INTERVIEW: 'The American withdrawal from Afghanistan gives jihadists more freedom to act'

Heba Abdelsattar, Thursday 30 Sep 2021

Daniel Byman, Georgetown University political science professor and a member of the National Commission on the 9/11 attacks, talked to Ahram Online about the future of the Taliban, their relationship to Al-Qaeda, and whether the US's withdrawal from Afghanistan gives the terrorist group freedom of action to renew attacks on the West and the region.

Daniel Byman
Georgetown University political science professor and a member of the National Commission on the 9/11 attacks, Daniel Byman.

Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates expressed and celebrated on social media their feeling of victory, considering the Taliban's return to power as "the beginning of a pivotal transformation, and evidence that armed jihad is the only way to glory." Analysts and political observers fear that terrorists in the world may consider a new jihadist migration to Afghanistan, which is now being talked about in the jihadist circles on the internet as the "centre of global jihad."

Despite the Taliban's acceptance of the terms of the Doha agreement not to let Al-Qaeda plot attacks against the United States from Afghanistan, there are fears about the future. On one hand, the Taliban are becoming more powerful militarily, establishing relations with regional leaders and nudging their way into the international community in a bid to gain financial support. However, Taliban and Al-Qaeda activity in recent years indicate that they have no intention of severing ties, which also portends an exacerbation of the danger of the foreign fighters phenomenon.

Ahram Online talked to Georgetown University political science professor, Dr. Daniel Byman, whose research and books focus on terrorism and jihadist movements in the Middle East and their effects on the region, coinciding with the twentieth anniversary of the 11 September attacks, about  the future of the Taliban, their relationship to Al-Qaeda, and whether the US's withdrawal from Afghanistan gives the terrorist group freedom of action to renew attacks on the West and the region.

Byman is a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and served as a staff member with the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks on the United States (The 9/11 Commission) and the Joint 9/11 Inquiry Staff of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees. Byman considered in his interview with us that the United States misread the situation and its withdrawal from Afghanistan is a propaganda victory for the jihadist movement, giving Al-Qaeda more freedom of action.

Ahram Online: The withdrawal from Afghanistan without the achievement of one of the most important goals, the elimination of the Taliban, has called into question the feasibility of the "War on Terror" for many in America.  This renewed the debate about the legacy the USA has left in a country thousands of miles away. Were American presidents in a hurry to withdraw from Afghanistan to win over public opinion that saw it as an endless war that did not achieve clear goals? Is the Taliban today different from yesterday's Taliban? How do you evaluate the withdrawal of the US from Afghanistan?

Daniel Byman: Under presidents Biden, Trump, and Obama – three very different leaders – the United States has sought to withdraw from Afghanistan. Although many security experts are concerned about the situation in Afghanistan, the majority of the American public favour withdrawing. How the Taliban will govern Afghanistan and whether they will allow Al-Qaeda to do international terrorist attacks as was done before 9/11 remains a question. The Taliban may have learned lessons from the past, but it remains a highly ideological movement. The US withdrawal is a win for the broader jihadist movement. It is a propaganda victory that jihadist groups across the world are touting. In addition, it gives the Al-Qaeda group more freedom of action.

AO: You consider that the US withdrawal gives the Al-Qaeda group more freedom of action. How can the US and international community reduce the risks of this in the future?

DB: It will require international intelligence and law enforcement cooperation as well as pressure on the Taliban to make sure Al-Qaeda does not attempt international terrorism. Robust homeland defence is also necessary.

AO: After the Taliban takeover, did the US misread the situation?

DB: The US misread the situation before the Taliban takeover, when it thought the Afghan government would last for many months if not years. That is what led to the bungled US exit from the country.

AO: Does this call for the US to reevaluate its role as a geopolitical power?

DB: The US has long been reevaluating its role. Under President Obama, the United States tried to reduce its obligations in the Middle East. President Trump was even more open about his dislike of US involvement in the Middle East and did not even respond when Iran attacked Saudi Arabia. President Biden would prefer to focus US attention and resources on challenges in Asia and Europe over the Middle East. He will be more likely than President Trump to criticize countries on human rights grounds, however.

AO: The "War on Terror" witnessed an increase, not a diminution, in the levels of terrorist attacks. It undoubtedly also helped to produce the Islamic State. As you stated: "The Islamic State is Al-Qaida’s most important progeny." Do you think Western leaders and societies are prepared to acknowledge the ways in which hubristic foreign policy in the past fifteen years has made many aspects of the terrorism crisis worse and they need to change their strategy?

DB: Since 9/11, there have been very few terrorist attacks on the US homeland from foreign jihadist movements, and few “inspired” attacks, especially compared to what US officials feared. So for many US leaders the various post-9/11 efforts are a success. The US invasion of Iraq worsened regional instability, but many of the problems in the Middle East predated 9/11 (dictatorial governments, corruption, economic stagnation, and so on).

AO: In your book, you demonstrated that many crucial questions and answers about Al-Qaeda have changed over time; you tried to answer questions like: Where does Al-Qaeda begin and end, and how should we think about other jihadist theoreticians, fighters, the broader jihadist movement. Today, how has all of this changed with the developments in the Middle East, especially in Afghanistan? How do jihadists’ governing strategies vary, especially their degree of adaptation to local conditions? How have the social structures for mobilization changed, creating a need for different strategies in response?

