In this Conversation with David Otto, international defence and counter terrorism specialist, we discussed about the impact of Taliban resurgence to global security.

Do you think the US policy in Afghanistan Failed after 20 years? 

It depends on which angle one uses to judge the US policies in Afghanistan and which policy we are referring to here. Is it the invasion and aerial bombing policy? or the occupation policy? or the reconstruction and regime change policy? The US had different policies in Afghanistan. Before we dive into analyzing the various US policies for the past 20 years, let us be clear on the subject background here as this is important to contextualize. 

Pre September 2001, the Taliban that we see today led by Mullah Hibatullah, the one that is walked unchallenged to the seat of power in Kabul with zero resistance from the US backed government of Ashraf Ghani, was a legitimate sovereign state from 1996-2001. The Taliban had an established constitution, trained army, law enforcement, intelligence units, judiciary etc irrespective of whether one individual, the United States or its coalition partners or others were in support for or against the system of government that the Taliban governed with.  

The next task is to identify why the US went to Afghanistan in the first place. We know the US Bush administration invaded Afghanistan and launched a pre-emptive strike for 3 key reasons although most US officials only publicly mention 2 mission objectives ; One , and this is how I see it in order of priority ; to get ride of Al-Qaeda network or at least reduce Al-Qaeda ability to plan and launch any attack against the United States and her allies as they did on September 11th 2001 - an attack we know resulted in the death of more than 3000 people; Two, to capture or kill Al-Qaeda accused master-minder of the coordinated attacks - Osama Bin Laden; and three , to severely punish and destabilise the Taliban government for shielding Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden in Afghanistan.  

There is no doubt in my observation that the US did succeed in achieving all three objectives as stated above even though Al-Qaeda has not been completely eliminated and ISIS became a by product of Al-Qaeda in Iraq or Al Nusra in 2013/14 - then establishing a so-called islamic Caliphate in Raqqa and Mosul along Syria and Iraq borders. 

The US invasion and bombing campaign did succeed in destroying the centralised structure of Al-Qaeda and eventually reducing the threat that Al-Qaeda posed to US national security by getting Osama Bin Laden killed, destabilising and capturing other key Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders. Having achieved its actual mission, the US coalition failed after 20 years because of its occupation and regime change policy which appeared easy to achieve at first glance but in practice, proved to be its most costly policy decision in both human and material terms and the weakest link — the occupation and regime change policy turns out to be the biggest miscalculation and blunder.

It is therefore safe to conclude that the US and her NATO allies did achieve enormous mission success in all three initial mission objective that was planned for , they had their revenge on the Taliban government and Al-Qaeda through invasion and bombing of Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda leadership strongholds, But failed in the occupation mission that they did not plan for but for some misguided reasons thought they could copycat the Germany and Japan case after WW2- which saw a successful occupation, reconstruction and regime change sustained till date. 

 Unfortunately history will only remember the failures than the successes, we are constantly being reminded of comparisons made with the situation of Saigon Vietnam in 1967. The underestimated 75,000 plus morally high but ill-equipped Taliban seems to have inherited trillions of US tax payer money in the form of infrastructure, military Equipement ,small and large weapons, ammunitions and potentially more than 300,000 US trained Afghan military, special forces and security personnel. Even if one argues correctly that some of these trained personnel will end up joining resistance movements, or choose to escape to neighbouring states or elsewhere. What is clear is that this US highly trained personnel that have surrendered to the Taliban will eventually enhance the capacity of a potential Taliban government.

Do you think Taliban has changed or will change at all? Are they likely to implement strict sharia law again? 

No one can answer that question accurately but the Taliban leadership. But let me attempt without claiming to speak for Taliban ; The question is Change from what to what? First, I don’t think the Taliban will change from a strict Islamic Republic with Sharia at the core of governance to a democratic system of government with political democracy at the core. What seems to have sustained the Taliban all this past decades, given them hope, patience and resilience is the strong believe in the traditional culture and strict religion which, in my opinion seems to constitute almost 99 + percentage of the Taliban mindset. 

Taliban considers culture and religion much more important than politics which is the reverse in most western democracies but I suspect the Taliban knows that in this twenty-first century of globalisation, even the most conservative regimes need to engage in contemporary politics and diplomacy in order to enjoy their preferred culture and religion peacefully. For example it may be possible that the new Taliban would reform its policies on women and girls education that won’t be a surprise as the Taliban of today seems more abreast with global issues compared to the Taliban we knew 20-40 years back. 

What about Taliban relationship with Al-Qaeda and others? 

