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State Department turns against anti-Taliban fighters, as al Qaeda operates freely across Afghanistan

"This is a worse situation than before 9/11," expert warns about current state of Afghanistan.

Published: July 11, 2022 7:25pm

Updated: July 11, 2022 11:04pm

The State Department is condemning Afghans for fighting back against the Taliban as the Islamist group in control of Afghanistan allows al Qaeda to operate freely across the country, creating what some experts warn is a situation worse than what existed before the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

The National Resistance Front of Afghanistan, a military alliance opposed to the Taliban, recently ambushed the Taliban and took control of areas in the Khost district of Baghlan province in northern Afghanistan, according to press reports.

The State Department rebuked the ambush by the resistance fighters in a statement to The Foreign Desk and said it wouldn't support "violent opposition toward the Taliban government."

Many observers expressed shock and outrage at the State Department's condemnation of Afghans for fighting back.

Just the News reached out to the State Department to clarify its intended message and whether it's the position of the department that Afghans shouldn't resist Taliban rule.

"We are monitoring the recent uptick in violence closely," a State Department spokesperson told Just the News. "We call on all sides to exercise restraint and to engage. This is the only way that Afghanistan can confront its many challenges. We want to see the emergence of stable and sustainable political dispensation via peaceful means. We are not supporting organized violent opposition to the Taliban and we would discourage other powers from doing so as well."

Just the News also sought to clarify whether the State Department recognizes the Taliban as the official and legitimate leadership of Afghanistan since it opposes armed resistance against the group.

"The United States' focus is not on recognition," the spokesperson responded. "Our focus is on working to advance American interests related to Afghanistan, including counterterrorism, economic stabilization, human rights, and safe passage. We are working with our allies and partners to press the Taliban to follow through on its public commitments made to the Afghan people, as well as the international community, before we can proceed with moving toward any kind of significant normalization."

According to a prominent expert on Afghanistan, the spokesperson's response shows the Biden administration is recognizing the Taliban as Afghanistan's legitimate government, even if it won't outright say so publicly.

"The State Department's policy essentially normalizes Taliban control of Afghanistan," said Bill Roggio, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and editor of the Long War Journal. "This is absolutely insane. If the U.S. is unwilling to support the Afghan resistance, then it's effectively ceding Taliban control to Afghanistan."

Roggio explained that Afghanistan today is actually worse off than it was before 9/11, noting the Taliban now controls all 34 provinces as opposed to maybe 85% of the country when the World Trade Center fell.

Another issue is the strength of the Taliban's opposition.

The Northern Alliance, the main resistance force before 9/11, was quite capable and helped the U.S. overthrow the Taliban in late 2001. Today, however, the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan is a "shadow" of the Northern Alliance, said Roggio, who explained it presents a localized threat to the Taliban but nothing more, especially without U.S. support.

Military victories announced by either the Taliban or the resistance should be taken with a grain of salt, he added, because Afghanistan is a "media black hole," and it's difficult to determine what's happening on the ground.

Perhaps most troublesome of all is the fact that extremist groups are widely operating across Afghanistan with virtual impunity.

Before the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, the Taliban controlled Afghanistan and allowed its ally al Qaeda to use the country as a safe haven, from which the terrorist group planned 9/11.

Despite Taliban promises to ensure Afghanistan won't be a hub for extremism, a hub for extremism is precisely what critics see Afghanistan now becoming.

"This is a worse situation than before 9/11," said Roggio. "The Taliban is lying about its commitments. We couldn't trust the Taliban with leverage and U.S. troops on the ground. Now we don't have any leverage. But we're still going to take the Taliban at its word?"

Last week, Taliban supreme leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada said Afghan soil won't be used to launch attacks against other countries. The group previously promised not to let Afghanistan become a base for terrorism as part of a deal that led to a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan.

However, al Qaeda is currently running training camps across Afghanistan, and neither side has renounced their decades-long alliance, according to experts and official reports. A recent United Nations report, for example, highlights ongoing close collaboration between al Qaeda and the Taliban.

Since the U.S. withdrew its remaining troops from Afghanistan last August, waves of extremists linked to al Qaeda and the Taliban have come to Afghanistan. Roggio has detailed how the Pentagon continues to downplay al Qaeda's strength in the country.

Nonetheless, several commentators and media outlets over the past year have described the Taliban as more moderate and modern, declaring the existence of a "Taliban 2.0." Senior Biden administration officials have similarly expressed hope about the prospect of a reformed Taliban.

However, several senior members of the Taliban's government have links to al Qaeda.

Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, for example is the prime minister. In 1999, when the U.N. demanded the Taliban hand over Osama bin Laden after al Qaeda bombed two U.S. embassies the prior year, Akhund responded, "We will never give up Osama at any price." Akhund has been on a U.N. black list for two decades.

The Taliban government's interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has worked closely with al Qaeda and, according to a U.N. report, is "a member of the wider al Qaeda leadership." He's been wanted by the FBI for planning an attack that killed an American citizen. As interior minister, Haqqani can issue passports, giving him the ability to allow terrorists to travel in and out of Afghanistan.

Last year, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed disappointment at the Taliban government not being inclusive for including "people who have very challenging track records."

Adding to the problem, Washington seems to have little idea of what's happening inside Afghanistan.

Retired Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, former commander of U.S. Central Command, estimated the U.S. had 1-2% visibility and intelligence in Afghanistan before the full American military withdrawal. Indeed, even in 2015, when the U.S. had a much larger troop presence, al Qaeda was running a massive training facility in Kandahar Province "under our noses" that American forces discovered "by accident," said Roggio.

To address the current terrorist threat from Afghanistan following the August withdrawal, the U.S. maintains a counterterrorism center in Doha, Qatar with a staff of about 100 people and a price tag of about $19.5 billion for this fiscal year, according to Central Command. The U.S. has used the center to conduct zero strikes in Afghanistan since the withdrawal, in part due to America's lack of visibility and intelligence.

Still, the U.S. is better suited domestically to deal with terrorist threats from abroad than before 9/11. But, warned Roggio, the 9/11 Commission Report makes clear that the ability to have a safe haven is critical for terror groups to train, plan, recruit, and have shelter and security.

Even with post-9/11 reforms to the U.S. national security apparatus, some security experts have warned terrorists could exploit the country's southern border, which has seen a historically high surge in illegal border crossings under the Biden administration.

Since October 2020, more than 800,000 illegal immigrants are known to have gotten past border agents.

In fiscal year 2022, there have been at least 50 arrests of migrants on the Terrorist Screening Database at the southern border by Border Patrol between ports of entry, a significant increase from prior years.

"The next terrorist attack could already be here," former acting Commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection Mark Morgan recently told Just the News. "That's not being hyperbolic."

Adding to such concerns, the Office of Inspector General concluded in a new report that the Department of Homeland Security, which was created in the wake of 9/11, "could do more to address the threats of domestic terrorism."

The report warned that unless certain changes are made, the department "may not be able to proactively prevent and protect the nation from this evolving threat."

Despite the potential terrorist threat from Afghanistan, the Biden administration has no interest in addressing the issue, according to Roggio.

"The last thing the administration wants is to reengage in Afghanistan," he said. "That would bring up all the failures and be an admission of guilt."

The Biden administration's withdrawal from Afghanistan was widely criticized by experts and lawmakers, who argued it allowed the Taliban to conquer all of Afghanistan and left thousands of Americans and Afghani allies behind.

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