DB: The broader jihadist movement is vast, with many variations. Some groups, such as the Islamic State, favour attempting to create a caliphate, while others like Al-Qaeda claim they are loyal to the Taliban and otherwise favour working more with local actors. Much depends on the opportunities available in the countries in question. In some countries, the local groups have the opportunity to establish their own government over territory. In others, they must work with more powerful groups. In Afghanistan, the Taliban dominate, and Al-Qaeda depends on the Taliban’s goodwill to survive and operate.

AO: Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, who was rumoured to be dead, resurfaced in a video released recently on the 20th anniversary of 9/11. How do you read this? What are the reasons for its appearance and the significance of the timing?

DB: Zawahiri still has difficulty communicating in real time. The video suggests he is still alive, but he probably fears that if he is not highly cautious about communicating then he is vulnerable to a drone strike or otherwise being attacked.

AO: Al-Zawahiri was deeply involved in maintaining relationships between Al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was known for organising and overseeing the 9/11 attacks. In your opinion, how relevant is Al-Zawahiri to what is happening on the ground? Could he or other Al-Qaeda leaders influence Afghanistan with their ties to the Taliban, especially given that the UN reported in June this year that significant members of Al-Qaeda leadership, including Al-Zawahiri, remain based in a remote area along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border? Will Afghanistan become a safe haven for terrorists again?

DB: The Taliban leadership will make most of its decisions without significant Al-Qaeda input. Afghanistan again hosts large numbers of Al-Qaeda figures. The Taliban may be reluctant to have them target the United States, but the Taliban may be more willing to have Al-Qaeda support operations and groups in the Middle East and especially in South Asia.

AO: Some analysis has considered that today’s Al-Qaeda enjoys a much stronger foundation on which to build because its component groups are embedded as combatants in conflicts in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere where it could renew attacks on the West or the Middle East. New US intelligence estimates warn that Al-Qaida could use Afghan soil to plot attacks on the United States within one to two years. What do you think?

DB: Al-Qaeda has a presence in the Middle East that is more extensive than it was on 9/11. However, much of that presence is focused on local civil wars. This is a problem for regional stability, but less of a threat for terrorist attacks in the United States and Europe.

AO: In your book, you analysed Al-Qaeda’s goals. Today, 20 years since 9/11 and the return of the Taliban to power, what are Al-Qaeda’s goals and how have they changed? Especially considering you said “The danger of Al-Qaeda comes not only from its central leadership in Pakistan but through its cooperation with other like-minded groups.”

DB: Al-Qaeda’s biggest goal is ensuring its relevance. It was eclipsed by the rise of the Islamic State, and it has not done high-profile terrorist attacks in the West for years. The core leadership needs to establish control over its affiliates and offer inspiration to the next generation of jihadists. It may attempt high-profile attacks, but these are harder to carry out.

AO: After its return to power, the Taliban found itself in a difficult situation. On one hand, its relationship with Al-Qaeda lends the Taliban credibility within jihadist circles. Moreover, their historical loyalty to Al-Qaeda calls into question the extent of their willingness to abandon an important strategic ally. But on the other hand, the Taliban must abide by the US peace agreement and the promises of intellectual revisions, as they are eager for recognition on the international stage and the benefits it brings. This may alienate their most extremist fighters and other extremist groups that celebrated their takeover of Afghanistan. What are your expectations about how the Taliban will deal with this dilemma, and what are the American guarantees that prevent the Taliban from breaching the terms of the agreement?

DB: The Taliban have consistently refused to break with Al-Qaeda despite US pressure. The Taliban have incentives to stop Al-Qaeda from doing international terrorism, especially against the United States and Europe. The United States can threaten the Taliban economically and militarily, though in the past the Taliban ignored such threats.

AO: You noted that the United States can threaten the Taliban economically and militarily. Today, the UN and other countries are trying to donate aid Afghanistan. These donations could help the Taliban; it’s like feeding a monster and giving it a legal civilian face. With its ties to Al-Qaeda, the Taliban could grow stronger while remaining a highly ideological movement resistant to change. How can the US and international community deal with this time bomb, especially given that, as you mention, the Taliban have ignored such threats in the past?

DB: The question for the international community is primarily whether the Taliban will support violence outside the country, with some concern about human rights within it. Some people would argue that by denying aid to the Taliban it would make it more extreme. In any event, there is a genuine humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, and innocent Afghans are suffering.

AO: In May 2021, a United Nations monitoring team estimated the number of foreign fighters in Afghanistan at 8,000 to 10,000. These fighters' primary goal is the same as it was in the 1990s: to train in Afghanistan for deployment around the world. Your recent book Road Warriors analyses this issue and how it has played a significant role in the destabilization of numerous countries for many years, including becoming one of the key problems in the international security system. So with the situation in Afghanistan today, what are your suggestions regarding how to combat it?

DB: The UN report does not differentiate between fighters who went to join Al-Qaeda and those coming from Pakistan to help the Taliban win. It is not clear what their purpose is for most of these fighters. As I noted in my book, I believe through military action, intelligence cooperation, and better law enforcement, the international community is far better at identifying and stopping foreign fighters. Many of these tools are necessary now given the Taliban’s control of Afghanistan.

AO: Finally, will the United States and Europe adopt a strategy to coexist with terrorism after withdrawing from Afghanistan?

DB: The United States and Europe have long had to manage the problem of terrorism, recognizing that, unfortunately, it cannot be completely eliminated. This became clear many years ago. 

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