Institute for Contemporary Affairs
Founded jointly with the Wechsler Family Foundation
- Defending his withdrawal decision, President Joe Biden claimed that al-Qaeda was “gone” from Afghanistan. Yet at the same time, the American and British security establishments spoke of al-Qaeda’s continued presence in the country.
- A UN report to the Security Council, submitted in June 2021, stated that “despite expectations for a reduction in violence, 2020 (the year of the U.S.-Taliban agreement on withdrawal) emerged as the most violent year ever recorded by the United Nations in Afghanistan.”
- A common Western assumption is the hope that withdrawal would reduce the hostility of the Taliban and their allies. But this is a misinterpretation of what motivated jihadist groups. In the Middle East, withdrawals strengthen their motivation.
- The Israeli experience was identical: when Israel unilaterally withdrew from Gaza, Hamas won the Palestinian elections and took over Gaza from Fatah. Rocket attacks on Israel, after the Gaza withdrawal, increased by 500%.
- To defeat the jihadist forces it was necessary to accompany withdrawal with actions that left no doubt that what happened was a defeat for them.
- But it does not seem that President Biden will pursue such a strategy, leaving the West with an empowered al-Qaeda to fight against in the years ahead.
In a stunning statement last Friday in which he defended his withdrawal decision, President Joe Biden claimed that al-Qaeda was “gone” from Afghanistan. In other words, since the U.S. had set the goal of preventing Afghanistan from again becoming a platform for al-Qaeda to strike at the U.S. and this goal had been reached, it was reasoned, then, that all American forces could be safely withdrawn. The glaring problem was that Biden did not have the backing of the American security establishment.
An hour after Biden spoke, the Defense Department Press Secretary, John Kirby, stated, “We know al-Qaeda is a presence in Afghanistan.” A Defense Department report to Congress issued on August 17 plainly stated, “The Taliban continued to maintain its relationship with al-Qaeda, providing safe haven for the terrorist group in Afghanistan.” Roughly, at the same time, the Taliban released 5,000 prisoners from Bagram air base, which included al-Qaeda and ISIS operatives. In short, the Taliban and al-Qaeda were tightly linked.
There was no global consensus on this question either within what had been the Western alliance. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson warned that Western states needed to unite in order to prevent Afghanistan from lapsing back and becoming again a sanctuary for international terrorist organizations. There were regular reports from the UN Security Council that looked at this question as well. In the twelfth report of its monitoring team, it is established that “a significant part of the leadership of al-Qaeda resides in the Afghanistan and Pakistan border region.”
The al-Qaeda presence was not confined to the borders alone. The report continues: “Large numbers of al-Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan.” It also makes clear that these were not peripheral elements of al-Qaeda but rather al-Qaeda’s “core leadership.”
Britain’s defense minister, Ben Wallace, sounded very different from President Biden as well. He asserts that “al-Qaeda will probably come back.” He makes reference to a UN report that states al-Qaeda is present in 15 of Afghanistan’s provinces. He also is aware of the fact that many in the West see Afghanistan as a “failed state,” and that failed states have a propensity to become headquarters for terrorist groups.
The director of Britain’s domestic intelligence agency, MI5, warned in July that al-Qaeda would seek to re-establish its training facilities in Afghanistan if the opportunity opened up. Allies of German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the Bundestag condemned Biden’s decision to rapidly withdraw from Afghanistan.
So what was motivating the new U.S. position to accelerate the American military withdrawal? Many in Washington made reference to the agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration from February 2020 on the withdrawal of all foreign forces from Afghanistan.
Part Two of that agreement contained a commitment by the Taliban “to prevent any group or individual, including al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States or its allies.” However, the agreement made the withdrawal dependent upon the implementation by the Taliban of its commitment to not allow al-Qaeda to use Afghan territory against American forces.
There also was an underlying assumption that was common in the West. Withdrawal, it was hoped, would reduce the hostility of the Taliban and their allies. But this was a misinterpretation of what motivated jihadist groups. Al-Qaeda formally came into existence after the Soviet Union pulled out from Afghanistan and they felt vindicated. Withdrawals across the Middle East strengthened the motivation of these groups. Indeed, the UN report to the Security Council, submitted in June 2021, plainly stated that “despite expectations for reduction in violence, 2020 (the year of the U.S.-Taliban agreement on withdrawal) emerged as the most violent year ever recorded by the United Nations in Afghanistan.”
The Israeli experience was identical: when the IDF unilaterally withdrew from the Gaza Strip, in accordance with the Disengagement plan of the Israeli government, Hamas won the Palestinian elections and took over the Gaza Strip from Fatah. Rocket attacks on Israel, after the Gaza withdrawal, increased by 500%. To defeat the jihadist forces it was necessary to accompany withdrawal with actions that left no doubt that what happened was a defeat for them. But it does not seem that President Biden will pursue such a strategy, leaving the West with an empowered al-Qaeda to fight against in the years ahead.