The Risk of a Terror Attack From Afghanistan Is Quite Low, Actually

The Taliban also need significant economic assistance from the West. Upsetting the U.S. by allowing Al Qaeda to stand itself up again is not the way to further those goals. The cynic will argue that the Taliban are more wedded to their ideology and hatred of the West than they are to pragmatic goals like not getting attacked by the U.S. again. But practically everything that has happened since the signing of the Doha agreement in February 2020 suggests otherwise. The Taliban didn’t help the U.S. take more than 120,000 people out of Kabul in two weeks and provide security for the effort out of the goodness of their hearts. They did it because it was in their interests to do so. U.S. policy can help ensure the Taliban continue to see benefits from working cooperatively with America.

The final issue is the much larger—and rarely addressed—question of whether safe havens even matter. It’s often forgotten that when Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden crossed the border into Pakistan after the U.S. invasion, in the fall of 2001, the terrorist group had a safe haven in northwest Pakistan for several years. While eventually the U.S. would use a military campaign of drone strikes to wreak havoc on the group, those attacks did not begin until June 2004. So for two and a half years, Al Qaeda had a safe haven in Pakistan and was still unable to launch a major strike on a domestic American target.

As John Mueller, the noted Ohio State political scientist, points out in his recently published book, The Stupidity of War, “Although the 9/11 plotters received both guidance and funding from al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, much of the actual plotting was carried out in an apartment in Hamburg, Germany.… The notion that terrorists need a lot of space and privacy to hatch plots of substantial magnitude in the West has been repeatedly undermined by tragic terrorist episodes in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005, Paris in 2015, and Brussels and Istanbul in 2016.” Considering that not one of the attackers in these terrorist incidents came from an Al Qaeda safe haven would lead one to conclude that there is little intrinsic benefit for Al Qaeda to have a safe harbor in Afghanistan. Indeed, fighting a war there simply to prevent a terrorist group that can operate anywhere in the world from setting up camp makes no sense—and never has.

Finally, there is what Bahiss calls “the million-dollar question”—does the current iteration of Al Qaeda have the same ambitions or capabilities as bin Laden and his lieutenants? In Mueller’s view, Al Qaeda largely “ceased to exist” after 9/11. The two deadliest jihadist attacks in the U.S. since 9/11—the San Bernardino mass shooting in 2015 and the Pulse nightclub shooting in 2016 (the second-worst mass shooting in U.S. history)—were homegrown domestic incidents inspired not by Al Qaeda but, rather, the Islamic State. The latter group came into existence, of course, because of the U.S. war in Iraq.

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