From the time President Joe Biden announced the date of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Taliban marched across the country, taking city after city with the brutal efficiency of a wildfire. On August 6, the Taliban took control of its first Afghan province, the capital of Nimroz. However, less than two weeks later on August 15, the Taliban entered the Afghanistan capital of Kabul, unchallenged, forcing the sitting president to flee the country and collapsing the government. It was not supposed to go this way. A peace agreement was inked in February 2020. President Donald Trump’s special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad said the Taliban had first promised to negotiate a “permanent and comprehensive cease-fire.”
As the U.S. scrambles to meet the August 31 deadline to leave the country, the only pertinent issue remaining is whether the Taliban will uphold their commitments made during negotiations and prevent al-Qaeda and other radicals from operating training camps and planning attacks against the U.S. from within Afghanistan’s borders. The Biden Administration wants to believe the Taliban, but thus far, the signals look ominous.
In June, during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Gen. Mark Milley and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin were asked how they ranked the likelihood of a resurgence of al-Qaeda or ISIS in Afghanistan once the U.S. had withdrawn. Milley and Austin agreed that they assessed the threat as about a medium possibility and that it would likely take at least two years. However, Milley noted, “if there was a collapse of the government or the dissolution of the Afghan security forces — that risk would obviously increase.” In the two months since that hearing, that’s exactly what has happened.
The Taliban’s first act after declaring the end of the war was announcing that Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani of the notoriously brutal Haqqani Network would be in charge of security in Kabul. The Haqqani network has close ties with foreign jihadist groups, including a years-long association with al Qaeda. The U.S. Department of the Treasury designated Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani a global terrorist in February 2011, offering a $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. Former British diplomat Sir Ivor Roberts, a senior advisor to CEP, said that assigning members of the Haqqani network to oversee the security of Kabul was akin to the “fox being in charge of the chicken coop.”
Al-Rahman’s nephew is Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network. Sirajuddin is wanted by the U.S. State Department and the FBI for planning a 2008 attack on a hotel in Kabul that killed six people, including an American citizen. A Specially Designated Global Terrorist, Sirajuddin Haqqani has a $10 million bounty on his head. A June 2021 report by a U.N. monitoring team stated that the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties. The report also claimed that Sirajuddin is a member of al-Qaeda’s leadership. In the February 2020 peace accord that was negotiated with the Taliban, the group agreed to “not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al Qaeda, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” However, in negotiations preceding the accord, the Taliban refused U.S. demands to completely sever ties with al-Qaeda. A United Nations report indicated that al-Qaeda currently maintains a presence in some Afghan regions, but is for now minimizing contact with Taliban leadership.
In an interview with the New York Times, Ambassador Nathan Sales, the former State Department coordinator for counterterrorism and a senior advisor to CEP, argued that with the Taliban back in power, “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.”
Carter Malkasian, a former State Department official in Afghanistan who has talked extensively with Taliban leaders, told the Washington Post, “On a variety of occasions, Taliban stressed to me that al-Qaeda were their friends and that this was a relationship they would like to keep.”
On August 26, the ISIS in Afghanistan (ISIS Khorasan Province or ISIS-K) launched attacks outside of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, killing 13 U.S. service members and at least 90 Afghans. This was the deadliest attack against the U.S. military in Afghanistan since 2011. Marine Corps Gen. Frank McKenzie told reporters that more attacks could be expected. While the U.S. has struck ISIS-K twice since the airport terrorist bombing, the attacks demonstrate that the Taliban takeover has not reestablished order or ensured the safety of U.S. personnel. The Taliban is ineffective or unwilling to stop groups desiring to kill Americans, even in a relatively closed environment surrounding the airport.
In the short term, for reasons of appearances alone, it seems unlikely that Taliban leaders will be seen hugging al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, al-Zawahiri and other extremist group leaders have cheered the Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan and can be expected to want more. As American intelligence capabilities in Afghanistan continue to weaken with the absence of its military presence, the U.S. must prepare for the day when terrorist attacks are again planned or funded from within Afghanistan.