Is It Possible to Move on? 20 Years of 9/11 and the Afghanistan Debacle

President Joe Biden addresses his national security team
Credit: The White House

Perhaps there is nothing more tragic than seeing the Taliban officially inaugurating its government in Kabul just 4 days prior to the 20th anniversary of the most heart wrenching moment in contemporary American history, the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. With both Washington and Taliban claiming the Afghanistan war to be over, how safe is the US from extremism two decades after the terror attacks?

Moving On

In his remarks on the end of the Afghanistan War dated Aug. 31, 2021, US President Joe Biden firmly defended his decision to withdraw troops from Kabul, for which he has drawn much flak from both the international community as well as allies such as the United Kingdom. Though he explained how the United States was the only nation to possess “the capability, the will and the ability” of airlifting more than 120,000 people from Afghanistan in what he claimed was an effort unparalleled in history, his remarks reflected the unease from having to take this hard decision.

He did not mince words when it came to blaming his Republican predecessor for the worsening situation in Afghanistan. He rightly pointed out how his immediate predecessor’s decision to sign a truce with the Taliban in order to hasten the process of withdrawal was bound to strengthen the militant group as it did not mention any obligation on behalf of the Taliban to work out a cooperative governance mechanism with Ashraf Ghani’s government. On top of it, Trump’s decision freed 5000 prisoners which included some of  Taliban’s top leaders who today are leading a murderous spree on the streets of Kabul. He explained how it was nearly impossible for the United States to stay in Kabul, for not only the mission had lost its purpose but if Washington had not adhered to the deadline agreed upon between former President Donald Trump and the Taliban, more American lives would have been put at risk. An interesting highlight of his address was his belief that as the President, his “fundamental obligation” was to  protect America “not against the threats of 2001, but against the threats of 2021 and tomorrow” which springs from China and Russia and not Afghanistan. Though Biden claimed to have turned the page on Taliban, challenges remain.

Still at risk

For those who believe the pullout means looking ahead, the challenges are too grave to be overlooked.

The Afghan debacle has severely tarnished the United States’ image as a responsible global power, casting a heavy doubt among its allies over its commitments. It has further emboldened Washington’s rival China who used the episode to point out the flaws in the liberal democratic system of the US and justified its own authoritarian system which it claims to be a “democracy of substance” and not “of money” like the United States.

Though after the capture of Kabul, the Taliban  reaffirmed its commitment of not allowing the Afghan turf to be used against the interests of the United States and its allies, recent events,where the Taliban resorted to violence even after promising to act responsibly, show that it cannot be trusted.

Moreover, the Taliban has not yet broken ties with Al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of the 9/11 attacks. Osama bin Laden offered bay’ah or a pledge of allegiance to the Taliban chief Mullah Omar in the 1990s, which continues to exist. As per the Islamic law, bay’ah is a pledge of loyalty which binds both parties to honour their obligations, including obedience on the part of the one offering the pledge. Violation of the bay’ah is considered a serious offence. The pledge was last renewed in 2015 by Osama’s successor al-Zawahiri to Taliban’s chief Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. After Hibatullah Akhundzada assumed leadership in 2016, neither did the Taliban confirm nor deny Al-Qaeda’s allegiance. The Pakistan Taliban pledged loyalty to the Afghan Taliban in a similar fashion. Many terror outfits including Al-Qaeda and Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham in Syria have congratulated the Taliban on capturing power in Afghanistan.

The new interim Taliban government is also a cause of concern for the United States, with many in the cabinet being renowned terrorists. Of particular concern is the new interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is on the ‘most wanted’ list of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). His Haqqani network, the most dreaded terror nexus in the region, was responsible for leading several attacks against the United States. At least 14 new ministers including the interim Prime Minister Mullah Mohammad Akhund are on the United Nations Security Council’s terror blacklist. With a past of extreme hostilities towards the United States, it is doubtful if the new cabinet would honour its promise. Even if the Taliban remains faithful, little is under its control. Reports of infighting among the Taliban are flooding the internet, a manifestation of which was the appointment of Mullah Akhund as the interim Prime Minister instead of Taliban’s co-founder and head of political affairs Mullah Baradar, who now serves as the deputy Prime Minister. Furthermore, the June 2021 Report of the United Nations Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team confirmed  the presence of several international terror outfits such as the East Turkistan Islamic Movement, al-Shabab and al-Qaeda. A fractured domestic turf would only carve out additional spheres for extremist groups to sprout and sustain, many of which consider the United States their arch rival. The growing affinity between Beijing, Moscow, Islamabad  and the Taliban is also troubling for Washington and its allies in the region such as India.

The offshoot of ISIS, the Islamic State of Khorasan, which led the Kabul attacks killing 92 people including 13 US Servicemen, is also a major concern.  The ISIS-K claims itself to be the sworn enemy of both the United States and the Taliban. In his address, Biden threatened to hunt down ISIS-K. Though the American troops are no longer under direct threat from the terror group, the possibility of a terror attack still lurks.

Much water has flown down the bridge in the past two decades. Though, as Mr. Biden pointed out, tough competition comes from both China and Russia, the installation of the Taliban regime threatens the rise of extremism and looking the other way would certainly be unhelpful. Biden’s threat to raze down all those who stand against the interests of the United States shows that even after losing 2500 lives and $2 trillion, Washington has not understood that military action, however limited, would not eliminate the threat. It might halt it for now but such elements tend to regroup and come back stronger, the likes of which the US has seen several times in the past twenty years. To believe that negotiations could reform an ultraconservative militant  group like Taliban would be imprudent but the only sustainable option to make it mend its ways would come from dialogue and non military coercive actions such as sanctions, till that is done, the past would continue to haunt.

Cherry Hitkari is a postgraduate student of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.