One year after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, the country is an even more dangerous place.
The Taliban now serves as the de facto government, doling out punishments and beatings to Afghans who run afoul of the group's strict Islamic mores. Yet, in addition to a society and economy on the verge of collapse, Afghanistan could soon descend once again into serving as a safe haven and sanctuary for transnational terrorist groups and violent extremist organizations.
With the Taliban back in power since mid-August of last year, and its al-Qaida allies getting a new lease on life, the situation in Afghanistan will get worse before it gets better.
Afghanistan did not immediately devolve into a failed state where groups such as al-Qaida and the Islamic State could launch attacks against the West with impunity. But senior U.S. defense and intelligence officials are seriously concerned that jihadist groups in Afghanistan may develop those capabilities over time. It could take roughly two years for terrorist organizations to recruit, train and deploy militants abroad to launch terrorist attacks, according to assessments by Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and many others.
Before a U.S. drone strike on July 31 killed longtime al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul, Afghanistan, he had enjoyed much greater freedom of movement since the Taliban takeover of the country, a recent U.N. Monitoring Team report concluded. As a result, al-Zawahiri had released more frequent video messages. His "increased comfort and ability to communicate," the report notes, had "coincided with the consolidation of power of key Al-Qaida allies" within the Taliban's de facto administration.
The comfort al-Zawahiri felt moving around Afghanistan is ultimately what led to his demise. His presence in Afghanistan's capital also demonstrates that al-Qaida and the Taliban remain in lockstep — with the Taliban providing al-Qaida a base from which to operate.
In late June, a Wall Street Journal reporter said Gen. Michael E. Kurilla, commander of the U.S. Central Command, had disclosed that the U.S. possessed intelligence confirming that terrorist groups are already building training camps inside Afghanistan. Rebuilding the capability to plan and execute successful attacks abroad takes time, as militants need to reconstitute logistics, identify new safe houses, and upgrade communications and transportation capabilities.
The ultimate goal for groups like al-Qaida or the Islamic State is to plan and execute a high-profile terrorist attack on Western soil or against Western targets. It is nearly impossible for a terrorist group to replicate an attack on the scale of the one on Sept. 11, 2001. Jihadist groups are aware of the improved counterterrorism capabilities of Western countries, so the attacks they might launch could be similar to those that took place in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005, when transportation targets were bombed. Nonaviation transportation is typically considered a "soft target" and such attacks yield high casualty counts.
Other possibilities could include going after Western embassies, as al-Qaida did in East Africa in 1998, or focusing on soft targets such as hotels frequented by Westerners, as al-Qaida-linked groups did in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2003 and again in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2009.
The tactics used by terrorists are significantly more high-tech than they were when Afghanistan was last a hub for transnational terrorist groups in 2001. The Islamic State has introduced something known as the "virtual plotter model," which means terrorist operatives in one country use encrypted technologies to communicate with operatives in another part of the world. In most cases, the virtual planners and the attackers meet only online.
As Afghanistan becomes a more permissive environment for terrorist groups, militants will have more bandwidth to meet, plot and plan attacks, perhaps attempting to encourage homegrown violent extremists in Europe or the U.S. to take action on their own while offering advice and preparatory planning tips.
The Taliban's leaders frequently tried to fault the U.S. for their own failure as a government over the last year. The chief Taliban spokesperson, Zabiullah Mujahid, claims that "the United States is the biggest obstacle" to the government of Afghanistan being officially recognized by the broader international community. The Taliban has had nearly 350 interactions with approximately 30 countries since taking power last August, yet its regime is still not formally recognized by the international community.
But Mujahid and his comrades would be wise to look in the mirror. Across the board, life in Afghanistan for ordinary citizens has become far more difficult, with women and girls denied fundamental human rights and the country's economy cratering. Additionally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and a June earthquake that killed more than 1,100 Afghans and displaced countless others have compounded the misery and suffering there.
On its own, the bleak picture in Afghanistan just one year after the U.S. withdrawal is heart-wrenching. As evidenced by the drone strike that killed al-Zawahiri, Washington still takes seriously its responsibility to prevent the country from becoming a launching pad for global terrorism. And while the targeted assassination of al-Qaida's leader is an example of a successful offshore counterterrorism strike, launched by an unmanned drone, it's merely one data point. The U.S. is still without "eyes and ears" on the ground in Afghanistan, which will pose a challenge to carrying out similar future strikes against terrorist leaders.
At the Aspen Security Forum in late July, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, remarked that the president has no regrets about withdrawing American combat troops from Afghanistan as of Aug. 30, 2021. But if a major terrorist attack on Western soil is traced back to Afghanistan, his decision will be scrutinized, and pressure could build for the United States to send troops back to South Asia.
Colin P. Clarke is the director of research at the Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at the Soufan Center, where he focuses on terrorism, counterterrorism and international security. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.