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PERSPECTIVE: Taliban and al-Qaeda Weaponize Withdrawal into Their Afghanistan Victory

With the imminent withdrawal of all U.S. and NATO troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s two-decade defiance is poised to be heralded as a triumphant milestone throughout the terrorist ecosystem, signaling that the United States can indeed be challenged successfully both politically and militarily. Special attention must be paid to the discourses on America’s longest military engagement, as its lasting impressions will affect how future challengers vocalize opposition to the United States. This article briefly discusses how the idea and reality of an American withdrawal has been discussed as a victory by the Taliban and al-Qaeda in their own words. It also extrapolates how their themes may undermine future policies.

The U.S. Withdrawal for the Taliban

The statement that the war in Afghanistan was an objective success as asserted by President Biden[1] stands in stark contrast to the Taliban’s assertion that the U.S. withdrawal is a humiliating, embarrassing defeat for the United States and a justified victory for them they long warned about. Khalid Zadran, a Taliban media official stated, “We strongly believe the U.S. military was terribly defeated in Afghanistan”[2] and “they’re running away from Afghanistan in a hurry.” [3]A senior Taliban commander similarly stated, “The 17-year-long struggle and sacrifices of thousands of our people finally yielded fruit…we proved it to the entire world that we defeated the self-proclaimed world’s lone superpower. ”[4] Their ideas can be concisely understood through the words of Suhail Shaheen, chief negotiator of the Taliban Delegation in Qatar, who contended, “We are telling the departing Americans … you fought a meaningless war and paid a cost for that and we also offered huge sacrifices for our liberation.”[5]

The perspective ­that the war is a liberatory struggle that would result in a shameful defeat for the U.S. has been shared since the conflict’s inception; the circumstances of the withdrawal have only emboldened this claim. Mullah Mohammad Omar, the founder of the Taliban killed in 2013, voiced this sentiment in 2002: “As for the United States’ future in Afghanistan, it will be fire and hell and total defeat, God willing, as it was for their predecessors – the Soviets and, before them, the British.”[6] The same thought is repeated in a letter addressed toward the U.S. populace where he argued, “You should review the historical facts to learn some essential points from them. It is more rational to stop adding fuel to the flames of war by leaving this region. The presence of foreign forces on our soil can only cause intensification and aggravation of the war, from which you will face colossal financial costs and loss of life.”[7]

Attacking the U.S. on this end has been a consistent theme for the Taliban. For instance, in an open letter addressed to all U.S. citizens in 2017, the Taliban insisted: “Previous experiences have shown that sending more troops to Afghanistan will not result in anything other than further destruction of American military and economical might therefore it would be wise if you adopt the strategy of a complete withdrawal from Afghanistan instead of a troops increase. The Afghans who rose against your forces in defense of their land, creed and people did so as a legitimate struggle that is why the fully armed forces of 48 nations under your leadership were unable to pacify and eliminate them.”[8]

The perceptions of the withdrawal should not come as a surprise. Songs chanted by Taliban fighters including Ay Ghrabi Shamara (Oh Western Dragon) with lyrical content such as “Oh Western dragon! Where will you go when we shut all the ways? Oh Western dragon! You have an opportunity to run away”[9] have long foreshadowed taunts of the withdrawal. The song Afghan Mulk Angrizan (Afghan Region Foreigners) with “Oh Afghan the Foreigners are present in your country. They are your yesterdays’ enemies whom your ancestors defeated, and then they ran away. Today they are the rulers who dominate your soil”[10] shows appeal to the past of how Afghans have defeated previous empires. On the 16th anniversary of the invasion the Taliban’s website AlEmara posted “that we condemn the barbaric invasion and the continuation of occupation by America and her allies in the strongest terms, and on the fifteenth anniversary of their horror once again calls upon the invaders to leave our country, to bring the brutal occupation to an end, to stop the bloodshed of innocent Afghan people in your heinous existence, and let the Afghan people decide about their own country and future.”[11] They warned that the Taliban’s “legitimate struggle” would end in a “historical and humiliating defeat” for the United States, and that by the war’s end the U.S. would have lost tens of thousands of troops and wasted hundreds of billions in a futile effort.

