A day before the 22nd anniversary of the al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Towers in New York and the US State Department building in Washington, two officials from the Biden administration informed CNN that al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been significantly weakened and is incapable of mounting a resurgence. Concurrently, Republican senators in the United States Congress are vehemently advocating for a thorough investigation into the tumultuous US withdrawal from Afghanistan. They persistently demand documents from the Biden government regarding this matter. These demands have intensified as the United States approaches the 2024 presidential election. Consequently, the Republicans’ insistence on scrutinizing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan may be intended to discredit the Biden government, thereby facilitating a smoother path for a Republican candidate to the White House. These reviews and analyses are integral to the unofficial campaigns leading up to the forthcoming presidential elections in the United States.
Nevertheless, 22 years after the al-Qaeda attacks on the World Trade Towers and the Pentagon, and two years after the United States withdrew from Afghanistan, this issue remains unresolved and exerts a profound influence on US governmental decisions and even the fate of its leadership. In 2001, the Republican administration of President George W. Bush, in alliance with other nations, entered Afghanistan with the objective of eradicating terrorists who had found refuge and established bases in Afghanistan, thereby safeguarding the world from the menace of terrorism. This war continued for two full decades, during which thousands of American soldiers lost their lives, while the Afghan government and its people made significant sacrifices. According to a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published in early 2021, more than 2,400 American soldiers were killed, and over 20,700 others were wounded during the twenty-year Afghan conflict. Subsequently, due to the agreement signed between the Taliban and the Trump administration in Doha, the Taliban ceased attacking American forces but continued to claim the lives of numerous Afghans. The final casualties for American forces in Afghanistan occurred during the evacuation from Kabul airport. In that attack, attributed to the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K), 13 American soldiers and nearly 200 Afghans lost their lives. If we include the death toll of American soldiers in Afghanistan, the total number of casualties would be considerably higher.
After two decades of combating terrorism, the United States handed over Afghanistan to the Taliban, despite the fact that the number of active terrorist groups within the country is now greater than when the Bush administration initiated its military intervention. The primary objective of that intervention was the elimination of terrorists, including al-Qaeda. This effort dismantled the Taliban regime, which had provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda leaders and operatives, resulting in a weakened al-Qaeda network. However, terrorist groups did not relent; instead, they established new hideouts in the border regions of Pakistan and some in Iran. Subsequently, they gradually infiltrated Afghanistan, even while American forces and their anti-terrorist coalition allies maintained a substantial presence. As ISIS-K began operating in Afghanistan in 2015 and the Taliban continued to gain strength, the security situation in Afghanistan deteriorated. Ultimately, bypassing the Afghan government and its populace, the Trump administration engaged in negotiations with the Taliban and signed the Doha Agreement. After two decades of war, America departed from Afghanistan in accordance with the terms of the Doha agreement. However, terrorism, with its various manifestations and increasingly complex and violent tactics, continues to threaten Afghanistan, the broader region, and the world.
One of the central provisions of the Doha agreement was the severance of ties between the Taliban and other terrorist groups. Regrettably, the Taliban failed to honor this commitment and continued to provide shelter to the leaders and members of al-Qaeda, who are America’s primary adversaries. According to credible international reports, including those of the UN Security Council experts, the Taliban have offered refuge to approximately 20 terrorist groups. Now that the American forces have departed Afghanistan, the nation has become a sanctuary for various terrorist factions, most of which share common affiliations, with ISIS-K representing their principal mutual foe. These terrorist groups are now armed with modern and advanced weapons inherited from the United States. Reports indicate that these weapons have fallen into the hands of armed groups from Afghanistan to the Middle East. The acquisition of these weapons by Palestinian armed forces in the Middle East was reported not long ago. Therefore, although al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations may not pose an immediate, severe threat to the US and its allies, the specter of terrorism has not been entirely eradicated from the United States and the world.
The United States’ most critical strategic ally in our region is Pakistan, a nation itself accused of supporting terrorism and currently grappling with an unprecedented surge in terrorist activities. The principal group embroiled in active conflict against the Pakistani government is the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Islamabad’s grave concern centers on the prospect of American weaponry left behind in Afghanistan falling into the hands of TTP forces. Consequently, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan has not only bolstered fundamentalist and terrorist organizations across Central Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East psychologically but also in terms of armaments. The legacy of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment left for the Taliban by the Americans has afforded these weapons to terrorist groups. Consequently, the region has become more volatile with the enhanced psychological and military capabilities of fighters from various terrorist factions.
The US entry into and withdrawal from Afghanistan have incurred immense costs for the United States, including billions of dollars and military equipment, as well as the lives of thousands of American soldiers. Regrettably, the Afghan people have borne the heaviest toll during this period. The American arrival and the collaboration of Taliban opposition forces with the international coalition led to significant casualties among the Afghan populace. During this period, both the Taliban and their opposing forces suffered losses. Subsequently, a UNAMA report documenting Afghan civilian casualties from 2009 to 2019 reported that 111,000 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded during the conflict. In 2019, former Afghan President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani revealed that over 45,000 Afghan security forces had lost their lives in just five years under his administration.
When we consider civilian casualties prior to 2009 and after 2019, along with military casualties before 2014 and after 2019 up to August 2021, the true extent of bloodshed during this two-decade-long war becomes evident. Furthermore, violence escalated significantly for both security forces and the civilian population of Afghanistan after 2019. ISIS-K attacks on civilians increased, and the conflict between the Taliban and the republic government intensified, resulting in widespread violence. The Afghan people endured these costs to rid themselves of terrorism and secure their rights and freedoms. Now, after two decades of relentless warfare and bearing heavy costs, they find themselves back where they started: under Taliban rule, the presence of numerous terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and the loss of individual and collective rights and freedoms. The rule of law has disintegrated, and prospects for swift change are bleak. Thus, America’s ingress and egress from Afghanistan, while bringing certain positive aspects such as individual and collective freedoms and the fortification of educational institutions, also exacted a heavy toll on the Afghan populace. More dishearteningly, they face another arduous chapter ahead: the removal of the Taliban from power if the group persists in monopolizing authority and refrains from returning to the negotiation table with the Afghan people.
The American government’s exit from Afghanistan has left the nation hosting numerous terrorist groups. Consequently, terrorism, under various monikers including al-Qaeda, remains active in Afghanistan, growing in strength each day due to the weapons and refuge it has secured. This signifies a practical failure of the US and its allies’ counter-terrorism mission in Afghanistan. Beyond failing to eradicate terrorism, the United States has also failed to ensure the safety of its Afghan associates. Thousands of Afghans who worked alongside Americans remain stranded in Afghanistan under Taliban rule, enduring dire conditions. The journey ahead and the return to their homeland for the Afghan people have incurred steep costs, with the gains falling short of expectations. Now, these meager achievements lie in ruins, signifying the failure of the Afghan people. Conversely, it is terrorism that perceives itself as the victor in this theater. Whether the Republicans investigate the withdrawal or the Democrats proclaim the weakening of al-Qaeda and its inability to resurge, the outcome will not differ, nor will it alleviate the burdens borne by the people of Afghanistan and the families of American soldiers who lost their lives in Afghanistan.