With the 20th anniversary of 9/11 upon us—and having been a Pentagon official that day—excuse me for being a little on edge about Team Biden’s plans for beating down any terrorist threat that might be brewing in the new, hard-line Afghanistan.
With the fall of the Afghan government, in some ways, it feels like we’ve come full circle to those fateful days before 9/11, when the Taliban largely ruled Afghanistan and al-Qaeda planned, trained, and operated for attacks abroad.
In the aftermath of the Afghanistan withdrawal and evacuation, the White House has promised the American people an “over the horizon” strategy to fight any transnational terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, a strong counterterrorism effort is going to be needed.
Under Taliban control or in areas outside Taliban control, Afghanistan could once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups and a veritable incubator for hatching deadly international terrorist plots.
There’s a very good chance the U.S. would be square in the sights of Afghanistan-based terrorists—again.
Though the Taliban claims its policies will be different from the days before 9/11, it has long been affiliated with several international and domestic terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda and the Haqqani network.
Those terrorist ties will almost certainly continue under this latest Taliban regime. Those groups have fought for years with the Taliban against the Afghan government and its partners, including the United States.
As another civil war is likely to ensue in the wake of the Taliban takeover, the small but capable Taliban will need terrorist allies to try to control the cities and the countryside, which the Taliban might otherwise struggle to stabilize and rule.
Like before our invasion in the fall of 2001, al-Qaeda will want protected places in Afghanistan from which it can freely recruit, radicalize, and rejuvenate for terrorist plots in South and Central Asia—and further abroad.
While an enemy of the Taliban, the South/Central Asian branch of the infamous ISIS, Islamic State Khorasan (aka ISIS-K), also will be looking for ungoverned spaces to set up camp for the same purposes as its competition, al-Qaeda.
The Taliban’s Afghanistan might become just the place for that.
That brings us to this: Are we ready for a resurgence of a transnational, Islamist, extremist terror threat that we faced in this country—and elsewhere—at the hands of al-Qaeda, ISIS, their affiliates, and followers?
Not surprisingly, there are lots of questions about President Joe Biden’s long-distance, “over the horizon” counterterrorism strategy for Afghanistan—especially in light of the numerous policy mistakes made by the White House during the withdrawal and evacuation.
The lack of U.S., allied, and Afghan government “eyes and ears” on the ground to collect intelligence due to the complete withdrawal will almost certainly lead to glaring gaps in indications and warnings of terrorist operations.
That means serious trouble.
Even with our incredible, high-tech intelligence capabilities, our withdrawal from Afghanistan, along with that of our allies, and the collapse of the Afghan security services will frustrate our ability to track the bad guys in that country.
While even spy satellites have some issues in collecting intelligence on targets in Afghanistan (e.g., cloudy weather), their air-breathing cousins, who can also collect information—but more importantly, deliver weapons—have even more significant limitations.
As my colleague, John Venable, notes, “The over-the-horizon capability for U.S. assets to identify and strike threats quickly in Afghanistan is limited, constrained primarily by airspace access issues.”
As he points out, Afghanistan is a landlocked country, and overflight permission from foreign governments would be required for airborne platforms to get there. Add to that flight distances and transit times, and you have real challenges.
None of this bodes well for keeping the homeland—or American interests—safe from international Islamist terrorism rising from Afghanistan.
The over-the-horizon counterterrorism policy the Biden administration is looking at in Afghanistan is in some ways akin to where we were 20 years ago, before 9/11—watching and acting from afar against an ominous threat.
Going back to those days is not a policy we should be looking forward to.
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