Will Afghanistan Become a Terrorism Safe Haven Once Again?

Not likely, at least in the short term, intelligence officials assess. But stopping terrorism groups over the long term could be more difficult.,

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WASHINGTON — The Sept. 11 attacks led American troops into Afghanistan in 2001 for what became a two-decade war. Now President Biden‘s decision to withdraw military forces has prompted a central question: Will the threat of terrorism against America re-emerge from Afghanistan?

The answer is no, at least not right away. But over the longer term, the question is far more difficult to answer. The United States could find itself pulled back into Afghanistan much as it was in Iraq, some current and former officials warned.

Intelligence officials have offered the Biden administration an overall grim portrait of the future of Afghanistan itself, predicting that the Taliban will make battlefield gains, Afghan government forces will struggle to hold territory and a peace deal between them is unlikely. The broad outlines of that assessment were made public in an intelligence report released on Tuesday.

Still, on the critical question of whether direct threats to the United States still exist in Afghanistan, U.S. spy agencies have privately offered a rosier picture.

The agencies do not believe Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups pose an immediate threat to strike the United States from Afghanistan, an assessment that the Biden administration considered pivotal as it weighed continuing the war or pulling out forces this year.

Al Qaeda planned the Sept. 11 attacks from Afghanistan, and in the weeks after the attacks, the United States invaded to oust the terrorist group from its haven and topple the Taliban, which had harbored Al Qaeda, from power. The invasion of Afghanistan ushered in a decades-long era of warfare, with the military fighting grinding counterinsurgency battles in the name of preventing new terrorist attacks on America.

Al Qaeda and the Islamic State’s Afghanistan branch remain very weak inside the country, according to three senior officials briefed on the intelligence. Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan are focused on making local gains, not mounting international attacks. And the Taliban remains hostile to the group.

Al Qaeda’s relationship with the Taliban is far more complicated. Before the Sept. 11 attacks, the Taliban-controlled Afghan government offered safe haven to Al Qaeda. As part of the 2020 peace agreement with the United States, the Taliban agreed to sever ties with terrorist groups including Al Qaeda and prevent them from operating inside Afghanistan. Whether the Taliban intends to honor that agreement is unknown.

No one can predict whether Al Qaeda will bounce back or how quickly. But some officials believe that the United States is unlikely to be caught unaware of a renewed Qaeda threat, pointing to U.S. counterterrorism capabilities and intelligence collection built up over the past two decades.

“The terrorism threat from the Afghan region is not zero, but, at the moment, it’s less than it is in other parts of the world,” Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said in an interview on Tuesday. “So the question is, can we continue to suppress the terrorism threat” from southwest Asia “without our troops being on the ground in Afghanistan?”

If the United States withdraws from Afghanistan, it is not clear whether Al Qaeda could rebuild a base there for carrying out terrorist attacks against the United States, according to senior lawmakers with access to the classified assessments. And even if Al Qaeda could rebound, some officials have asked if the group might choose another lawless region over Afghanistan.

“What is that threat really going to be?” Representative Adam Smith, Democrat of Washington and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said last month during a virtual conference on Afghanistan. “This isn’t the 1990s when Al Qaeda set up camps, and they had the Taliban and no one was paying attention to them.”

But collecting intelligence will become far more difficult once U.S. troops leave, current and former officials acknowledged. While some counterterrorism operations against terrorists inside Afghanistan can be conducted from far-flung bases in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere outside the country, they are risky and difficult to pull off. Mr. Biden or future presidents may be reluctant to approve them.

And with a weakened Afghan government facing pressure from the Taliban, conditions would be ripe for Qaeda cells to grow, some counterterrorism officials said.

“Ungoverned spaces, let alone a known terrorist organization like the Taliban dominating a nation, is altogether an ideal breeding ground for disparate terrorist groups that threaten the United States to find save haven and shelter,” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former C.I.A. officer who spent much of his career working on counterterrorism operations, including in Afghanistan.

Though the threat from international terrorist groups operating from Afghanistan is low, it might not stay that way, said Michael P. Mulroy, a former Pentagon official and C.I.A. officer who served in Afghanistan. U.S. counterterrorism operations have put continuous pressure on terrorist groups throughout the Afghanistan war. Once the troops leave, he said, that pressure will decline and the ability to collect intelligence in the region will suffer.

“While it is understandable to want all our forces to come home, it should not be at the expense of losing what we have gained to do so,” he said. “Repositioning our counterterrorism capabilities outside of the country will significantly reduce our intelligence collection operations and our ability to conduct unilateral operations against direct threats to the homeland.”

Other current and former intelligence officials noted that collection abilities have significantly improved since the Sept. 11 attacks.

American commanders, who have supported a peace deal with the Taliban as the best security measure for the United States, have long argued that the success of any agreement would hinge on tying the withdrawal of U.S. troops to security conditions on the ground.

“Since 9/11, our strategic objective in Afghanistan remains to safeguard the homeland from attacks,” Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the head of the military’s Central Command, said in February, singling out Al Qaeda and the Islamic State, “and preventing them from using Afghanistan as a base and safe haven.”

“We all agree that the best path is going to be a negotiated political settlement among the Afghans. No one debates that essential point,” General McKenzie added. “However, you have to take a conditions-based approach.”

But that is exactly the open-ended path that Mr. Biden has now ruled out, aides said.

For the Pentagon and the intelligence community, a key debate is now how easily counterterrorism operations can be started from outside Afghanistan. The history of such operations, beginning with the failed 1980 Delta Force operation to free American hostages in Iran, has a decidedly mixed record. Cruise missile strikes launched from distant ships against terrorist targets in Afghanistan also have a low rate of success.

The farther that Special Operations forces have to travel to strike a target, the more likely the operations are to fail, either by missing their mark or resulting in a catastrophic failure that kills American service members, according to officials who have studied the record.

Other officials said the United States had steadily improved at such operations. And when given enough resources, such so-called over-the-horizon attacks could be a viable option to stop the development of any terrorist cells in Afghanistan.

Not long ago, terrorism threats dominated the annual Worldwide Threat Assessment released by the intelligence community, but such attention has diminished. In the edition of the report released on Tuesday, the global terrorism section was little more than a page near the end of the 27-page document.

The decline of the terrorism threat reflects the success of the military and intelligence community over the last two decades, argued Mr. Schiff, who supports Mr. Biden’s decision to withdraw forces from Afghanistan. The government was properly shifting resources and attention to the threats from China, Russia and domestic terrorism, he said.

“We’ve been pretty successful since 9/11 in suppressing the terrorism threat,” Mr. Schiff said. But, he added, “we haven’t removed it. And at any moment you can have another attack that suddenly makes it a very different calculus.”

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