The indistinguishable relationship between the Taliban and groups like Al-Qaeda have been raised before in previous negotiations held in Doha-Qatar between the US government and the Afghanistan government and it has been a very challenging subject for the Taliban to deal with in practice. One must not forget that whilst an insurgency, the Taliban and Al-Qaeda had common enemies — shared logistics, fought alongside each other and exchanged fighters against the Afghan government and the US western coalition. But as a government of the day, this challenge becomes even more complex for the Taliban to handle even though they give the impression that they have severed ties with Al-Qaeda. 

For governance sustainability and legitimacy, I believe the Taliban will have to consider how best it aligns itself with groups like Al-Qaeda - at least publicly. What a new Taliban government may want to avoid is a repeat of another US NATO invasion and bombing linked to a threat or activity of a non-state actor within its territory for that it would have to sever all ties with Al-Qaeda and be seen to have a strategy to get ride of ISIS groups within Afghanistan. 

The danger and real challenge is how the Taliban will be able to successfully get ride of Al-Qaeda without making an enemy out of a friend that has been by its side for the past 20years fighting a common enemy. This is where one is most likely to see the Taliban supporting Al-Qaeda covertly and secretly within and outside Afghanistan but distancing itself from Al-Qaeda or even appearing to establish policies to eliminate Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. What I don’t envisage for now is the Taliban successfully and realistically cutting all ties with Al-Qaeda overtly and covertly.  

We know ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast,' if the Taliban has been sustained for over 40 years by its strict culture and religious system of governance by sharia law — the mindset of the Islamic republic is unlikely to change today as many in the West would wish.  

What does this mean for potential future attacks on the West? 

After the events of the past 20 years, the Taliban understands that it cannot sustain a government under direct military threat from US Coalition invasion — it would have to sever ties — at least officially with Al-Qaeda and show to the world that it has a policy and strategy to not allow ISIS Korasan Province to use its territory as a safe haven to plan and launch attacks against the West. But It is likely that while officially denouncing and distancing itself from either Al-Qaeda or ISIS , the Taliban could provide Al-Qaeda at least with material support within and outside Afghanistan. We must not forget that Al-Qaeda and Taliban fought against US-Coalition side by side. The West is and will always remain the common number one enemy for the Taliban , Al-Qaeda and ISIS.

What does the Taliban takeover mean for potential future terrorist attacks on the West? 

In the immediate term, one would imagine that the priority for the Taliban leadership would be to consolidate power throughout the 400 districts and provinces of Afghanistan , appoint temporary leaders to ensure there is smooth communication, command and control — especially as the Taliban is likely to face an organised opposition resistance front from Pansjshir and Afghan opposition leaders such as Amrullah Saleh, Marshall Dostunm, Ahmad Massoud, Prof.Atta Mohammed Noor, Abdullah Abdullah Khalilzad and Kaizai. This may be a security first approach for the Taliban. 

In the short term, the Taliban would likely need to demonstrate capacity, authority and some credibility by showing the world and Afghanis that it is prepared to maintain law and order; it does not intend to carry out revenge punishments or arbitrary arrest or executions, it can prevent riots and stop opportunistic looting of properties which always happens when such political revolutions take place. Consolidation of power is likely to be the Taliban’s short and medium term pre-occupation - Let us not forget that from a constitutional perspective, what has happened in Afghanistan is essentially a coup d’etat in the real sense of it even if the Taliban sees it differently. It is for this legal reason that the first Vice President of Afghanistan government - Amrullah Saleh is calling himself the interim president after the flight of President Asraf Ghani and other senior government officials. 

In the long term and contrary to popular opinion , I do not yet see a scenario where the Taliban could openly allow a non-state actor like Al-Qaeda and ISIS to use its territory again to plan and launch terrorist attacks against US or its NATO coalition, not after the devastating political , social and economic impact of the invasion and bombing experience from the US NATO coalition. Any jihadist organization like Al-Qaeda in the region or in Asia , Africa in Sahel or Great Lakes that has been tactically congratulating the Taliban take over insinuating that Taliban could provide them support and a safe haven to train and plan offensives against the West or US would probably be disappointed very soon.  

After the events of the past 20 years, I think the Taliban understands that it cannot sustain a stable government under direct military threat from US Coalition invasion — it would have to sever ties — at least officially with Al-Qaeda. But as indicated before, It should not come as a surprise that while officially denouncing and distancing itself from either Al-Qaeda or ISIS, the Taliban could covertly provide Al-Qaeda with material support within and outside Afghanistan. We must not forget that Al-Qaeda and Taliban share a common ideology and they both fought against US-Coalition side by side for years. The US and the West remains the common enemy for the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K until proven otherwise.

