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Jihadi Movement Is Galvanized By Taliban's Takeover In Afghanistan, Expert Says

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When the U.S. attacked Afghanistan 20 years ago, the main target was al-Qaida. The U.S. was responding to the 9/11 attacks. The ruling Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden, who was thought to be hiding there, so the U.S. helped to overturn the Taliban government. So what does it mean for extremists that the Taliban have returned to power?

ASFANDYAR MIR: What has happened in the last few days is monumental. At least it is perceived that way. Global jihadists are electrified by the Taliban's return.

INSKEEP: Asfandyar Mir is an expert in counterterrorism at Stanford University.

MIR: Twenty years later, this is a big triumph for the Taliban as well as for al-Qaida. From the Taliban's perspective, they mounted this really effective insurgency. They have expelled a foreign occupier, and they have restored the government, which was forcibly taken away from them. And from al-Qaida's perspective, it has defeated its main nemesis, its main foe, which is the United States, by supporting the insurgency of the Taliban.

INSKEEP: Didn't the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban, not including the old Afghan government, include a commitment that the Taliban would separate themselves from al-Qaida somehow?

MIR: So there was some language which experts refer to as counterterrorism guarantees of the U.S.-Taliban deal, as per which the Taliban were not supposed to expel al-Qaida. They are supposed to restrain al-Qaida in certain ways, prevent the use of Afghan territory from being used against other countries. And they were supposed to take certain steps to show some distance from al-Qaida. By all accounts, the account of the U.S. government, as well as other governments - U.S. allies in Europe, for instance - as well as the United Nations, al-Qaida and Taliban have continued their cooperation. Relationship between them very much endures.

INSKEEP: In order to come on the line and talk with you, I had to turn away from a Taliban press conference that was ongoing in Kabul. And the Taliban spokesman had just said, we are not going to allow our territory to be used against anybody; you will not be harmed in any way from our soil. Are those credible statements then?

MIR: Look; there are lots of jihadist groups currently in Afghanistan, some of whom want to fight the U.S., like al-Qaida, like ISIS. And then there are other groups which are more regionally oriented, which have more proximate state adversaries in mind. So there are some anti-China jihadists. There's some Central Asian jihadists. And then there's some anti-Pakistan jihadists as well.

So when the Taliban make this commitment, they are making a pretty big commitment. They're not just making a commitment to the U.S. And in recent months, as recently as July, many of these groups have undertaken violence from bases in Afghanistan, outside Afghanistan. So the Taliban's test starts right away. If they actually mean what they're saying, I think they can start by restraining the Pakistani insurgent group Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban and the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan have cooperated for a very long time. And so if they restrain the TTP, perhaps they want all their commitment, but that appears to be highly unlikely.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's very interesting because you are saying that Pakistan might be the first target of terrorism out of this new Taliban state or newly reestablished Taliban state, even though Pakistan has some kind of relationship with the Taliban and occasionally was - or often was accused of supporting it.

MIR: Absolutely. So Pakistan appears to be the first major target of these jihadists who are based out of Afghanistan. Look; Pakistan has had a longstanding, deep relationship with the Taliban pre-9/11 and are one of three or four governments which have recognized the government of the Taliban. And post-9/11, Pakistan's played a very important part in both reviving and sustaining the insurgency of the Taliban, in helping the insurgency evade U.S. targeting pressures, international pressures. So that relationship is strong. But paradoxically, they have nurtured - Afghan Taliban have nurtured Pakistan's worst enemy over the last 15 years or so. So this is a very strange triangle. And in some ways, Pakistan has some very tough days ahead.

INSKEEP: Pakistan was accused of playing a double game, working with both sides in the Afghanistan war. I think you're telling me the Taliban have played a double game, accepting Pakistani support when they could get it, but also showing their independence, to say the least, from Pakistan.

MIR: It's true that Pakistan has played both sides. And perhaps the Taliban have learned from Pakistan on this front. And they have this strategy at hand, which allows them to exert some pressure on Pakistan as well.

INSKEEP: Let's hear a little bit of what President Biden had to say about the U.S. withdrawal. On Monday, he said that the U.S. should have had a smaller mission for a long time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I've argued for many years that our mission should be narrowly focused on counterterrorism, not counterinsurgency or nation building. That's why I opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was vice president. And that's why as president, I'm adamant we focus on the threats we face today in 2021, not yesterday's threats.

INSKEEP: Let's talk that through a little bit. It seems the U.S. plan was to continue counterterrorism efforts in Afghanistan, but without U.S. troops. There was going to be a big U.S. Embassy. There'd be a CIA presence. There'd be a friendly government to work with. Is counterterrorism still possible at all in Afghanistan now that a friendly government has fallen and the embassy has closed?

MIR: Look; counterterrorism today without a partner government, however corrupt, however weak is going to be very, very difficult. The administration is talking about over the horizon counterterrorism - use of drones and other forms of airpower, surveillance aircraft, got to have (ph) special forces from offshore going into Afghanistan, detecting the threat and then trying to neutralize it. This will be enormously challenging. And the first major challenge the administration faces is that it doesn't have bases, military bases proximate to landlocked Afghanistan. So the mission ahead is extremely challenging. I don't agree with President Biden's claim that this can be done from offshore easily. It can be done, sure. But I think the requirements, the kind of resources, the material needs of an effective over the horizon counterterrorism posture are fairly high, and the U.S. government is not well-positioned to mount such a campaign, for now at least.

INSKEEP: Asfandyar Mir at Stanford University. Thank you so much.

MIR: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHELIAN'S "BLACK ORCHID") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.