Biden White House’s deadly Afghanistan withdrawal symptoms lets foes flourish

A classified Pentagon assessment a US airman posted on the Discord server network indicates the Islamic State is ensconced in Afghanistan and plotting attacks across the globe.

The leaked doc highlights the steep cost of the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal. 

But to focus solely on the Islamic State masks a more significant danger: the Taliban and al Qaeda’s commanding position in Afghanistan and the long-term threat their deep-rooted alliance poses to the United States and the West.

To be sure, the Islamic State’s endeavor to use Afghanistan as a site to coordinate its global terror operations is a worrying development.

“ISIS has been developing a cost-effective model for external operations that relies on resources from outside Afghanistan, operatives in target countries, and extensive facilitation networks,” the leaked assessment notes, according to The Washington Post. 

“The model will likely enable ISIS to overcome obstacles — such as competent security services — and reduce some plot timelines, minimizing disruption opportunities.”

The ability to strike at the Islamic State’s network in Afghanistan is severely limited. The US has no presence in Afghanistan and a minimal presence in the region, since Pakistan no longer supports US counterterrorism operations and the ’Stans are cautious about getting into bed with America after it abandoned its Afghan allies. Iran is not an option.
And with reduced human intelligence, the task of identifying and locating terrorist operatives has become even more difficult. To highlight that last point, Gen. Frank McKenzie, previous head of US Central Command, said America “had 1 or 2 or 3 percent of the intelligence-gathering capability that we had before we left.”

While the Biden administration touts its ability to launch “over the horizon” counterterrorism operations, only one such strike has been carried out since the Afghanistan pullout.

And that strike targeted al Qaeda, not the Islamic State.

A Taliban security personnel talks with a flag vendor outside the Eid Gah mosque in Kabul on April 20, 2023.
The US now has no presence in Afghanistan and little presence in the surrounding countries.
AFP via Getty Images

Taliban fighters armed with American weapons and equipment patrol and secure the outer perimeter.
The Taliban and the US have teamed up to take down the Islamic State.
Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Ignoring a crisis 

The inability to effectively curtail the Islamic State is merely the tip of the iceberg. Team Biden has almost wholly ignored Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban complete and total control of the country by virtue of its decades-long alliances with al Qaeda and a host of local, regional and global terror groups — all of which helped the Taliban seize the country and push out the United States once and for all.

To put things in perspective, before 9/11, the Taliban controlled about 85% of the country, with the Northern Alliance controlling the rest. The Taliban was isolated and had minimal resources. Despite this, al Qaeda, with the Taliban’s support, was able to gather tens of thousands of fighters, put them through training camps and plot and execute terror attacks across the globe. 

Today, the Taliban is in full control of Afghanistan and no longer isolated. Resistance is sporadic, if not nonexistent, and the Taliban has tens of billions of dollars of weapons, munitions, bases and other material that was left behind at its disposal. Al Qaeda, which fought alongside the Taliban for the past two decades, remains firmly lodged in Afghanistan, along with its top leadership.

Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s successor and al Qaeda’s previous emir, was killed in a posh safe house in the capital of Kabul. The safe house was run by an associate of Sirajuddin Haqqani, a Specially Designated Global Terrorist who serves as the Taliban’s deputy emir as well as Afghanistan’s interior minister. That link highlights the trust and support al Qaeda has in the Taliban, to send its top leadership cadre into Afghanistan with the safe haven and support of the Taliban.

Taliban security personnel sit on an armoured vehicle outside the Eid Gah mosque in Kabul on April 20, 2023.
Today, the Taliban is in full control of Afghanistan and no longer isolated.
AFP via Getty Images

Foreigners board a Qatar Airways aircraft at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
The US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan has been highly criticized.

What’s more, Saif al-Adel — the man believed to have succeeded Zawahiri in al Qaeda — is rumored to have entered Afghanistan within the past year. Bin Laden’s former chief of security, Amin al-Haq, triumphantly returned to his home province of Nangarhar just days after the US-propped Afghan government collapsed. A key al Qaeda leader, Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, who was detained in Bagram for more than a decade before being freed in the last days of the US occupation, has reorganized his al Qaeda team and is operating training camps in northeastern Afghanistan. 

The list goes on and on. The 9/11 Commission Report made it clear that safe haven is one of the key components that allows terrorist groups to survive and thrive. Al Qaeda’s cells are multiplying rapidly right before our eyes in Afghanistan — and yet there have been few alarms sounded.

Sure, the Discord leak reveals significant details about the Islamic State’s growing capabilities in Afghanistan and its aspirations to launch global terror attacks. But the Biden administration’s desire to put its disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in its rearview mirror is masking the greater threat posed by a Taliban-controlled state that works hand in hand with a much more deadly al Qaeda. 

Bill Roggio is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.

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