When it comes to Afghanistan, the central question before U.S. policymakers was not whether full withdrawal from the country advanced human rights. It wasn’t whether our allies would be unnerved by America’s conspicuous lack of resolve or if our partners abroad would be disinclined to cooperate with the United States in the future. All of these fronts have deteriorated as a result of America’s bug out from Afghanistan. The central question facing America’s public officials was far narrower than that: Are Americans safer as a result? The Biden administration’s more political officials cannot answer that question honestly.
In testimony before members of the House of Representatives Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken insisted that the administration is “focused on counterterrorism.” Toward that end, the Taliban have suddenly become our invaluable partners. “The Taliban has committed to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including al-Qaida and ISIS-K,” Blinken claimed.
Based on all publicly available information, that statement is both preposterous and recklessly irresponsible.
Throughout the Trump administration’s dubious negotiations with Taliban representatives over the final year of his presidency, the Taliban’s steadfast rejection of Western request to renounce their support for al-Qaeda was a sticking point. It wasn’t one that prevented the Trump administration from securing and celebrating a tentative withdrawal deal, to the Trump administration’s discredit. But nor did that prove an obstacle for the Biden administration when its members renegotiated that deal, crafted their own plan for withdrawal, and executed it.
Following the Taliban’s reconquest of Afghanistan, the organization has tapped Sirajuddin Haqqani to serve as the regime’s minister of interior overseeing domestic security. Haqqani’s eponymous network was dubbed by the United Nations as recently as June the “primary liaison between the Taliban and Al-Qaida.” Haqqani himself is an insurgent commander with a record of overseeing suicide bombing missions, terrorizing and murdering civilians, and plotting the export of terrorism abroad. The FBI continues to offer a $10 million reward for information leading to his arrest, and the UN judged Haqqani “to be a member of the wider Al-Qaida leadership, but not of the Al-Qaida core leadership”—an exquisitely fine distinction.
In more operationally focused executive agencies, the Taliban is not receiving the kind of apple-polishing treatment Blinken is administering. In testimony on Tuesday, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, Scott Berrier, and the deputy director of the CIA, David Cohen, agreed that al-Qaeda could speedily reconstitute itself in Afghanistan and reassume the capability to threaten the U.S. homeland in 12 to 24 months. That, Berrier said, is a “conservative” estimate.
Cohen added that there are indications that aspiring Islamist jihadists, including al-Qaeda, are already relocating to Afghanistan in the expectation that it will again become a base from which to mount operations. This exposes the lie in one of the Biden administration’s preferred talking points. They insist that the locus of transnational Islamist terrorism has moved away from Afghanistan and elsewhere into the Middle East, therefore we must meet the threat where it lives. But the only reason that Afghanistan was not the locus of terror is because we were actively preventing it from becoming that once again. Obviously. In the absence of active counterterrorism operations, al-Qaeda will reconstitute itself.
This comports with what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley told members of Congress in August regarding the accelerated timeline in which al-Qaeda could present a threat to the homeland, and it dovetails with the assessments of former CIA Directors Mike Morell and Leon Panetta. “The reconstruction of al-Qaida’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it,” Morell said. “[I]t’s clear to me that they’re going to continue to support Al-Qaeda, and allow Al-Qaeda to basically continue to develop and expand,” Panetta agreed. “And I think they will plan additional attacks on our country, as well as elsewhere.”
If the Taliban are seeing to America’s long-term national security interests in Afghanistan, it seems that only Sec. Blinken is aware of it. Given how brazenly his assurances contradict the community of current and former national-security professionals, however, neither Congress nor the American people should take him at his word. The security of the United States could depend on it.