchy of the 1960s. Mr. Ghani, a former official in the World Bank and co-author of a book called “Fixing Failed States”, wanted to build national institutions that would disenfranchise local power-brokers. That went down badly with important tribes and clans. “These tensions between Kabul and regional actors opened up vacuums the Taliban were able to exploit,” observes Ibraheem Bahiss of the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. “They went from really limited appeal to virtually a national movement.”
The Afghan army that America built was large, well-armed and equipped with air power. It was also utterly unsuited to the war at hand. The formal chain of command clashed with family and tribal loyalties, says Jack Watling of the Royal United Services Institute, a think-tank. The result was endemic corruption. “Equipment was going into the military, into big warehouses and then getting siphoned off all over the place,” he says.
Though the army was 352,000-strong on paper, the available force amounted to around 96,000 soldiers, according to CNA, a think-tank—not much larger than the Taliban’s 60,000 or so. American-supplied equipment was too complex to maintain, resulting in frequent breakdowns. That in turn confined much of the army to besieged bases. Many soldiers went unpaid and hungry, and casualties were high. A small cadre of Afghan special forces was left to do much of the fighting, but they were stretched thin.
America’s decision to leave was the coup de grâce. As a study of Vietnam by the RAND Corporation, published in 1978, noted, “the physical side of it—the withdrawal of troops, the loss of us airpower, declining aid—was no more disastrous than the concomitant psychological effects of no longer being regarded by the United States as worth saving.”
Gaining friends and seeking influence
Western countries are in a bind. Having failed calamitously, they now hope to exercise a “moderating influence” on the Taliban, as Dominic Raab, Britain’s foreign secretary, put it, by using two levers: aid and diplomatic recognition of the new regime. Neither is likely to be effective. Iran and Russia, once hostile to the Taliban, are now friendlier to them; both relish America’s humiliation in Afghanistan. Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, all but applauded their victory: the Taliban, he said, are “much more able to reach agreements than the puppet government in Kabul.” Pakistan, whose spooks nurtured the Taliban from birth, was even keener. “In Afghanistan, they have broken the chains of slavery,” gushed Imran Khan, the prime minister.
The biggest diplomatic prize for the Taliban, however, is China, which shares a border with Afghanistan through the slender Wakhan corridor. On July 28th, with the American withdrawal nearly complete, China made a show of hosting a delegation of Taliban leaders in Tianjin and called the group a “decisive military and political force”. Shortly after it proved so, Chinese diplomats welcomed the prospect of “friendly and co-operative relations”.
How the relations with neighbours actually turn out depends, in part, on the Taliban’s links with international jihadist groups. China, for instance, worries about the presence of militant Uyghurs, whom it sees as a threat to stability in Xinjiang, where Uyghurs form a majority and are the subject of intense repression.
Islamist extremism has long been a concern to Western countries, too, even if the threat has abated since 2001. “We went to Afghanistan 20 years ago with one mission, and that mission was to deal with the folks who attacked us on 9/11,” said Antony Blinken, America’s secretary of state, on August 15th. “And we have succeeded in that mission.” Al-Qaeda, the group which was responsible, is a shadow of its former self. But its ideology has spread far and wide; it has spawned the likes of Islamic State, an even more brutal group born in Iraq and Syria, as well as offshoots and lone-wolf terrorists.
Mr. Mujahid has tried to assuage concerns that Afghanistan will again become a base for global terrorism, as it was on 9/11: “We want to reassure everyone, especially the United States, that Afghanistan won’t be used to attack anybody.” But last month a UN team which monitors jihadist groups reported that al-Qaeda remained present in no fewer than 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, primarily along the country’s eastern fringes. A local branch of Islamic State is also present in several places, with anywhere from several hundred to 10,000 members. Western intelligence agencies reckon that Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s leader since America’s killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011, is in Afghanistan, though ailing. The Taliban’s release of thousands of prisoners, many of them hardened jihadists, from Pul-e-Charkhi prison in Kabul compounds the problem.
American officials believe that they can keep the terrorists in check through a combination of watchful intelligence and targeted strikes. Mr. Biden says that America has a robust “counterterrorism over-the-horizon capability”. Yet this capacity has been greatly weakened. America will soon lack a military or diplomatic presence on the ground. Afghanistan’s own spy agency, the National Directorate of Security, is unlikely to survive; if it does it is unlikely to co-operate with the West. American spooks will become more reliant on agents recruited mostly outside Afghanistan, and on signals intelligence.
Without an airbase to operate from in Afghanistan, the country’s landlocked geography is another forbidding constraint. CIA drones once took off from next-door Pakistan but its relations with America are at rock-bottom. Missiles or warplanes could fly from bases in the Persian Gulf or an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea, but they could not avoid passing over either Iran, an unlikely prospect, or Pakistan, with or without its permission.