The Taliban has advanced this culture since the withdrawal. Al-Emara has posted content celebrating the withdrawal, such as Guardians of Afghanistan and The Victorious Force: An Example Of The Military Capabilities Of The Islamic Emirate Dedicated To The Battlefield Success Of Their Soldiers, and articles titled Bidding Masters Farewell and Fabrications and Propaganda of Kabul Regime. With the war being portrayed in such a manner, there is no wonder that a Taliban spokesman refers to captured territories as being “completely liberated” of foreign influences and comments such as “Americans are the invaders and we are [have been] killing them since 2001”[12] are stressed by top Taliban figures such as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, the deputy negotiator of the Taliban delegation. “History has proven that the Afghan Mujahid nation can valiantly defend its values, soil, homeland and rights,”[13] stated Zabiullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s international media spokesman. As voiced by their Political Chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban wants “Afghanistan to be a free, independent, united and developed country, and to have an Islamic system in which all tribes and ethnicities of the country find themselves without any discrimination and live their lives in love and brotherhood.”[14] “We will only accept 100% of power in Afghanistan,”[15] stated one Taliban fighter, boasting alongside his colleagues of the military victory over the U.S.

Recent events in Afghanistan have given the Taliban fuel to work with. As prophesized by the intelligence community, the Taliban has rapidly reasserted its dominance and ambitions of restoring “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” which is becoming a reality. Their forces have already reclaimed 85% of the country, more than 200 of 419 district centers of Afghanistan are under their control, major attacks are currently underway, provincial capitals are being captured and government officials are being assassinated. An intelligence assessment damningly estimates the Afghan government could likely collapse in six months after the withdrawal. “The evacuation of the Bagram military base and other American bases and the ongoing withdrawal of foreign troops is not some random event, rather behind it lies a dignified tale of Jihad, extraordinary sacrifice, valor, epics, and remarkable resistance of our faithful people,”[16] stated a Taliban supporter. Siddiqi Haqqani, deputy leader of the Taliban and chief of the notorious Haqqani Network, in a recent speech also asserted that “no mujahid ever thought that one day we would face such an improved state, or that we will crush the arrogance of the rebellious emperors and force them to admit their defeat at our hands ­–­ fortunately, today, we and you are experiencing better circumstances.”[17]

The Taliban have clear understandings on the U.S. withdrawal and their steady gains in Afghanistan are indicative signs of a victory. For them, as stated by a now-deleted user on Telegram, “The Muslim nation once waged a holy jihad against the Soviet invasion and offered great sacrifices for the Islamic system and independence of the country ­– Now, once again, it has brought the struggle against the American occupation, the most lopsided invasion in history of mankind, to victory with the help of Allah.”[18]

The U.S. Withdrawal for al-Qaeda

Although relatively quiet in recent years, the war in Afghanistan and the U.S. withdrawal will likely heavily reinforce the rhetoric of al-Qaeda ­­– more so than any other event in the past. The invasion of Afghanistan was officially waged to oust al-Qaeda and the Taliban after the latter’s refusal to hand over Osama bin Laden, and though he was terminated the fact that both entities remain defiant and active against the U.S. manifests a critical propaganda point. Given that the U.S. has met the Taliban at the negotiating table and is withdrawing its troops despite their continued presence in the region, the war in Afghanistan is arguably a declared victory for them. In their words they proclaim, “The United States is not a problem for our Afghan brothers, but due to the sacrifices in the Afghan war, the Americans are now defeated. Whether Republicans or Democrats – both have made final decision to pull out from the Afghan war.”[19]

Al-Qaeda is already mocking the U.S. in in this manner, particularly labeling the withdrawal as the “year of running away”[20] for coalition troops and christening the “Afghan Model” as the ideal way to combat foreign forces. Two al-Qaeda operatives stated “thanks to Afghans for the protection of comrades-in-arms, many such jihadi fronts have been successfully operating in different parts of the Islamic world for a long time” [21] and that the “war against the U.S. will be continuing on all other fronts unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world.”[22] In 2020, al-Qaeda released a three-page statement praising the Taliban’s victory over the U.S. They praised their “brethren of the mujahideen” for forcing the U.S. to “end the occupation and withdraw all occupation forces” and for showing the world how the U.S. was defeated over three administrations. The statement ends with a call to action, specifying that their “Muslim brothers” should emulate the fighters of the Taliban because “there is no path to liberation from foreign tyranny and oppression except through the noble sharia of Allah and obedience to him.”[23] In what serves as a reminder of their present threat, one al-Qaeda soldier posited, “Al-Qaeda and Bin Laden’s mission will never end. If the Taliban is winning the war against the U.S. in Afghanistan, it is sharing the goals of al Qaeda and Bin Laden’s long last vision.”[24]

