Shadow of Terror Looms in Afghanistan - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Shadow of Terror Looms in Afghanistan

Shadow of Terror Looms in Afghanistan

By Charu Sudan Kasturi, Kate Bartlett and Erik Nelson

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN -- AUGUST 26, 2021: A wounded patient is brought by a taxi to EMERGENCY Hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Twin bombings struck near the entrance to KabulÕs airport Thursday, ripping through crowds of Afghans and foreign nationals waiting for evacuation from the country. The explosions complicated an already-nightmarish airlift just before the U.S. deadline to remove its troops from the country. (MARCUS YAM / LOS ANGELES TIMES)
Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

America’s longest war was sparked by a terrorist attack, and it’s now been bookended by another. A suicide bomber killed 13 U.S. service members, two British nationals and nearly 200 Afghans in an attack yesterday at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, just days before America finishes withdrawing its troops from the country on Tuesday. The Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) group, a self-proclaimed branch of the Islamic State militant group, has claimed responsibility. The attack came even as the U.S. and its allies were expediting an already hurried evacuation of their citizens and Afghan partners such as interpreters.

Will the killings change America’s withdrawal calculus? What will it mean for the legacy of President Joe Biden? What about Afghanistan? Today’s Global Dispatch connects the dots to answer these questions and shed light on what could come next — because even though the U.S. military is leaving Afghanistan, Thursday’s events show that the shadow of Afghanistan won’t be leaving America anytime soon.


Worst Fears Realized

Wars are complex, and two-decade-long conflicts are particularly knotty. But Biden’s central reason for withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan has been clear and simple: to avoid further loss of life in that conflict. “How many more American lives is it worth?” he asked as recently as Aug. 16, when faced with criticism over his decision a day after the Taliban had overtaken Kabul. Now he finds himself taking flak again, after Thursday’s deadly terrorist strikes left many in the U.S. angry and eager for retribution.

Carefully Chosen Target

As for the location the attacker struck, Abbey Gate was a logical choice as it is one of the three main entry points to the military side of the airport. That’s where U.S. troops were stationed and where hundreds of Afghans desperate to escape the country have been congregating for weeks. The bomber reportedly walked into the middle of a crowd that included many children before detonating. Dozens of Afghan victims were rushed to local hospitals while a number of injured U.S. personnel were flown to a base in Germany for treatment.

The Hunt Is On

Biden’s initial response to the attack captures the challenge presented by such audacious acts of terrorism: Governments need to show strength without reacting in a way that gives further oxygen to extremists. “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay,” Biden said last night. He also made clear that the U.S. would continue with evacuations until Aug. 31. And even though the president said he wouldn’t extend that deadline to allow for a later withdrawal of troops, he promised that his administration would find other “means” to extract Americans and Afghan partners who remain in Afghanistan beyond that date.

What Is ISK?

It’s the local arm of the Islamic State terrorist group in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it draws its name from the Khorasan region that emcompasses parts of the border region between the two South Asian nations and neighboring Iran. It emerged in 2015, its initial members splintering from the Pakistan branch of the Taliban. It has since become a major worry for coalition forces in Afghanistan. In 2017, the U.S. dropped its biggest non-nuclear bomb — called the “mother of all bombs” — on a suspected ISK hideout in Afghanistan. Despite their similar extremist Islamist ideologies, or perhaps partly because of them, ISK and Taliban are strategic rivals locked in battle for supremacy over the region. But with Thursday’s attack, ISK’s primary message was for the U.S., says Rakesh Sood, a former Indian ambassador to Afghanistan. “They were telling the Americans clearly: Do not even think about staying beyond August 31, no matter how the evacuation stands,” Sood tells OZY.

President Biden Delivers Remarks On Terror Attack At Hamid Karzai International Airport

U.S. President Joe Biden pauses before speaking in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. Two explosions outside Kabul’s international airport killed 12 U.S. service members, along with at least 13 Afghans, with dozens more wounded less than a week before U.S. forces are due to depart. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images


Iraq Déjà Vu

There was a tragic irony to the events leading up to yesterday’s devastating loss of life. The very group responsible for the U.S. military deaths in Kabul grew out of yet another American conflict — the invasion of Iraq — started by President George W. Bush. The U.S. went into Afghanistan in October 2001 to kill Osama Bin Laden and wipe out terrorism in the wake of 9/11. The Afghan occupation achieved neither goal. In Iraq, the 2003 invasion to stop the production of what turned out to be nonexistent weapons of mass destruction inadvertently led to the rise of the Islamic State group, which formed in a power vacuum and gained further ground when former President Barack Obama pulled U.S. troops from the country in 2011. The group then established a foothold in Syria, with militants ranging from places such as Mozambique to the Philippines pledging allegiance. What does this all mean for America going forward? “I think it is at this level where China and Russia will gain far more from what has happened in Afghanistan than, for example, extremist groups,” Jasmine Opperman, a counterterrorism expert based in South Africa, tells OZY.