Much as Mr. Biden and his team reject comparisons to Vietnam, they are unavoidable. In both cases, civilian and military leaders misled Americans about a conflict with uncertain aims and unreliable partners, and on cultural terrain where they never found their footing. But there are many differences. The 2,452 American military deaths in Afghanistan are painful, but the war in Vietnam was far bloodier—with 25 times as many Americans killed—and more divisive. In other ways, the failure in Afghanistan is worse. The North Vietnamese army was a skilled and armoured force, notes Caitlin Talmadge of Georgetown University, perhaps twice the size of the Taliban and backed by a superpower. Yet the Taliban have taken a territory four times as large as South Vietnam.
A shock that rings around the world
Many historians have concluded that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and expanded support for proxies in Central America and Africa in part out of the belief that America had been weakened by Vietnam. China has already seized on the debacle in Afghanistan to celebrate America’s retreat, if not decline. The Global Times, a jingoistic tabloid run by China’s Communist Party, crowed on August 16th that the withdrawal was an “omen of Taiwan’s future”. If America was unwilling to absorb several thousand casualties in Afghanistan, it suggested, a war over Taiwan “would mean unthinkable costs”. Andrew Yang, a former Taiwanese defence minister, agrees that the withdrawal from Afghanistan matters to Taiwan: “That is a lesson to learn…Taiwan should depend on its own self-defences instead of us support.”
In India, many officials are troubled by a victory for Pakistan’s proxy, and the prospect of energised jihadism. And having aligned the country more closely with America against China, they are taken aback by America’s apparent unreliability. “The US withdrawal…showed utter disregard of what it would unleash in its wake,” argues Nirupama Rao, formerly India’s most senior diplomat. “It has devalued the worth and credibility of American power in the region,” she says.
Yet complaints about American reliability are an old pastime. Europeans grumbled about Barack Obama’s reluctance to intervene in Libya in 2011 and his cancellation of airstrikes on Syria in 2013. Gulf states fretted over Mr. Trump’s failure to punish Iran for its attack on Saudi oil facilities in 2019. Taiwan already has experience of betrayal by America, when it switched formal diplomatic recognition to communist China in 1979, yet lives with it.
If the manner of Mr. Biden’s withdrawal demonstrates American capriciousness, it also shows its indispensability. Few allies have anywhere else to turn as Russia and China assert themselves. “This is a hard blow for America,” acknowledges Michael Fullilove, director of the Lowy Institute, a think-tank in Sydney, “but it doesn’t change the calculus for Australia.” Asked whether Japan is worried, one senior official in Tokyo replies: “No, because Afghanistan is Afghanistan…Japan is different.”
And just as European allies welcomed America’s withdrawal from Vietnam, anxious that it was diverting resources and attention from the Soviet threat to Europe, many allies (and China hawks in Washington) spy an opportunity to refocus America on their concerns. As Mr. Biden noted: “Our true strategic competitors—China and Russia—would love nothing more than the United States to continue to funnel billions of dollars in resources and attention into stabilising Afghanistan indefinitely.”
The long view
The enduring lesson from Vietnam may be the importance of perspective. In the short term, America’s confidence was shaken and its adversaries cheered. Yet within 15 years of defeat in a war that was waged to hold back the communist tide, America had won the cold war and emerged as a power without peer. Its armed forces, shattered by the conflict, rebuilt themselves into an unrivalled, technologically advanced force. And four decades on, Vietnam is a close partner of the superpower it vanquished. That may be a consolation to America. It is of little solace to Afghans who trusted it to defend them, and must now face life under the Taliban.
The terrorist group has outlasted the trillion-dollar U.S. investment in Afghanistan since 9/11.
By Robin Wright August 23, 2021
In March, I traveled to Afghanistan and the Middle East with General Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., the Alabama-born marine who heads Central Command. He has been overseeing the frantic evacuation out of Kabul. During one of several interviews aboard his plane, I asked him, “Do you really think, given the intermarriage, the interweaving of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, that the Taliban is really ever going to be able or willing to restrain Al Qaeda from doing anything against us?” By then, the Taliban held roughly half of Afghanistan, a country about the size of Texas. McKenzie was chillingly candid. “I think it will be very hard for the Taliban to act against Al Qaeda, to actually limit their ability to attack outside the country,” he replied. “It’s possible, but I think it would be difficult.”