For al-Qaeda, the withdrawal and failure to fully oust them alongside the Taliban serves as a prime indicator of American weakness. Osama Bin Laden stated in a letter titled To The People of Afghanistan, “We will soon see the fall of the unbeliever states, at whose forefront is America the tyrant which has destroyed all human values and transgressed all limits, and which only understands the logic of power and war.”[25] Beating America via “the logic of power and war” summarily describes how al-Qaeda has and will discuss the legacy of the war in Afghanistan – precursory statements such as “If they stay, they will bleed to death, and if they retreat, they will lose everything,”[26] “The real rulers of Afghanistan are the Taliban and al-Qa’ida. We find sufficient proof of this in the fact that the head of this fabricated state is guarded and defended by American,”[27] and “The end of this American crusade is bad consequences, an economic depression, weakness and the loss of the American military’s prestige” [28] are provocative examples. This logic is also infused with victimhood sentiments of fighting back against crusaders, imperialists, or colonists – essentially, infusing conflict with the United States in Afghanistan as the premier front of a liberatory struggle.

Like the Taliban, there is long history of media communications that have foreshadowed how a U.S. withdrawal would be perceived. The Winter 2014 Edition of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s Inspire Magazine listed such examples illustrated in the table above. Excerpts are from their own members, supporters, and affiliates whose statements are thematically similar.

 

Individual Statement
Sheikh Anwar Al- ‘Awlaqi

 

“The simple answer is American cannot and will not win. The tables have turned, and their [sic] is no rolling back of Jihad worldwide movement.”[29]
Mullah Omar “We believe that the war in Afghanistan will not end until all occupation forces have departed from the country…the presence of even a limited number of occupation forces will necessitate the continuation of the war.” [30]
Sheikh Al-Faith Muhammad Jawlani “O American and European people, what did you achieve from our war on the Muslims and Mujahideen other than your sons and nations griefs?” [31]
Sheikh Abu Baseer “As for its military strength, it has been sullied and become futile: It has become a story for those who rejoice at another’s misfortune and an example for the world. Their gathering was defeated, their blades were blunted” [32]
Sheikh Aiman Adhawahiri “The fifth thing that we ask of you is that you pack your bags and leave our countries. We wish you well and hope for your guidance, so don’t force us to ship you home in boxes… Either leave us alone or expect us in New York and Washington.” [33]

 

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the current leader of al-Qaeda, has a history of challenging the U.S. in this manner. In 2006, he stated to President George W. Bush, “You must confess that you have been defeated in Iraq and in Afghanistan and you will be in Palestine soon.”[34] He similarly challenged President Obama via the following claims, “Obama, whether you admit it or not, Muslims have defeated you in Iraq and Afghanistan… [to the Taliban] congratulations on your steadfastness against infidels and tyranny.”[35] In 2018, via the al-Qaeda media platform As-Sahab Media, al-Zawahiri stated that America must be confronted with aggression, as it only understands violence and that “Only jihad for the sake of Allah will make it retreat, with weapons and grinding and authority and da’wah and declaration…the Mujahidin will defeat America.”[36] Given his past messages, it is very likely that future statements released by him will use the U.S. withdrawal as a critical piece of anti-American rhetoric that serves as a testament to the strength of their cause and cite the Taliban as key allies who helped them repelled the U.S. in the Middle East.

What This Means for the U.S.

Special attention must be paid to the oppositional discourses on America’s longest military engagement, as its lasting impressions of defeat will affect how future challengers will voice opposition against the U.S. Based on their statements, on can arguably extrapolate two critical facts: one, that the Taliban and al-Qaeda’s survival indicates limits of U.S. power and show that the U.S. can be beaten politically and militarily; two, that the U.S. legacy of the war can used to attack U.S. foreign policy and challenge its future engagements.

First, the Taliban has managed to demonstrate the limits of U.S. power, and their survival has proven that it is possible for a massively weaker sub-state group to survive in conflict against the United States. Similar to how it has been warned that the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria and Somalia would threaten the security environment of those two countries and beyond, the manner in which the U.S. withdrawal in Afghanistan is portrayed in terrorist communities and will be further used to bolster their ideology should be of concern. The previous sections have illustrated how the Taliban and al-Qaeda have highlighted the “Afghan Model” as the foundation for their contemporaries to topple superpowers and empires. With the view that the Taliban and al-Qaeda forced the U.S. and its allies to retreat its longest war ever in defeat in a war of liberation, for other terrorist groups in similar conflicts a perception is formed that the United States’ ability to combat them is diminished and conquerable. Even domestic terrorist groups can be emboldened by their model. Whether domestic or foreign, the example of the Taliban and al-Qaeda will likely have a powerful inspiring effect on terrorist communities.

