Mistaken beliefs in foreign affairs, including ones that are widely held and drive major policies, can persist for a long time. Contrary events sometimes force a re-evaluation of such beliefs, of course, but that depends on the nature and salience of the events. Dramatic, attention-grabbing happenings can suddenly overturn whole ways of thinking, such as how the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor turned many isolationists into internationalists overnight.
Developments that are less dramatic, less sudden, and less salient are unlikely to have much effect on popular beliefs even if their probative value is just as great as some of the more dramatic ones. They simply do not get enough public and political attention to change minds.
This is especially true of parts of the evidentiary record that involve things that do not happen, even though non-events can disprove some beliefs as much as things that do happen. Most people do not have the focus of Sherlock Holmes to draw appropriate conclusions from dogs that do not bark.
So it is with the role of Afghanistan in international terrorism. Americans have had etched in their minds—as a result of the 9/11 attack, one of those highly salient, attitude-changing events—the belief that the status and political future of Afghanistan is a major determinant of whether more Americans will fall victim to terrorism. That belief sustained support for what became America’s longest war, which cost more than $2 trillion and the lives of more than 6,000 Americans, both military and civilian.
Most of whatever that two-decade-long U.S. effort accomplished was accomplished in the first few weeks, with the rousting of the group that perpetrated 9/11 and the ousting from power of the Taliban regime that had been its host. What followed was a long, mission-creeping effort at nationbuilding, the fecklessness of which was demonstrated by the rapidity with which what was built collapsed in August 2021.
Over time, other issues were raised as reasons to continue a fight against a return of the Taliban to power—such as the group’s medieval attitudes regarding the role of women. But terrorism was the issue that, more than any other, sustained support for an ultimately unsuccessful war. The logic was that we needed to fight the bad guys over there so we do not have to fight them at home.
Based on that thought, much of the criticism when Joe Biden’s administration finally pulled the plug on the war in 2021 centered on terrorism. Nathan Sales, who was the State Department counterterrorism coordinator in the Trump administration, declared that the terrorism risk to the United States was going to be “dramatically worse” because “it is virtually certain that Al Qaeda will reestablish a safe haven in Afghanistan and use it to plot terrorism against the United States and others.’’ Republican critics charged that the withdrawal was turning Afghanistan into a “hotbed of terrorists.”
Partisan criticism then was as contrived as such criticism usually is, and in this case, conveniently overlooked that Biden was implementing a withdrawal agreement that the Trump administration had negotiated. But the criticism resonated with many Americans, beyond party affiliation. Polling at the time showed that the great majority of Americans believed that Taliban control of Afghanistan posed a security threat to the United States, with nearly half of those polled believing it to be a “major” threat.
Such a belief had two principal components. The first was that having a geographic safe haven similar to what the Al Qaeda leadership once had is a critical component of whether a group poses a significant terrorist threat. The second was that Afghanistan has a special status as a terrorist haven above all others.
Both of those components are false. As I wrote at the time of the withdrawal:
Of all the factors affecting the ability and willingness of any group to attack the United States, having a place to set up camp in a land thousands of miles away is one of the less important ones. The 9/11 operation itself is an example, having been prepared at least as much in apartments in Hamburg, resorts in Spain, flight schools in the United States, and cyberspace as it was in Afghanistan.
Moreover, I continued, “To the extent that an overseas physical safe haven matters at all, there is nothing unique about Afghanistan. If a group needs some unstable country for a place to pitch its tent, there are numerous other options,” with the closest calls in post-9/11 anti-U.S. terrorism originating in other countries such as Yemen.
I further explained why, considering the Taliban’s history and objectives, a re-establishment of anything like their previous arrangement with Al Qaeda was unlikely. The Taliban’s earlier hosting of Al Qaeda came amid an Afghan civil war in which the Taliban were dependent on what Osama bin Laden’s group could contribute to the fight—a circumstance no longer existent as of 2021. The Taliban is one of the most insular ruling groups in the world, with no interest in international terrorism. The biggest setback the Taliban ever suffered—its ouster from power when the U.S. military intervened in late 2001—was a direct result of a terrorist attack by a group with a presence in Afghanistan. Now back in power, the Taliban have every reason to combat—not to condone—anything that looks like an international terrorist operation brewing on Afghan soil.
More than two years later, it is the scenario I described, not the alarmist one pitched by critics of the U.S. withdrawal, that has turned out to be true. Washington Post columnist David Ignatius recently addressed this subject with a report, partly based on official sources, that describes how the Taliban regime has become a counterterrorism partner “as a matter of self-interest for the mullahs.” Ignatius quotes the head of the National Counterterrorism Center as stating that Al Qaeda “is at its historical nadir in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its revival is unlikely,” with the group’s ability to threaten the United States from Afghanistan “at its lowest point” since the group moved there in 1998.
Ignatius describes how the Taliban have not only “suppressed any foreign operations” of the small, aging remnants of Al Qaeda in the country but also conducted “a brutal but effective campaign” against the Islamic State branch in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K. In the words of former National Counterterrorism Center director Michael Leiter, “We’re lucky, our interest and the Taliban’s interest align” as far as counterterrorism is concerned.
If the alternative, alarmist scenario about terrorism and Afghanistan had come to pass—especially if punctuated by an Afghanistan-originated terrorist attack against an American target—the public and political attention would have been great, no doubt accompanied by “I told you so” declarations from those who in 2021 were talking about Afghanistan becoming a hotbed of terrorists and about the supposed certainty of Al Qaeda mounting anti-U.S. operations from that country.
But the actual situation, offering no single dramatic event, has gone largely unnoticed. As Ignatius aptly puts it, “The villains just seem to have slipped off into irrelevance, with people paying little attention to their apparent demise…The calamitous story appears to be over, but we missed the ending.”
Thus, mistaken beliefs about Afghanistan and terrorism will persist. Those who badly misanalyzed the situation as of August 2021 are not forced to admit their mistakes, and their mistaken beliefs will continue to color much discussion about policy toward Afghanistan today and about how to think of the U.S. withdrawal two years ago. The denouement of the Ashraf Ghani regime at that time exhibited a fragility that would have made messy any withdrawal, however carefully managed. The plug should have been pulled much earlier.
The mistaken beliefs also will infect discussion about counterterrorist policy generally, which is unfortunate in that international terrorist threats to U.S. interests certainly continue.
Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.