For more than a year, both the Trump and Biden Administrations had reams of warnings—from the military and diplomats, congressional reports and a commissioned study group, its own inspector general, and the United Nations—that the collapse of the Afghan government, an ever-growing possibility, would also mean a resurgence of Al Qaeda. In April, a U.S. intelligence assessment warned Congress that Al Qaeda’s senior leadership “will continue to plot attacks and seek to exploit conflicts in different regions.” The jihadist group, which carried out the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, was active in fifteen of Afghanistan’s thirty-four provinces, primarily in the eastern and southern regions, the United Nations reported in June. The Taliban and Al Qaeda remained “closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties,” it noted, as like-minded militants celebrated developments in Afghanistan as a victory for “global radicalism.” In a haunting final report on the lessons learned from America’s longest war, John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, warned that the U.S. decision to pull out the last U.S. troops “left uncertain whether even the modest gains of the last two decades will prove sustainable.” The decision to pull out was made by President Trump in February last year, with the timetable decided by President Biden in April this year.
With the Taliban takeover, the trillion-dollar investment in a campaign to contain Al Qaeda may have changed little since 9/11. Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “Inside Terrorism,” was blunter. “The situation is more dangerous in 2021 than it was in 1999 and 2000,” he told me. “We’re in a much weakened position now. We’ve learned so little.” The Taliban takeover is the biggest boost to Al Qaeda since 9/11 and a global game-changer for jihadism generally, Rita Katz, the executive director of the Site Intelligence Group, a leading tracker of extremist activity worldwide, told me. There is a “universal recognition” that Al Qaeda can now “reinvest” in Afghanistan as a safe haven, Katz said. Jihadism effectively has a new homeland, the first since the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in March, 2019. “It foreshadows a new future that sadly couldn’t have been further from what we would hope for after twenty years of war,” she said. It’s a boon for Al Qaeda and its franchises, which now stretch from Burkina Faso in West Africa to Bangladesh in South Asia. “Militants from across the world—whether they be regionally focussed Islamists or globally focussed jihadists—will surely seek to enter Afghanistan’s porous borders,” Katz added.
Since the U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden, in 2011, Al Qaeda’s central core has often been overshadowed by its more visible franchises in Africa and the Arabian Peninsula. The group is now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, a seventy-year-old Egyptian physician who was indicted by the United States for the 1998 bombings of the U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and was widely linked to the September 11th attacks, too. In a break from bin Laden’s style, Zawahiri has issued few audio messages over the past decade. As the core of the movement came under U.S. military pressure, he and bin Laden advocated for the creation of Al Qaeda branches across the Islamic world as part of its survival strategy, according to Ali Soufan, a former F.B.I. special agent for counterterrorism and the author of “The Black Banners: The Inside Story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda.” Zawahiri’s more patient strategy has worked, while the more aggressive strategy of the rival Islamic State has flamed out, Soufan told me. isis had many times more members, but Al Qaeda fighters were far more experienced, more strategic, and hardened in battle. Al Qaeda’s strategy—dubbed the “management of savagery”—has three phases. The first includes terrorist attacks to weaken the international and regional order. The second, as government authority erodes or collapses, is to prevent other political forces from filling the vacuum, so as to allow Al Qaeda’s movements to “take pride of position,” Soufan said. The final stage is to establish a state and stitch the other regions together into a caliphate.
Al Qaeda’s numbers in Afghanistan have slightly increased, from four hundred fighters before 9/11 to around six hundred before the Taliban takeover, experts say. U.S. and Afghan operations eliminated senior leaders and largely shut down the training camps that once operated in the country, but the movement has adapted. In October, the Afghan military claimed that it had killed the red-bearded Egyptian Husam Abd al-Rauf, whose nom de guerre was Abu Muhsin al-Masri. He was on the F.B.I.’s “Most Wanted Terrorists” list. Despite Al Qaeda’s low public visibility, however, experts said that the group was pivotal in the Taliban’s sweep across Afghanistan. It provided “the élite backbone” in the Taliban campaign, Hoffman told me. “In recent years, Al Qaeda has been the force multiplier behind the Taliban” by enhancing intelligence, communication, and fighting skills. Its fighters were “more cosmopolitan and better educated than the Taliban, who are coming down from the mountains. They bring a lot of skills to an army of country bumpkins,” he added. “The number was not large, but it was outsized in its significance.”
