“I think that we have a very, very limited ability to see into Afghanistan right now” -Retired Gen. Frank McKenzie, Former CENTCOM Commander

History Often Repeats

Last Sunday, General McKenzie explained to a CBS news anchor that America now has barely 2-3% of the intelligence capability that they had before the August 2021 withdrawal from Afghanistan. This might be news to some Americans, but to those who have been working on the Afghanistan portfolio for decades, this is simply history repeating itself.

An entire generation has gone into the workforce that does not understand the impact of attacks of September 11, the 2004 Madrid train bombings, or terror attacks on the London mass transit system in 2005. The September 11 Al Qaeda attack resulted in 2,977 victim fatalities and over 25,000 injuries. The 2004 Madrid bombings, also an Al Qaeda attack, killed 193 people and injured around 2,000. The Al Qaeda-inspired Islamist-terrorist attacks in London in July 2005 killed 52 UK residents injured over 700 during rush hour.

These events shocked the nations they occurred in. They were a result of the growing Islamist-Terrorist threats that were ignored for years. The apathy, and lack of political will to admit when terrorists are gaining the upper-hand, that led to those terror attacks is happening again.

This new generation doesn’t understand the context when General McKenzie warns us that just because we were able to kill one highly-sought-after terrorist with a drone strike, that does not mean we have a robust and reliable counterterrorism capability in Afghanistan or Pakistan.

Are Red Lights Blinking Again?

This is the exact moment that the global network of terrorists has been waiting for. The world is distracted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the overtures towards territory expansion by China. The NATO nations and their other democratic partners are exhausted from 20 years of effort in Afghanistan. They are also dealing with economic pressures and inflation that may change their domestic electoral maps.

Many of my colleagues who watch Afghanistan constantly are reporting an increase in warning signs from the region. From a trusted military partner, there are reports of a large increase in Al Qaeda training camps across Afghanistan. And from a person closely connected to the former Afghan intelligence service, I got two more troubling reports. First, that the Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are now refusing to fight beside the Taliban-Haqqani terrorists in the Panjshir area. This is a hotbed of resistance to the Taliban-Haqqani regime, so the refusal to fight there was noticed. A global counter-terrorism organization involved with the Afghan resistance to the Taliban-Haqqani regime is seeing the same trend.

The second report involves the growing chatter in the Afghan White House and among Taliban members in Kabul and Kandahar, that terrorists are preparing for the next big attack. This next big attack/event is the troubling report for me. It is very reminiscent of the increase in chatter that comes before major attacks in the Americas or Europe. No one seems to be able to identify what the next big event is or where it might be. The reports are happening at the same time that Al Qaeda is telling its readers that they are stopping their attacks on Americans in Afghanistan and working to launch them in other parts of the globe. The chatter is increasing at the same time the Taliban-Haqqani regime are trying to reassure the international community that they are not helping or harboring terrorists with a global agenda.

If Afghanistan is no longer where Al Qaeda wants terrorist fighters to go, then where is the big fight? When is the big fight? There were a lot of policymakers in the 1990s that ignored the threats that sound so similar to today’s. Finding reliable counter-terrorism partners inside Afghanistan is a solid path towards getting better intelligence from inside this terrorist stronghold. Relying solely on Pakistan, which housed Al Qaeda, Taliban, and Haqqani terrorists for decades behind our backs, is not a solid path.

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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and aids with conflict resolution in Afghanistan.