Afghanistan withdrawal will increase terror threat to Australia
14 May 2021|

Reportedly against the advice of all of his senior military and intelligence officials, US President Joe Biden has opted to continue the irresponsible policy of his predecessor Donald Trump and fully withdraw American troops from Afghanistan by September, under a deal negotiated directly between the US and the Taliban. Despite the either disingenuous or delusional political spin emanating from the current administration, the deal—dubbed, without pushback, the ‘Termination of Occupation Agreement’ by the Taliban—was merely a fig leaf for the unconditional withdrawal of US forces already underway by the latter half of 2019. There never was, and never could be, any ‘intra–Afghan negotiations’ or peace process.

The Taliban, unlike the US, has never misrepresented its position. Since 2001, every statement and interview, from the leadership to the rank-and-file, has reiterated that the group’s only goal was jihad to re-establish their brutal, theocratic Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Until now, the small and cost-effective Western troop presence ensured they could not accomplish that goal, but the outcome of withdrawal will be the rapid dissolution of Afghanistan’s government and security forces and consequent massacres and massive, destabilising refugee flows that will accompany the inevitable Taliban takeover. But aside from those horrific consequences, there’s a further potential outcome that would directly and negatively impact Australia: the resurgence of al-Qaeda and Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) in Afghanistan.

Al-Qaeda indirectly participated in the negotiations between the US and Taliban, advising the Taliban at every stage on how to proceed. The two groups are inextricably intertwined, with al-Qaeda operating under and loyal to the Taliban. The inescapable consequence of the re-establishment of the emirate is a massively empowered al-Qaeda. The group has been under severe pressure, from both the constant assassinations of its leaders around the world—including the assassination of its second-in-command in Iran by the Israelis—as well as its loss of control over the Islamic State and its former Syrian affiliate, now called Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham.

The group’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has reportedly been dead for some time, a rumour al-Qaeda has failed to rebut, and the group currently appears severely degraded. However, it has been coherently argued that al-Qaeda retains a deep leadership bench and may ultimately reverse its tactical decision to not engage directly in transnational attacks against Western interests once it has rebuilt its networks. As well as the space a renewed Islamic emirate would give to al-Qaeda, the group’s primary base remains Iran, which could well find a use, as it did in 2003, for them to attack Western or Arab interests.

The most immediate danger, however, would be the reconstitution of ISKP. By December 2019, ISKP was described by US officials as the most powerful and dangerous branch of Islamic State, with explicit intentions to attack the West. According to the US narrative, only a concerted campaign by the Taliban and the Afghan government, both backed by US airpower, was able to reconquer the large swathes of territory controlled by ISKP. But that is a misleading appraisal of events.

As in Syria and Iraq, where the Islamic State made a tactical decision to dismantle its caliphate and revert to its pre-state insurgency in 2016 and 2017, ISKP dissolved its territorial holdings in Kunar and Nangarhar provinces and began ‘surrendering’ to the Afghan government in droves, with thousands of fighters putting themselves in Kabul’s prisons in 2019 and 2020. Those fighters were disturbingly treated like royalty by Kabul. Thousands of other fighters and their families melted away into Pakistan and deeper into Kunar, or went underground in other Afghan cities.

The purpose of the ‘surrender’ is to proselytise and multiply inside prisons in preparation for ISKP’s ‘breaking the walls’ campaign to free them and quickly re-establish itself following the US withdrawal. A taste of that was seen in mid-2020, when a sophisticated ISKP assault on Nangarhar’s central prison freed hundreds of Taliban and ISKP fighters. ISKP is also betting on the Taliban quickly overrunning the country and freeing all prisoners, regardless of affiliation, in the chaos, amplifying its own attacks.

ISKP has extremely strong grassroots support in Kabul and likely throughout the country, particularly among middle-class Tajiks, and maintains dozens of cells in several major cities, each capable of mounting sophisticated, devastating attacks despite the severe pressure they are under from the US, Taliban and Afghan security forces. Once the US fully withdraws, ISKP will quickly re-establish itself in the chaos of the civil war and could well overwhelm even the Taliban’s emirate.

Not only would that be catastrophic for Afghanistan and the region, but for the West as well, including Australia. ISKP has already been tied to plots and attacks in Europe, Asia and the US. More concerning for Australia is that Jamaah Anshorut Daulah (JAD), Islamic State’s Indonesian affiliate, is intimately intertwined with ISKP, and one of its senior leaders commands JAD attacks from Afghanistan and recruits Asian foreign fighters for ISKP.

Of even more direct concern for Australia is the fact that Isaac el Matari, who proclaimed himself ‘general commander of IS Australia’ and allegedly tried to establish a stronghold in the Blue Mountains to launch attacks on Sydney, was linked with ISKP and tried to get to the group via Pakistan. Although he was thankfully rounded up in counterterrorism raids in 2019, there’s no doubt that a resurgent ISKP would massively increase Australia’s own jihadist problem.

It is time for the US and its allies to come clean about the consequences of the withdrawal from Afghanistan and to drop the pretence that they can be managed with no troops or contractors in the country, or even in the region. That means not only admitting that a Taliban takeover of the country following withdrawal is inevitable and will result in horrific massacres, destabilising refugee flows and the end of many human rights, particularly women’s rights, in the country, but also a dramatic increase in the terrorist threat.

In an almost exact replay of the 1990s, the country will fracture along tribal and ethnic lines and warlords will cut myopic deals with the Taliban while Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and Turkey—all countries with interests inimical to the US and its allies—ultimately decide the outcome. All of those problems, which are easily managed with the small contingent of troops about to be needlessly removed from Afghanistan, will soon impact the West and likely force it to reinvade the country within the decade.