There was no secret about the ongoing Al Qaeda presence or its willingness to fight side by side with the Taliban, despite claims by successive U.S. presidents. In December, the Afghan defense ministry announced that it had killed fifteen Al Qaeda operatives fighting with the Taliban in southern Helmand Province. In recent weeks, the numbers of Al Qaeda and isis-Khorasan, the franchise in Afghanistan, both grew after the Taliban released some five thousand prisoners from Pul-i-Charkhi Prison at the Bagram Airfield on August 15th. The U.S. abruptly abandoned Bagram, its largest military base of operations, last month. The doors to other prisons were unlocked as the Taliban swept across the country. On Saturday, the U.S. Embassy—which is now working out of the Kabul airport—warned Americans still in Afghanistan not to go to the airport unless provided specific instructions, because of a new threat from isis. The Afghan wing of the Islamic State is a rival of both the Taliban and Al Qaeda, and an enemy of the United States. U.S. officials have been worried that ISIS might try to ignite a confrontation at the airport, where Taliban and U.S. forces are only a few feet apart.
Since the Taliban takeover, Al Qaeda has bragged that its calculus worked, unlike ISIS’s, according to Soufan and the Site Intelligence Group. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, based largely in Yemen, heralded the “beginning of a pivotal transformation” worldwide. In North Africa, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb celebrated the rapid sweep of Taliban military victories as proof that violent jihadist struggle is “the only way to restore the Ummah’s glory.” (“Ummah” is the Arabic term for the global Muslim community.) The Taliban victory has also breathed new life into groups far afield, including some of Al Qaeda’s rivals. “The Taliban’s victory is a story that can be bent to energize and justify any jihad or Islamist uprising, no matter how many years of bloodshed it may bring,” Katz told me.
The Site Intelligence Group tracked the jubilant bravado and energized aspirations in jihadist media. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, based in Gaza, gloated that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan proved that Palestinians, too, will ultimately achieve their return to former Palestinian lands in Israel—“by the permission of Allah.” The common thread among the congratulatory messages is that God’s guidance—rather than American fatigue with a costly war or the crumbling of the Afghan government and military—was responsible. In Syria, H.T.S. (or the Organization for the Liberation of the Levant) announced its split from Al Qaeda four years ago. Yet it, too, tapped into the new jihadist narrative. “We in the Syrian revolution draw our inspiration, steadfastness and persistence” from the example of “adhering to the choice of resistance and jihad,” it announced, according to the Site Intelligence Group.
Since 9/11, all four U.S. Presidents have claimed victories against Al Qaeda. In December 2001, as the Taliban government was ousted and Al Qaeda fighters retreated to the caves of Tora Bora, George W. Bush proclaimed, “There can be no doubt how this conflict will end. Our enemies have made the mistake that America’s enemies always make. They saw liberty and thought they saw weakness. And now, they see defeat.” A decade later, Barack Obama said that the killing of bin Laden “marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.” Last year, President Trump suggested that his unilateral U.S. peace deal with the Taliban would isolate Al Qaeda. “We welcome the Taliban commitment not to host international terrorist groups, including Al Qaeda,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, at the opening of peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government last September. And, on Friday, Joe Biden told the nation, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with Al Qaeda gone? We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, as well as getting Osama bin Laden. And we did.” All four Presidents have been proved painfully wrong.
The common flaw in U.S. policy has been the focus on the fight rather than the economic, political, and social flashpoints that gave rise to multiple jihadist movements among both Sunni and Shiite Muslims, dating back at least four decades, Soufan said. “We’ve been spiking the ball at the five-yard line,” like a football player claiming points before actually scoring a touchdown, he told me. “Yes, we defeated the physical manifestation of the caliphate in Iraq and Syria, but we never dealt with the ideology.” The extremist brands of politicized Islam have usually emerged in countries plagued by poverty and high unemployment, autocratic rule and political alienation, sectarian or social marginalization, and heavy foreign influence. “All the elements that gave rise to these movements, they’re all worse than they were immediately prior to 9/11,” Edmund Fitton-Brown, a former British diplomat who is now the coördinator of the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team that tracks extremist movements, told me. “I can’t think of a serious underlying factor in the rise of isis or Al Qaeda that has been mitigated, and some are worse.”
Al Qaeda’s resurgence may not have immediate consequences for the U.S. homeland, the experts said. “Al Qaeda probably does not pose, right now, a direct threat to the West,” Fitton-Brown said. “But it intends to do so and has a route to do so, which may bear fruit in one or more of these locations,” whether Syria, Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel and West Africa, or elsewhere. “It would be premature and risky to regard Al Qaeda and ISIS as defeated, and to relax that counterterrorism pressure.” Al Qaeda’s broader focus, Soufan said, will be on destabilizing Muslim countries where, as in Afghanistan, governments are frail, have fled, or do not exist. The goal now is to replicate the victory in Afghanistan elsewhere—phase two. “Their plan,” he said, “is much more dangerous than a terrorist attack.”
Robin Wright, a contributing writer and columnist, has written for The New Yorker since 1988. She is the author of “Rock the Casbah: Rage and Rebellion Across the Islamic World.”