Second, failing to understand the withdrawal and the war’s criticisms from the perspective of other states will likely leave the U.S. disadvantaged in countering future challenges to strategic interests. Russia is prospectively planning to reassert itself as a strategic partner to the Taliban, which would be counterproductive to U.S. interests in the area. Iranians cheer as the U.S. withdraws its military, and even in 2010 then-Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani had stated, “The Americans will have the same success in Afghanistan as in Vietnam. Years ago, the Soviet Union made exactly the same mistake.” [37]The Chinese Foreign Ministry has already called the war in Afghanistan an egregious foreign policy failure of the United States, while Xinhua, the official state-run media agency of China, asserted, “The United States has withdrawn its troops from Afghanistan in an irresponsible manner in order to get out of the quagmire of the war. The evil consequences of this move have initially appeared, but it is the Afghan people who have suffered the disaster.”[38] How willing allies are to join future conflicts is also of concern, especially if they invoke the example of Afghanistan as a reason to avoid participation.

The war in Afghanistan will conclusively leave the U.S. in a vulnerable position, as global perceptions that it was defeated in its longest war will have a detrimental impact on its reputation and capacity, signaling to similar terrorist communities that they can thwart the U.S. politically and military, illustrating a deficiency in America’s power. The withdrawal and the legacy of the war in Afghanistan will be weaponized as a historical hallmark and exploited to demonstrate a decline in American might and the vilification of its foreign policy. The conflict’s legacy will likely be used to challenge and undermine future engagements, but understanding how these perceptions may affect the U.S. and its allies is the first step to countering them.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by Homeland Security Today, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints in support of securing our homeland. To submit a piece for consideration, email editor@hstoday.us. Our editorial guidelines can be found here.

