Biden administration officials are downplaying the threat of a resurgent al Qaeda under Taliban rule in Afghanistan, but security analysts, former U.S. military generals, members of Congress and even the United Nations say the terrorists will become more active now that their Taliban hosts are back in power in Kabul.
“They will flourish under the Taliban leadership. They don’t have to hide,” said retired Army Gen. Jack Keane, the chairman of the board at the Institute for the Study of War. The hawkish Washington think tank is known for closely analyzing developments in the U.S.-led global war on terror.
Afghanistan under Taliban rule will once again be a magnet for global jihadi militants the way it was during the years leading up to Sept. 11, 2001, Gen. Keane said in a recent appearance on Fox Business. “It’s going to be an epicenter for others who want to come,” he said.
Gen. Keane’s assessment offers a sobering contrast with the Biden administration‘s attempts to sidestep sticky questions about the prospect of al Qaeda “remnants” springing to life in Afghanistan over the months to come.
President Biden has suggested there is no point for U.S. military forces to remain in Afghanistan because 9/11 mastermind and al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS a decade ago in neighboring Pakistan. Mr. Biden has even gone so far as to assert that al Qaeda is no longer active in Afghanistan.
“What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al Qaeda gone?” Mr. Biden asked reporters during a White House press briefing Friday.
Experts on the region disputed the comment. Mr. Biden‘s top aides walked it back and tried to clarify what the president was saying.
“Are there Al Qaeda members and remnants in Afghanistan? Yes,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Fox News on Sunday. He said the president meant al Qaeda was no longer capable of mounting a major attack against the U.S.
“What the president was referring to was [al Qaeda‘s] capacity to do what it did on 9/11,” the secretary of state said. “That capacity has been very successfully diminished.”
Mr. Biden has since been more cautious with his comments about the extremists in Afghanistan. On Tuesday evening, he said an Islamic State-affiliated group known in intelligence circles as ISIS-K posed a threat to U.S. forces managing the evacuation mission at the international airport in Kabul.
“Every day we’re on the ground is another day that ISIS-K is seeking to target the airport and attack both U.S. and allied forces and innocent civilians,” Mr. Biden said.
His remarks suggest heightened wariness of the group, which some analysts say is a greater threat than al Qaeda.
Meanwhile, the U.S. intelligence community is trying to determine whether the Taliban — itself a hard-line Islamist operation — can be trusted to share information about more extremist terrorist groups and to prevent them from flourishing in Afghanistan.
Under the terms of a delicate peace deal that the Trump administration negotiated with Taliban leaders last year, the militants vowed to stop harboring al Qaeda and other extremist groups in exchange for a phased withdrawal of U.S. and other foreign combat troops.
As part of their new public relations campaign, Taliban leaders claim to have no interest in affiliation with al Qaeda. But waves of terrorist bombings of Afghan civilians over the past year have triggered scrutiny of the Taliban. The intelligence community remembers that the Taliban refused to turn over al Qaeda fighters to the U.S. after the 9/11 attacks, even after President George W. Bush said any nation harboring al Qaeda would be regarded as a terrorist state.
The Taliban have demanded that the U.S.-led evacuation mission be wrapped up by Aug. 31, Mr. Biden‘s self-imposed deadline for ending the American presence in Afghanistan. Pentagon officials say they are confident that the mission will be completed in time. As of Tuesday, about 4,000 U.S. citizens and their families had been evacuated from Kabul, officials said.
Pentagon leaders also say the U.S. no longer needs troops on the ground in Afghanistan because the military is fully capable of mounting an “over the horizon” counterterrorism mission.
However, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, a national security adviser to President Trump, said U.S. forces likely will be called back to Afghanistan for much of the same reason that troops returned to Iraq after the Obama-era military pullout.
“Over-the-horizon counterterrorism doesn’t work. It’s a pipe dream,” Mr. McMaster said Monday during a discussion at the Hudson Institute. “This is not an endless war. It’s an endless jihad against us.”
A report from the United Nations Security Council said a significant part of al Qaeda‘s senior leadership remains in the border region of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It also said large numbers of al Qaeda fighters can be found throughout Afghanistan and are firmly aligned with the Taliban.
The U.N. report did note that the Taliban have begun to tighten their grip over al Qaeda by registering its fighters and restricting some of its movements in Afghanistan. But the report emphasized that the Taliban have not made any concessions to the West that cannot be reversed easily and quickly.
“It is impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future international threat emanating from Al Qaeda in Afghanistan,” U.N. officials wrote in the report.
Rep. Michael Waltz, a Florida Republican and former Green Beret, has expressed outrage in recent days over the dual threat of the Taliban taking large caches of U.S. military equipment and a potentially resurgent al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
Mr. Waltz, an outspoken Biden administration critic, circulated a video on Twitter this week of him speaking near the Capitol. “The Taliban are going to be armed to the teeth so that when future American soldiers have to go back in to deal with the problem and deal with the incompetence of this administration, how many are going to die, now? Because they’re going to have to fight their way through our own equipment — our own damn equipment — to deal with al Qaeda 3.0,” he says in the video.
He asks whether Americans should prepare for a wave of terrorist attacks like those carried out by al Qaeda or inspired by the Islamic State group over the past two decades. “Are we going to have another Pulse Nightclub? Are we going to have another San Bernadino? Are we going to have another 9/11?” Mr. Waltz said.