Will a Taliban-ruled Afghanistan be a safe haven for terrorism?

The Taliban
(Image credit: Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)

One of the main objections to America's withdrawal from Afghanistan is that it will make Americans less safe — that terrorist groups will find safe haven from which to spring new attacks on U.S. soil. Didn't we invade Afghanistan in the first place in order to end the threat from al Qaeda, after all?

"There's no question that the return of the Taliban opens up space in this new Islamic emirate for al Qaeda to return, rebuild a base, and for other groups associated or previously associated with al Qaeda, like ISIS, to return to the region," Jamil Jaffer, executive director of the National Security Institute at George Mason University, told The Hill last week.

But there are a couple of reasons to think these fears are overblown.

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The first is that an American military presence doesn't always discourage or stop terrorism — it can generate it. The U.S. invasion of Iraq helped birth ISIS, for example, both by destabilizing the country and by radicalizing the population against foreign occupiers. And the man behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden, was motivated to wage war against the United States in part because American troops remained in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1991. A smaller American footprint abroad might actually make our country a smaller target.

It's also the case that 9/11 was an act of stateless terrorism. Al Qaeda may have made its base in Afghanistan, but the hijackers were from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, and Egypt. Some of them plotted the attack in Hamburg, Germany, then sought flight training at schools in Florida and Arizona. The ubiquity of technology means that potential terrorists can and do become radicalized via email and social media from anywhere on the planet. That's a problem, but it means that planting an army in Kabul with the intent of holding it forever is an expensive and probably ineffective way to stop terrorism.

None of this is to say America will be free from terrorism going forward, or that the Taliban's quick victory won't have ugly consequences. But it does mean that the downsides of leaving Afghanistan aren't quite so clear as the hawks would have it.

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