The attack at the Kabul airport shows that the Taliban are unable to get the country completely under control, terror expert Wassim Nasr argues in an interview. An entity that once offered safe haven to terrorists will now have to fight them.
Interview Conducted by Britta Sandberg
DER SPIEGEL: Mr. Nasr, what many have been fearing in recent days has come to pass: On Thursday, an attack at the Kabul airport claimed the lives of at least 80 civilians and 13 American soldiers.
Nasr: From a very early stage, there was much to suggest that this attack originated with the Afghan branch of the Islamic State (IS), which has since claimed responsibility for it. They were IS suicide bombers.
DER SPIEGEL: Why were you so certain early on that it was IS?
Nasr: It is the only group that has an interest in an attack like this, because by doing so, the IS fighters are showing that the Taliban are unable to take control of the city they have captured. And they are distancing themselves from the Taliban, which for days has tolerated Afghans being taken out of the country on planes. Many consider this to be a betrayal, not only the supporters of IS.
DER SPIEGEL: What does this mean for the new Taliban government?
Nasr: Thursday’s attacks have put them in an extremely difficult situation. Attacking the Americans in the last days of their withdrawal was not in the Taliban’s interest. They had defeated the world’s greatest military power – why would they attack the Americans and risk everything they had achieved? But now they have to respond – that is, strictly speaking, they now have to fight the war on terror, but on their own, without the support and technical equipment of the U.S. Army. That is going to be complicated no matter how you look at it.
About Wassim Nasr
DER SPIEGEL: Because the Taliban aren’t capable of doing so?
Nasr: IS has long been an opponent of the Taliban. It was the Islamic State that most recently carried out the major, deadly attacks in Kabul. It is the real threat, not al-Qaida. The Americans took massive action against IS fighters in the country. But will they continue to do so – with armed drones or cruise missiles? No one can say at this point. For now, the Taliban are on their own, and no one knows if their fighters can do the job. But there’s also another problem: If the Taliban now carry out anti-terrorist operations, this could divide the country into two camps. All those who no longer feel represented by their new government could then radicalize further and possibly join IS.
DER SPIEGEL: What distinguishes today’s Taliban from those who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001?
Nasr: Not much. We should stop pretending once and for all that we are dealing with a new generation of Taliban. The new head of their political office, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, spent eight years in prison in Pakistan. He was a close friend of the former Taliban leader Mullah Omar. The group’s new No. 2, Sirajuddin Haqqani, belongs to the militant Haqqani network, which has close ties to al-Qaida. And the recently appointed governor of Khost, Mohammad Nabi Omari, spent 12 years in Guantanamo and was only released thanks to a trade that was made for a U.S. hostage. These are still the same people and the ideology has remained the same. But they are now acting more politically, more strategically adept. They have learned.
DER SPIEGEL: After the 9/11 attacks, the Haqqani network helped hide the leadership of al-Qaida in Waziristan in Pakistan. Is Afghanistan now likely to become a haven for al-Qaida fighters once again?
Nasr: They have been in the country for a long time, anyway. But will the Taliban allow them to plan attacks on Europe and the U.S. from Afghanistan? I don’t think so. If only for the simple reason that the 9/11 attacks thwarted all the Taliban’s plans.
DER SPIEGEL: What do you mean by that?
Nasr: The Taliban government wanted to be politically recognized. It received UN delegations and representatives of other states. Al-Qaida wrecked all those plans. Incidentally, even back then, the Sept. 11 attacks were largely planned and prepared in Hamburg and the U.S., even though Osama bin Laden had made the country his place of residence. Either way, al-Qaida is logistically incapable of a terrorist attack like 9/11 today. The group is far too weakened.
DER SPIEGEL: That could change given that al-Qaida can now operate in the country unhindered by American surveillance.
Nasr: That’s right, they will no longer be under constant observation by the U.S. Will this situation lead to the strengthening of the organization again? Definitely, yes. But there won’t be any more training camps for “foreign fighters” from Europe like the ones before 2001 – that is a model from the past. We have seen that terrorists in Europe can carry out attacks even without training. I believe the new government can keep al-Qaida in check.
DER SPIEGEL: That means al-Qaida won’t likely be a threat, but IS will be even more dangerous?
Nasr: Both terrorist groups will strengthen their own ranks after the Americans withdraw. But the crucial point is this: We don’t yet know what course the new Taliban government will take. Will it leave women in certain positions? Will girls still be able to go to school? Will it allow the Shia in the country to practice their faith? Nobody knows yet how they are going to act. The whole world is watching – the West, but also the Afghans. If this new course isn’t to their liking, it will attract new fighters, particularly to the IS, and it could lead to internal conflicts, fighting and attacks in the country.