As U.S. military forces have withdrawn from Afghanistan, much attention has been given to the monitoring of, and possible action against, any terrorist activity inside Afghanistan. CIA Director William Burns stated in congressional testimony in April that the military withdrawal would diminish “the ability to collect and act on threats” in Afghanistan. In testimony last month, FBI Director Christopher Wray expressed concern that foreign terrorist groups “will have an opportunity to reconstitute, plot, inspire in a space that’s much harder for us to collect intelligence and operate against than was the case previously.”
The heads of U.S. agencies responsible for collecting information on terrorist groups will focus, understandably and appropriately, on the challenges of such collection. But the fear of, in Wray’s words, a terrorist “safe haven to be recreated” in Afghanistan is an artifact of Americans’ traumatic history with the 9/11 attacks. To the extent that a terrorist group may find a geographic haven useful, there is nothing special about Afghanistan. If such a group is looking for a conflict-ridden place with some local sympathizers where outlaws can hang out and the group can pitch a tent, there are numerous other locations in the world from which to choose.
More fundamentally, a patch of real estate is one of the less important factors that determine a group’s ability to conduct international terrorist attacks, especially ones aimed at a target half a globe away. Access to real estate may be useful for a group engaged in insurgency or civil war—as al Qaeda was in Afghanistan prior to 9/11. The country provided space for the training and basing of recruits, most of whom engaged in military operations inside Afghanistan in support of the Taliban during the war there in the late 1990s.
But territory is less relevant to the planning and preparing of an international terrorist attack. An example is the 9/11 operation itself. It obviously had an Afghanistan connection, but not in ways that were unique to Afghanistan, and preparations for the attack were geographically dispersed. Financing of the hijackers’ activities, for example, was centered in the United Arab Emirates and Germany. Plot mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed used long-distance electronic communication for coordinating those activities. The most important preparations for the attack took place more in apartments in Europe, flight schools in the United States, and cyberspace than in Afghanistan.
The fact is that many factors affect the likelihood of Americans falling victim to international terrorism. These include a host of economic and political circumstances in the places where would-be terrorists live. Research by the scholar Robert Pape, for example, has found that the single most frequent motivation for suicide terrorism is foreign military occupation.
That finding is highly relevant to the United States and Afghanistan. Like the Soviets before them, U.S. forces in Afghanistan came to be seen by many Afghans and those who sympathized with them as occupiers, not liberators or stabilizers. It was as perceived occupiers that Americans most recently fell victim to international terrorism—in an August suicide bombing by the Islamic State that killed 13 U.S. service members outside the Kabul airport.
It is not only military occupation but also the harm to civilians from military operations that motivates terrorism. The killing of 10 innocent Afghan civilians, including seven children, in late August by a missile fired from a U.S. drone exemplifies the kind of harm inflicted all too often in the so-called war on terror—because of either mistaken identification, as in this instance, or seemingly unavoidable collateral damage from operations aimed at legitimate targets. The military operations, including in Afghanistan, may have bred at least as many anti-U.S. terrorists, through the anger and desire for revenge that such operations incite, as they have eliminated.
Even if a safe haven were important, the notion that one would be available to international terrorists in Afghanistan rests mostly on the past partnership between the Taliban and al Qaeda. Mentioned less often is how that partnership was a wartime alliance, at a time when the Taliban were struggling to defeat the opposition Northern Alliance and conquer the portion of Afghanistan it did not control.
If civil war were to resume in the months ahead, the Taliban conceivably might find use for assistance from even the much weaker al Qaeda of today. But to the extent that the Taliban secure their position as the new ruler over all of Afghanistan, the old alliance loses its relevance.
The history of that alliance, along with various personal and familial relationships, will sustain ties between elements of the Taliban and what remains of al Qaeda. The question is not—as it is too often phrased—the either/or one of whether the Taliban will cut all such ties. What matters instead is the direction in which the Taliban will exercise influence, including on al Qaeda, that is relevant to possible international terrorism.
Whatever one thinks of the Taliban, they can be counted on to pursue their overriding interest in maintaining political power in Afghanistan. They are highly insular and have no interest in international terrorism. Among their strongest memories is how al Qaeda’s 9/11 operation resulted in the biggest disaster the Taliban have ever suffered—being ousted from power and setting back by two decades their quest to rule all of Afghanistan. They have every interest in not letting that happen again, as well as continuing to be the archenemy of the Afghan branch of the Islamic State.
Because of the trauma of 9/11, fear of terrorism emanating from Afghanistan will forever lurk in American minds. Fear of the political fallout from a future terrorist incident somehow connected, however tenuously, to Afghanistan probably is part of what led three U.S. presidents to keep troops there before Joe Biden finally pulled the plug on the operation. There are no guarantees about how policies toward Afghanistan will affect the danger of terrorism against Americans. But considering all the relevant factors and not just one or two, that danger is less with the U.S. military out of Afghanistan than it would be if U.S. forces remained there.
Paul R. Pillar is a former deputy chief of the Counterterrorist Center at the CIA and a nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.