Honeymoon Over

“You know as well as I do that the former president made a deal with the Taliban,” Biden said, referring to Donald Trump as he addressed the American deaths in Kabul yesterday. But will voters remember, and will they care? Biden’s popularity ratings have plummeted in polls this week, down to 41% overall and with only 26% of Americans approving his handling of the withdrawal. Most critics are focusing their ire on the short timeline of the withdrawal and how it was conducted, with some Republicans calling for the president’s resignation. And there are also questions from his own side of the aisle, with Democrats calling on the administration to do more to help Afghan refugees who worked with U.S. forces.

New Conflict?

But just as critical, Biden has to deliver on his promise of finding and punishing the masterminds of Thursday’s attack. Could that drag America into a fresh war? “No, a couple of missiles could do the job once they’ve pinpointed their targets,” says Sood, the former envoy to Kabul. Yet America’s response to al-Qaida started similarly, with missiles following bomb attacks on U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. While there’s very little appetite for war among the American public at the moment, experts worry that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan creates a “permissive” environment for ISK to operate and thrive. Already, U.S. forces are bracing for further attacks from the group in the remaining days that American troops are on Afghan soil. With the Islamic State group losing all its territory in Syria and Iraq, could Afghanistan become its next staging ground for launching strikes against the West?

The World’s Watching

How Biden responds in this moment will also be keenly watched in capitals around the world. Already, the chaotic nature of the exit from Afghanistan has dented America’s image in the eyes of allies and friends, says Sood. “The photo of people falling from the Globemaster plane will likely stick the way the images of the helicopter in Saigon continue to remind us of Vietnam,” he says. Many of Washington’s allies wanted to keep troops in Kabul beyond Aug. 31 until all evacuations could be completed. Biden rejected that proposal and has insisted that the U.S. can evacuate all Americans and Afghan allies, and defeat ISK without needing a military footprint in Afghanistan. Now the onus is on him to prove to America’s friends that he can deliver and that he isn’t just capitulating to threats from the Taliban, and now ISK.


TOPSHOT – Taliban fighters in a vehicle patrol the streets of Kabul on August 23, 2021 as in the capital, the Taliban have enforced some sense of calm in a city long marred by violent crime, with their armed forces patrolling the streets and manning checkpoints. (Photo by Wakil KOHSAR / AFP) (Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images)


Taliban, the Lesser Evil?

America has fought the Taliban for two decades. Now at the Kabul airport, they’re working together, with the Taliban providing security at the outer perimeter. The two sides are bound by a desire to defeat a common enemy in the Islamic State — specifically the Khorasan chapter. But if the Taliban and ISK are both radical Islamist groups that have killed Americans, why is the U.S. cooperating with the former? Because, unlike the Islamic State, the Taliban have never suggested that they hold territorial ambitions beyond Afghanistan’s borders. ISK, in fact, calls the Taliban “filthy nationalists” for that reason. That makes the Taliban more palatable as a strategic partner in the fight against the Islamic State, not just for the U.S. but also for Russia, China and Iran. “They’re not good guys,” Biden said Thursday of the Taliban. “But they have a keen interest.” The problem? The West has a history of forgetting its avowed commitment to human rights and democracy when it suits its strategic interests.

The Left Behind

Though the evacuation process was halted in the aftermath of Thursday’s attack, officials announced its resumption Friday. But the feared presence of suicide bombers in the immediate area has made it almost impossible for at-risk Afghans to get into the airport for fear of exposing troops to further harm. That’s stymied frantic efforts by Western former colleagues contacting anyone in authority, from members of Congress to European diplomats, to try to get Afghans onto evacuation lists or into places like The Baron Hotel, so that they’ll have a fighting chance of securing a place on a cargo jet headed for Qatar, Abu Dhabi or other refugee way stations. With little hope of joining the airlift before Tuesday’s withdrawal deadline, many Afghans are instead fleeing to border crossings with Pakistan.

Next Terrorist Wave?

So what does this mean for the future of ISK and the Islamic State group in general, and for terrorist groups elsewhere in the world? It’s not good news, says Opperman. In the case of Afghanistan, “With this attack, they’ve shown their ability to move into the Kabul area,” she says. Whether they’ll “be able to do more than suicide bombings remains doubtful, but their presence is there.” In terms of Islamist militant groups elsewhere in the world — in Africa, for example — the U.S. withdrawal and the deadly attack that followed will likely prove an inspiration. “They will see the U.S. having lost the war, viewing the U.S. as running away,” she explains.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.


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