A wounded America vowed in 2001, days after the 9/11 al Qaeda attacks, to cut all Afghanistan terror ties and “disrupt the use of the country as a terrorist base of operations,” as clearly put by then President George W. Bush.
In that famous speech announcing the military campaign in Afghanistan, Bush also promised to “attack the military capability of the Taliban regime,” which was in power then. But 20 years later, and with a cost of thousands of and hundreds of billions, the mighty American military is leaving, in a stunning disorderly manner- almost fleeing.
The Taliban is again in power. And to add salt to injury, another monstrous terrorist beast Daesh — Khorasan or ISIS-K has come into prominence in Afghanistan. The latter is believed to be behind last week’s twin suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport, which killed more than 170 people including a number of US servicemen.
Many of US allies have recently warned of the vacuum left as the US forces leave Afghanistan. However, the fact is that these terrorists have been regrouping and expanding, with a new and deadlier breed of recruits, for the past few years as the US and other members of the international collation began trimming their presence. The US began withdrawing its troops gradually during the Obama administration and continued in the Trump years.
The US and its Western allies seem to have accepted the Taliban takeover of Kabul on Aug. 15 as the natural progression of events. They event hinted of their willingness to recognise the ‘legitimacy’ of the Taliban regime- as long as the fundamentalist militia cuts all ties to terror groups. But that demand strangely comes out as a kind request rather than a firm condition.
In some cases, it sounds like wishful thinking. Because we all know that the Taliban is inherently incapable of doing that. The relationship with similar thinking groups, such as al Qaeda and ISIS, is in its DNA, an important part of its core ideology.
The way the Taliban waited patiently for two decades to reconquer Afghanistan, a time spent in regrouping, rearming, and training, tells a lot about the strategic thinking of the militia and its leaders.
This is a shrewd and highly intelligent group of extremists. Thus, it is likely that instead of a direct confrontation with the West as they did back in the 1990s, the Taliban have decided this time to play it smart- to be the ‘good cop’. It won’t be easy for them to sever their ties with other extremist groups.
They might in fact foster and nurture al Qaeda, ISIS-K. These group will be the ‘bad cop’ in this new smart ploy by Taliban, telling the West that if you don’t deal with us, the good extremists, you will have to deal with the ugly ones.
Good extremists, bad extremists?
It is akin to saying, ‘we are the only power in Afghanistan so that can ensure these bad terrorists behave well’. The Kabul airport bombing was a sneak preview. Most probably an introductory act to motivate reluctant governments to fast-track their recognition of the new Taliban regime.
Taliban leaders who have negotiated ‘peace’ with the US for the past two years in Doha deny any link with the terror networks. Recently, the militia’s many spokesmen assured the world that Afghanistan was free of organised terror networks.
There might be scattered elements here and there, they claim, despite evidence that hundreds of members of Daesh and al Qaeda regional branches in Iraq and Syria having already moved to Afghanistan following the defeat of those groups in those two countries in the past few years. Many more will be moving to Afghanistan now that the environment is more hospitable to them.
Taliban leaders today swear that they have changed- they pledge to be “inclusive”, will not retaliate against those who oppose them and respect women’s rights, of course within the ‘frameworks” of their version of Sharia. But even President Joe Biden, who handed the entire Afghanistan to Taliban on a silver plate doesn’t believe they have changed, he told the ABC News last week.
Moreover, a United Nation report, released last June, two months before the Taliban takeover of Kabul, warned that these groups are developing viable bases in Afghanistan not only under the watchful eyes of Taliban but, in some cases, with the help of the militia leaders. The report, which got little attention at the time is based on well documented information, gathered with the help of several intelligence agencies and work on the ground.
The report says, the terror group may be exercising a “strategic patience”- to remain low-key before it starts planning attacks against international targets again.
The terror connection
According to the UN, the main component of Taliban in dealing with Al Qaida is the Haqqani Network. “Ties between the two groups remain close, based on ideological alignment, relationships forged through common struggle and intermarriage.”
The Haqqani Network is an extremist group founded by Jalaluddin Haqqani, one of the top commanders of Mujahideen during the Soviet invasion years. Later he allied with the Taliban and became their Minister of Tribal and Border Affairs when the militia ruled. He was a close partner and a mentor of Osama Bin Laden.
His son leads the group now and 6 years ago was appointed deputy leader of the Taliban. The Haqqani Network is responsible for the most atrocious attacks on government and foreign targets in the past 10 years, using their favourite method, suicide bombings. It is designated by the US as a foreign terrorist organisation.
Let’s note that the first thing Taliban have done following the capture of every major city in the past month was to release prisoners, many of whom were convicted of terrorism.
The region must be wary of the new geopolitical changes in Central and South Asia. There is also the threat of the drug trade. The UN report said the issue of narcotics was not even addressed in the Doha talks between the US and Taliban despite the fact that drug trafficking “the Taliban’s largest single source of income.”
We all hope that the Kabul airport bombing is an isolated attack. Unfortunately, all evidence indicates otherwise. The Pentagon, which lost at least 13 soldiers in the bombing, said on Friday that they are “preparing and expecting” more attacks.
Realistically, it is too late and too hard to reverse the Taliban gains. But countries in the region, and of course the world over, must join efforts to come up with a solid plan to deter an attempt by Taliban and its proxies to revive the rule of terror in that country, which 20 years ago shocked the world and in many ways changed it forever.