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When the United States invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago, the primary mission was to root out the al-Qaida terrorists responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks and the Taliban regime that had given them safe harbor. The recent withdrawal of U.S. forces from the country, which allowed the Taliban to swiftly regain control, has sparked debate over whether Afghanistan could once again become a staging ground for extremists to plan acts of terror in the U.S. and around the world.
In his address to the nation on Monday, President Biden called the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan a “success” and argued that the U.S. will still be capable of disrupting terrorist activities in the country without American troops present. The Taliban have also insisted that they will not allow any groups “who wish to harm or threaten the security of other countries” to operate within their borders.
From 1996 to 2001, when the Taliban controlled the majority of Afghanistan, between 10,000 and 20,000 terrorist recruits passed through various training grounds throughout the country. The U.S. invasion disrupted al-Qaida’s operations but didn’t eliminate the group entirely. As of last year there were between 400 and 600 al-Qaida fighters in Afghanistan, according to a United Nations assessment.
Why there’s debate
Given the Taliban’s history, many fear Afghanistan will soon become a staging ground for terrorist groups again — not just al-Qaida, but also the Islamic State and others. “We’re less safe as a nation,” Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham said. But the warnings aren’t only coming from Biden’s political rivals. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley have both told lawmakers that the absence of American troops could create space for extremist groups to plan attacks in the U.S., Europe and Afghanistan's regional neighbors including China, Pakistan and India.
In general, there is substantial doubt that the Taliban can be trusted to keep their word that they won’t harbor terrorists. Others worry that, even if the Taliban are being sincere, they may run into the same challenges that the U.S. did when attempting to patrol every part of Afghanistan’s vast, mountainous terrain.
Despite those concerns, many experts are hopeful that terror groups can be kept at bay in the country. One of their core arguments is that counterterrorism strategies have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. During that period, the loopholes that allowed 9/11 terrorists to attack have been closed, technology for tracking terrorists has improved dramatically, and the U.S. has developed sophisticated “over the horizon” counterterror capabilities that don’t require boots on the ground.
Some foreign policy experts also say the Taliban have enormous incentive to do everything they can to keep terrorists out. They argue that the Taliban understand that another major attack in the West planned within their borders could lead to yet another invasion. Beyond the threat of a military response, others say the Taliban cannot afford to alienate the international community as they work to entrench their rule over Afghanistan.
America’s ability to prevent terror attacks is significantly diminished
“Biden justified his decision by arguing that preventing another terrorist attack on American soil has always been the overarching national interest for the United States, rather than protecting Afghanistan’s democracy or stability. But his decision may very well have made such an attack more likely.” — Colin P. Clark, Slate
The Taliban may not be able to stop terror groups even if they want to
“The U.S. withdrawal creates a power vacuum that is greater than the Taliban can fill so we are likely to see competition from other regional actors for influence and access to or control over valuable resources. We could for example see a renewed ISIS attempt to carve out a stronghold in Afghanistan.” — Jennifer Cafarella, national security researcher, to The Hill
There’s zero reason to trust the Taliban
“The Taliban still has thousands of foreign fighters, including Chinese, Chechens, Uzbeks, and others, all with interests in their home countries. The Taliban denies these fighters’ existence, so its promise to keep them well behaved and never to let them run off to trouble other parts of the world, is roughly as credible as its promise to rule without rancor or without serving gonad sandwiches to captured enemies.” — Graeme Wood, Atlantic
All progress made on fighting terrorism in Afghanistan has been lost
“America will move on, as Afghanistan slides once again into the awful tyranny of illiterate religious fanatics. And then, the more discerning will notice that Afghanistan suddenly looks almost exactly as it looked just before September 11, 2001: a massive safe haven for terrorists of global reach, nested within one of the world’s most prolific state sponsors of terrorism.” — Mario Loyola, National Review
The Taliban’s victory will inspire terrorists around the world
“The supporters of Al Qaeda are all celebrating this. It’s a victory over America, which is what they hope to achieve — these fighters coming down from the mountains to defeat the United States. A lot of groups will piggyback on this victory in propaganda terms — if the Taliban can do it, you can do it.” — Peter Neumann, terrorism researcher, to New York Times
The biggest risk will be in the surrounding region
“The danger is particularly acute for the six countries bordering Afghanistan. Beyond China, they include Iran and Pakistan — as well as nearby India, which will be closely watching its only Muslim-majority province of Kashmir, the object in two of its wars with Pakistan, for resurgent violence. Russia will be concerned about the impact on Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Tajikistan and any terrorist blowback onto its territory.” — Ruth Pollard, Bloomberg
Another major attack in the West would pose an existential threat to the Taliban
“The Taliban may be rejoicing in their military victories – but they will surely think twice about colluding with an al-Qaida organization that has drawn so much U.S. ire, and so many devastating American attacks on its networks, since 9/11.” — Amy McGrath and Michael O'Hanlon, USA Today
Another major attack would be far more difficult to pull off today
“Let’s step back from the weekend distress to note a few things. The last two decades have seen the loopholes that allowed the 9/11 hijackers to enter the United States plugged. The lack of coordination among the 18 U.S. intelligence agencies (yes, there are 18) is far tighter today; the 19 hijackers of Sept. 11 (15 of them Saudis) would find it far more difficult to enter the country and operate in the open, as they did a generation ago.” — Paul Brandus, MarketWatch
The realities of counterterrorism have changed dramatically over the past 20 years
“The risk of an al Qaeda comeback is real, but Afghanistan’s reversion to its pre-9/11 role as a safe haven for jihadi terrorism is unlikely. Although the Taliban’s victory will undoubtedly make Washington’s counterterrorism policy far harder to carry out, al Qaeda’s weakness, the Taliban’s own incentives, and post-9/11 improvements in U.S. intelligence coordination, homeland security, and remote military operations all reduce the threat.” — Daniel Byman, Foreign Affairs
The Taliban can’t allow terror groups to undermine their shaky diplomatic relationships
“Today the Taliban still see themselves as the rightful - if unelected - rulers of ‘the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ and they will want some degree of international recognition. They already appear keen to project the idea that they have come to restore order, calm and authority, after the corruption, infighting and waste that has characterised much of government over the last 20 years.” — Frank Gardner, BBC
Afghanistan will continue to be a front for America’s misguided counterterrorism efforts
“We should recognize that their departure in no way extricates America from its ongoing, metastasizing war on terrorism. Biden himself has used the phrase ‘the forever war’ to refer to the American military deployment in Afghanistan. … But that phrase is better used to describe the expansive American commitment to deploy force, at will, across the globe in the name of fighting terrorism, which is by no means ending.” — Samuel Moyn, Washington Post
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