Today’s Taliban probably understands that the eyes and ears of the world are focused on watching and listening to every move that it makes, even though getting Human intelligence to nail the Taliban down will not be an easy exercise. If allowed to suggest, when the Taliban becomes a legitimate state again, it should seize this opportunity, see it as a golden second chance to govern Afghanistan more openly and in a much inclusive society that protects its political image and reputation globally not necessarily a democratic system, but a system of tolerance to basic human dignity for all persons irrespective of religion , age , gender and others. It's a choice for the Taliban and Afghanis to make. 

So What does this mean for their relationship with Al Qaeda and ISIS? 

It’s too early to tell accurately how this will play out. But the relationship between Al-Qaeda and ISIS , and let’s not forget the Haqqani network, will , as mentioned earlier on, pose one of the biggest challenges for the new Taliban government and any country that wishes to back the Taliban will have this toxic link dynamics at the back of their mind whether it is China, Russia, Turkey, Pakistan , etc. What we may likely see is the emergence of splinter Taliban and Al-Qaeda rival factions as seen in ISIS and AQIM affiliates in Northern Nigeria and the Sahel especially from fighters and commanders that will not be satisfied with the spoils of the political deal they get from this new Taliban take-over. It's not uncommon for chaos to emerge within an organised group when the key enemy is out of the way, leading to infighting due to power politics contrary to expectations or not meeting up with previous agreements. Opposition amongst the Taliban government may begin to crack open very soon as power can be intoxicating even to the most devout religious fanatic.

Could they provide a breeding ground for future terrorists and military training? 

As mentioned earlier , it depends on whether the Taliban is willing to risk it again but there is no doubt that this is an area that the world must pay close attention to no one fancies a situation where the Taliban uses its legitimacy as a state to invite, hide and train future terrorist individuals and groups. If Afghanis accept the legitimacy of the Taliban, the world should not isolate the Taliban , Isolation may even be more dangerous to international peace and security when a sovereign state has access to and are in possession of trillions of dollarsworth of US coalition trained military personnel, special forces, law enforcement officials , Equipments, light and heavy armouries. 

With this power and resources , nothing is likely to deter an isolated Taliban from providing training and other support to terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda to harm the near and far enemy any where in the world. Engagement with the Taliban on nation building is very strategic for global peace and stability. Nonetheless , it is possible that the Taliban could still keep such assistance and links very secretive so as not to directly link Al-Qaeda to itself and risk inviting a repeat of post 9/11 US led pre-emptive strikes. Or, the Taliban could provide support and training to Al-Qaeda affiliates outside Afghanistan - in Pakistan, Asia , the Sahel, Libya and Somalia - all feasible examples where such affiliates may be engaged.

Could we see other terrorist groups copying the Taliban around the world? 

The Taliban take over in Afghanistan is a unique case. Any other terrorist group around the world that may be thinking of copying the Taliban success is likely to fail. In practice and political history, there is hardly a like for like comparison between the Taliban and other jihadist groups like Al-Qaeda or ISIS even though many analyst see ISIS as the direct offspring of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and the old and current Taliban regime is rooted from the Mujaheddin of Osama Bin Laden that came together to battle the Soviet Union in the 1970s. As mentioned before , the Taliban, despite its own origin, attained the status of a legitimate constitutionally recognised government as the Islamic republic of Afghanistan for over 20 years. 

Even If Al-Qaeda and ISIS affiliated jihadist groups in the Middle East , Sahel , South Africa , Central Africa , West Africa consider the recent success of the Taliban in Afghanistan as worth emulating , they must also recall that the Taliban was an established UN recognised sovereign government 20years ago before the US invasion sent them packing.Not even a covert support from the Taliban will earn any terrorist group be it Boko Haram in Nigeria , Al-Shabaab in Somalia such capacity and support — that is if such an ambition and does exist realistically.   

What COIN lessons can be learned from US NATO invasion of Afghanistan?

One lesson - That people strongly held culture, and to some extent religion does have the potential over time to consume the best foreign strategy for breakfast when misunderstood. Invading a sovereign country like Afghanistan, as we saw also in the case of Libya in 2011 , and subjecting it to bombing campaigns to the ground on credible cause for a serious wrong done to national or global peace and security is indeed operationally achievable and can be replicated successfully. But any further policy to occupy that same country , for the purpose of reconstruction and regime change for another less popular system of government that is backed by the occupying power , can be more costly in human and material damage than ever envisaged - unfortunately , here we have it in Afghanistan after two decades. 


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David Otto

David Otto is the Director for Stepped In – Step Out UK Ltd and a Counter-Terrorism and Organised Crime Expert. He is a Certified Anti -Terrorism Specialist (CAS), a Certified Master Anti -Terrorism Specialist (CMAS) and a programme trainer with the Anti -Terrorism Accreditation Board (ATAB). Twitter @ottotgs Email:


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