One thing I’ve been wanting to address over the last week is what remains the background premise for the Afghanistan mission: denying a safe haven to al Qaeda or other similar groups from which to mount attacks on the United States. I have already seen numerous analyses claiming that al Qaeda will soon be setting up shop again under Taliban protection. Sometimes it is necessary to grab hold of a bad argument by the root.
Let me address this at a few levels.
In retrospect – and perhaps at the time – the entire ‘safe haven’ argument was greatly overstated. Let’s take the actual 9/11 attacks as our example. As many note, most of the plotting was done by people who weren’t even in Afghanistan. They were mostly people from the Gulf living in Europe or the United States. At a basic level the whole premise was wrong from the beginning. But this critique misses a non-trivial part of the equation. There’s only so much time in the day. If you’re running an international terror group, time spent on the run is time not spent plotting attacks. Obviously terrorist and guerrilla groups have managed to do both throughout history. But it certainly makes sense and I think is borne out by history that if you have a base of operations which is basically protected and secure that’s an advantage. This is the premise on the strategy of ‘pressure’ wrapped up in aggressive surveillance, drone strikes, throttling access to the international banking system, special ops raids and more. Time spent running is time not spent plotting.
It’s a given that we wouldn’t want to return to the status quo ante of 2001 when Al Qaeda was operating openly in Afghanistan. But that seems highly unlikely. The Taliban would rapidly be cut off from the international economy and everything they’d need to run the country and the US would be sending drones and commando missions to attack encampments. More immediately it seems clear that the Taliban sees al Qaeda as more of an albatross than an asset. It was protecting al Qaeda that got them driven from power in the first place. As Anatol Lieven notes here, while the Taliban have been consistently shifty and vague about their commitments to a more inclusive regime, they’ve been consistent and clear about not welcoming international resistance groups. They’ve cut off support to the Uighurs in China and the Chechens in Russia to secure the acceptance if not the support of the two local powers. It’s not a matter of trusting them. But assuming that this is part of their plan is dubious at best.
It’s worth considering what we might call the worst case scenario since we’ve actually seen it play out. After the withdrawal from Iraq, an explicitly jihadist terrorist state took shape under ISIS rule in Northern Iraq and Syria. Obviously that wasn’t great. And a mix of training and inspiration did lead to a spate of mainly lone wolf terror attacks in Europe and North America. But the US led a highly heterogenous coalition of states that reconquered the territory in fairly short order. And critically, we did not go to occupying Iraq.
This also illustrates a different, perhaps more important point. It’s not 2001. There are numerous failed or broken states where al Qaeda or ISIS or similar groups have if not safe havens then bases of operation: Yemen, Somalia, Libya, to a decreasing but still real extent in Syria. To a great degree we have continued to focus on Afghanistan simply because it was one out of a number of places where such a catastrophic event could potentially arise from. We could devote dozens of posts to questioning the whole premise. Is non-stop terrorist threats to the American mainland even in the top ten threats the country faces today? There’s the climate crisis, which is truly existential. In conventional foreign policy terms there’s great power competition with China, which has deep economic, military and ideological dimensions. There’s a very real threat of domestic terrorism and attacks on the American Republic itself. But even on its own terms the idea that our counterterrorism focus should be on garrisoning a country which through a confluence of events was tied to a catastrophic terrorist attack twenty years ago sounds absurd. (Spoiler: It is absurd.)
It was with this in mind that I saw this article by Robin Wright in The New Yorker. The headlines tells the story: “Afghanistan, again, becomes a cradle for jihadism – and al Qaeda“.
Twenty years ago I reported on this topic almost nonstop – a bit in advance of 9/11 and then constantly for years starting within about 48 hours of the attacks. I’m far from an expert. But I became very familiar with who the experts were. I talked to most of them in one context or another. I read this story very, very closely. And I have to tell you the entire thing sounded like bullshit to me. I won’t summarize it or go into detail. If you’re interested I’d recommend reading it. It is out of time warp and peddling the same stories and scare lines as I remember from twenty years ago – in a radically different historical moment.
To hear her tell it, or to her the experts she quoted, things are actually more dangerous today than they were in the summer of 2001. You may think al Qaeda is on the ropes or gravely diminished. In fact, they’re just leaner and meaner and … well, they basically run the Taliban. The fact that there are numerous places in the Middle East and Central Asia that can be “safe havens” for Islamist terrorist groups isn’t an indication that garrisoning Afghanistan forever may be a bad idea. It’s just another example of how al Qaeda and jihadism more generally are apparently on the march everywhere.
As I said, there was a time when I was up to speed on these things at least enough to competently report on them. I’m not now. When I read Wright’s piece I had the impression that I described to you above. But on maybe two-thirds of the particulars I wasn’t familiar enough with the details to know whether it made sense or not. On the third where I did most of it was nonsense – or perhaps more to the point, possibly accurate data points spun up to seem threatening and terrifying when in fact they weren’t.
Not only are we more threatened today than twenty years ago, according to Wright, but apparently we’ve done next to nothing on this front over the last twenty years. But that’s just bullshit. It’s the same Terror/Consultant industrial complex we were hearing from 20 and 10 years ago, back for a sort of last gasp when the hold of the policy responses they demanded are coming undone. By the end of the article the argument shifts from terrorist infrastructure – bases, networks, training and communications – to ideology. We’ve never ‘gotten it’ because it’s not about any of that stuff. It’s about defeating the ideology, they say.
And there we are. This is all claptrap we’ve been run ragged over for two decades. Counter-terrorism is necessary and terrorist threats are real. We’ve vastly hardened access to the global banking system over the last two decades. We conduct vast surveillance. We fly drone missions anywhere and everywhere. One doesn’t have to agree with all those efforts. But they create a very different situation than the one that existed twenty years ago. Much like other press coverage over the last ten days these new arguments about terror threats emerging from Afghanistan are really just more gambits at denial, refusing to recognize the time and treasure and lives we’ve already wasted there.