We are still waiting on details of the bombings at the airport in Kabul, which was already chaotic due to the Biden administration’s ill-advised, belated, incompetent, inadequate evacuation effort. The Pentagon is scrambling for information and has postponed a briefing that was supposed to begin at 10:30 a.m. It already looks like a complex, well-coordinated operation, probably with suicide bombers, and clearly targeting Americans.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind.
First, as I’ve written a number of times, and Rich and I have repeatedly discussed on the podcast, once the Taliban were sure we were leaving, they made a judgment to make it look like they were chasing us out of the country in as humiliating a manner as possible. That has been going on for more than two years — as the Taliban stepped up their attacks on the U.S.-backed Afghan government, and the U.S. government responded by continuing to draw down our forces.
The initial reporting theorizes that ISIS, a break-off faction and rival of al-Qaeda, which is present in Afghanistan, may be responsible for today’s bombings (it is early evening in Afghanistan). ISIS could be to blame, for reasons I’ll come to. But this may well be a Taliban operation, carried out with deniability but quite intentionally.
The Taliban is controlling Kabul and the airport perimeter through the Haqqani organization, a significant ally of both the Taliban and al-Qaeda. With President Biden doubling down on our shameful bug-out by next Tuesday — leaving even though we know Americans will be left behind — the Taliban has every incentive to double down on its objective to project the image of a surrendering superpower skulking out of Afghanistan with its tail between its legs. The Haqqani are very capable when it comes to attacks of this kind, and they have the best intelligence and maneuverability in the environs of the airport.
It is a tenet of jihadist lore that the anti-Soviet mujahideen, out of which al-Qaeda and the Taliban emerged, ground the Red Army into dust. They believe the jihad — not President Reagan, not the U.S. defense build-up, not the CIA’s arming of the mujahideen, not the internal rot of the U.S.S.R. — is responsible for the collapse of the Soviet empire. The Soviet military retreat from Afghanistan is a defining moment for them. For years, it drove terrorist recruitment, terrorist fundraising, and the ascendance of terrorist organizations as a global security threat.
It also convinced Osama bin Laden that the jihad should be targeted against the United States. Humiliating the Soviets persuaded the terrorists that defeating the other superpower was not only possible but inevitable. For the jihadists, the American surrender is a rerun of the Soviet surrender of 1989. It will be as iconic for them as 9/11.
Second, the Taliban are still consolidating their power in Afghanistan. They have common interests with ISIS in driving the U.S. out of the country in abased surrender. But ISIS also has designs on taking over Afghanistan itself. ISIS views its former al-Qaeda mothership, their Haqqani ally, and the Taliban as rivals.
Note: These are rivalries about power. These are all Sunni sharia-supremacist factions, and there is no daylight between them ideologically. The historical pattern in these situations is that these groups unite against the common enemy – namely, the United States, Israel, and the West — but when there is no enemy to unify against, they brutalize each other. That phase could be getting underway in Afghanistan.
Whichever jihadists are behind this attack, which may not be over, we can already conclude that the attack is working. A different president might reconsider his course due to this provocation. Biden’s impulse will be to accelerate the withdrawal. I take no joy in saying that, but it’s where we’re at.