References
[1] White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan,” The White House, July 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/.
[2] Tom Mutch and Sami Yousafazai, “Taliban Mock Hasty U.S. Withdrawal: ‘Losers Never Look Back,’” The Daily Beast, June 21, 2021, sec. world, https://www.thedailybeast.com/taliban-gears-up-to-militarily-astonish-in-afghanistan-as-us-forces-withdraw.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Norullah Shirzada, “Taliban on Trump Withdrawal News: ‘We Defeated World’s Lone Superpower,’” NBC News, 2018, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/taliban-greets-pentagon-s-withdrawal-troops-afghanistan-cries-victory-n950811.
[5] Phil Thomas, “Taliban Says US Fought ‘a Meaningless War’ as American Troops Begin Withdrawal,” The Independent, May 1, 2021, https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/us-troops-afghanistan-withdrawal-taliban-b1840726.html.
[6] Jeevan Vasagar, “Mullah Omar Says Bin Laden Is Alive, According to Newspaper,” The Guardian, May 18, 2002, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2002/may/18/afghanistan.jeevanvasagar.
[7] Alex Strick van Linschoten and Felix Kuehn, The Taliban Reader: War, Islam and Politics in Their Own Words (Oxford University Press, 2018), 314.
[8] Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio, “Taliban Release ‘Open Letter’ to President Trump | RealClearDefense,” 2017, https://www.realcleardefense.com/articles/2017/08/16/taliban_release_open_letter_to_president_trump_112059.html.
[9] Thomas H. Johnson and Ahmad Waheed, “Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no. 1 (March 2011): 15, doi:10.1080/09592318.2011.546572.
[10] Ibid., 7.
[11] Taliban, “Statement of Islamic Emirate Regarding 15th Anniversary of American Invasion – Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” 2016, https://alemarahenglish.net/?p=5327.
[12] Ayaz Gul, “Taliban Calls on Biden Administration to Honor Trump Afghan Commitments | Voice of America – English,” 2021, https://www.voanews.com/south-central-asia/taliban-calls-biden-administration-honor-trump-afghan-commitments.
[13] Mushtaq Yusufzai and Saphora Smith, “Many Taliban Return to Front Line amid Doubts Biden Will Withdraw Troops,” NBC News, 2021, https://www.nbcnews.com/news/world/many-taliban-return-afghanistan-front-line-duty-biden-admin-reviews-n1256832.
[14] Reuters, “Highlights: Key Comments as Historic Afghan-Taliban Peace Talks Begin,” Reuters, September 12, 2020, sec. AMERS, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-taliban-talks-quotes-high-idUSKBN2630K5.
[15] Susannah George and Aziz Tassal, “Within the Taliban, Clashing Views of Afghanistan’s Future,” Washington Post, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2020/07/12/afghanistan-taliban-territory-peace-deal/.
[16] Andrew Jose, “Taliban Celebrates ‘Jihadist’ Victory As US Reportedly Plans To Hand Over Largest Base In Afghanistan To Afghan Forces,” 2021, https://dailycaller.com/2021/06/02/us-bagram-air-base-afghanistan-withdrawal-taliban-celebrates/.
[17] Adam Nossiter, “The Taliban Think They Have Already Won, Peace Deal or Not,” The New York Times, March 30, 2021, sec. World, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/03/30/world/asia/taliban-victory-afghanistan.html.
[18] Jose, “Taliban Celebrates ‘Jihadist’ Victory As US Reportedly Plans To Hand Over Largest Base In Afghanistan To Afghan Forces.”
[19] Nic Robertson and Saleem Mehsud, “Al Qaeda Promises ‘war on All Fronts’ against America as Biden Pulls out of Afghanistan,” CNN, April 30, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/30/asia/al-qaeda-afghanistan-biden-intl-cmd/index.html.
[20] Amy Chew, “Al-Qaeda Mocks US Exit from Afghanistan, as Taliban Advances,” South China Morning Post, July 12, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3140706/al-qaeda-mocks-us-withdrawal-afghanistan-taliban-continues.
[21] Robertson and Mehsud, “Al Qaeda Promises ‘war on All Fronts’ against America as Biden Pulls out of Afghanistan.”
[22] Ibid.
[23] Thomas Joscelyn, “Al-Qaeda Lauds Taliban’s Great ‘Victory’ over America and Allies | FDD’s Long War Journal,” March 13, 2020, https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/03/al-qaeda-lauds-talibans-great-victory-over-america-and-allies.php.
[24] Sami Yousafzai and Ruchi Kumar, “The Taliban Is Ready to Be Al Qaeda’s ‘Darling’ Again,” The Daily Beast, May 4, 2021, sec. world, https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-taliban-is-ready-to-be-al-qaedas-darling-again.
[25] Usama bin Laden, Messages To The World: The Statements of Osama Bin Laden (Verso, 2008), 159.
[26] David Aaron, “In Their Own Words: Voices of Jihad — Compilation and Commentary,” September 16, 2008, https://www.rand.org/pubs/monographs/MG602.html.
[27] Ibid.
[28] Ibid.
[29] al-Qaeda, “Inspire: Wiinter 2014 Issue 13,” 2014, 28, https://aleph.occrp.org/entities/1976014#page=2.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Ibid.
[33] Ibid.
[34] BBC, “BBC News – Ayman al-Zawahiri in His Own Words,” June 16, 2011, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/mobile/world-middle-east-13792238.
[35] Egypt Independent, “Zawahiri Slams Arab Leaders as ‘Zionists’ in New Tape,” Egypt Independent, July 20, 2010, https://egyptindependent.com/zawahiri-slams-arab-leaders-zionists-new-tape/.
[36] Ayman Al-Zawahiri, “America Is the First Enemy of Muslims,” As-Sahab Media, 2019, https://www.longwarjournal.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/03/18-03-20-Zawahiri-22America-is-the-First-Enemy-of-Muslims22-translation.pdf.
[37] Sebastian Rees, “The Two Trillion War: Afghanistan’s Taliban Future,” Al Bawaba, 2020, https://www.albawaba.com/news/two-trillion-war-and-afghanistans-taliban-future-1341757.
[38] Xinhuanet, “美国不负责任从阿富汗撤军恶果初显-新华网,” 2021, http://www.xinhuanet.com/2021-05/10/c_1127427879.htm.
Teagan Hale
Teagan Hale is a Research Fellow at the American Counterterrorism Targeting and Resilience Institute (ACTRI), where he conducts research to advance the study of political violence by examining overlooked and under-researched topics of violent extremism and terrorism. He has interned for the U.S.-European Media Hub at the Embassy of the United States in Belgium while studying for his Master’s degree in International Relations, with a concentration in Conflict and Security, at the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies. He has bolstered his professional and academic experience in Israel, Palestine, Australia, and the European Union while working under multiple scholars and experts.

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