DECEMBER 9, 2022
Afghanistan Opinion USA Opinion

Opinion: No, Afghanistan has not become a ‘staging ground for terrorists’

Opinion: No, Afghanistan has not become a ‘staging ground for terrorists’

By Robert Wright

Thanks to the Washington Post blowing comments out of proportion, GOP critics of the withdrawal will use this exaggeration as a cudgel.

“Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals.”

To read that headline in the Washington Post, you might think that Afghanistan has become, well, a terrorism staging ground—a place from which actual terrorist attacks are launched, or at least a place where they’re orchestrated.

You might also think that this amounts to an indictment of President Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan—that, just as his critics had warned, turning Afghanistan over to the Taliban has turned it into a playground for anti-American terrorists. This impression is reinforced early in the Post piece, when its authors, Dan Lamothe and Joby Warrick, anticipate the GOP’s likely use of the documents their story is based on (which came from the Discord leaks): “The documents will almost certainly be used as a political cudgel by congressional Republicans and others still seething about the Biden administration’s chaotic management of the US exit from Afghanistan in August 2021.”

But, in truth, Afghanistan hasn’t become a “terrorism staging ground.” And, though GOP operatives may well use these documents as a cudgel, they’d probably never have thought to do that had the Washington Post not blown them out of proportion.

Here are some things you’ll learn if you read this entire story and read it carefully: 

1) The terrorists in question aren’t al Qaeda, whose alliance with the Taliban was the reason the US invaded Afghanistan in the first place. Indeed, we learn (in paragraph 28!) that the documents contain “no mention of an al-Qaeda resurgence there [in Afghanistan], something many counterterrorism experts had feared would happen following the US withdrawal.”

2) The terrorists in question are ISIS—sworn enemies of the Taliban. Indeed, several days after this piece was published, we learned that the Taliban had killed the ISIS leader who planned the horrific 2021 Kabul airport bombing, which killed 13 US service members and 170 Afghans. (Another reason to unfreeze all those funds that belong to the Afghan government: the Taliban is in an ongoing war with ISIS, and some of the money would presumably go to that cause.)

3) These ISIS terrorists in Afghanistan don’t seem to have been involved in any way in a single terrorist attack outside of Afghanistan since the US withdrawal—at least, there’s no mention of that in the piece. So then what does the Washington Post mean when it says Afghanistan is “a terrorism staging ground”? Well, for example, ISIS militants “weighed multiple retaliatory plots in response to Quran burnings by far-right activists in Sweden and the Netherlands. Those plots included calls for attacks on Swedish or Dutch diplomatic facilities in Azerbaijan, Tajikistan, Russia, Turkey and other countries, the leaked documents said, though it does not appear any such strike was carried out.”

And it’s not clear if that “weighing” of “plots” was done by ISIS people in Afghanistan or in some other country. There is a repeated failure in this piece to be clear on what’s happening in Afghanistan and what’s happening elsewhere. Some plots are attributed specifically to ISIS militants outside of Afghanistan—in Iraq, for example—but often things are more ambiguous.

For example, read this paragraph:  

It’s unclear the extent to which the Afghan chapter coordinates its operations with the group’s central leadership, believed to be based in Syria, but the leaked documents highlight that components in those countries are looking to attack Western targets. The most worrisome reports detail efforts by the group to recruit technical experts online for terrorist attacks abroad.

So did the “efforts by the group” take place in Syria or Afghanistan or both? In any event, it appears that these efforts, like all the efforts mentioned in the documents, came to naught. Why? One likely reason is the fact that they are listed in the documents. In other words, they were on the radar screen of US intelligence. Lamothe and Warrick write (in paragraph 26!): “As a collection, the documents indicate that US intelligence agencies have succeeded repeatedly in intercepting the communications among Islamic State cells. Such intercepts appear to have led to the disruption of plans for kidnappings and small-arms attacks on government buildings in Europe.”

So, here’s one takeaway from the Post piece: The catastrophists were wrong! Withdrawal from Afghanistan hasn’t turned the country into a playground for anti-American terrorists. Biden officials who said the terrorism problem could be managed through assiduous intelligence gathering and the disruption of any plots thus uncovered were right. Or at least, it looks that way so far.

Then again, “Afghanistan hasn’t become a terrorist staging ground” is a pretty boring headline. So never mind.

Source: Responsible Statecraft

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