For the first time since its emergence more than two decades ago, the Qaeda of Osama bin Laden finds itself facing a rival jihadist organization [in ISIS] with the resources and influence to threaten its status as the flagship movement of violent extremism. For the moment, Al Qaeda has lost ground, but the question remains: Will this new group, which now calls itself simply the Islamic State, endure? …
Al Qaeda’s central leadership has been waning in power and influence for years. American drone strikes have limited the ability of its leaders to manage their far-flung affiliates, and Mr. Zawahri, who took over after the death of Bin Laden, is widely seen as out of touch and lacking the charisma to inspire young militants. This younger generation has been wooed through ISIS’ social media campaigns and finds its activist approach to statehood more inspiring than Al Qaeda’s long-term vision.
“Al Qaeda is an organization and we are a state,” said an ISIS fighter who gave his name as Abu Omar in an online chat. “Osama bin Laden, God have mercy on him, was fighting to establish the Islamic state to rule the world, and — praise God — we have achieved his dream.”
To bin Laden’s successor, Ayman Zawahiri, those are fighting words. Not only has ISIS declared an Islamic state, it has demanded that all Muslims swear allegiance to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi – effectively declaring him to be bin Laden’s true successor.
No doubt the Zawahiri-led al Qaeda will not take this challenge to its supremacy in the radical Islamist world sitting down. But with ISIS attracting militants and consolidating its control over large swaths of Iraq and Syria, the original al Qaeda will need to make a comeback by staking ground elsewhere.
The natural place to do that is in Afghanistan. Just as ISIS took advantage of the power vacuum America created with its withdrawal from Iraq, al Qaeda knows that America is about to leave and create a similar power vacuum in Afghanistan. Unlike Iraq, where ISIS was defeated when America withdrew, al Qaeda’s allies — the Taliban — are far from defeated in Afghanistan. Just this week, the Washington Post reports, the Taliban launched a military assault “in Helmand province in its most ambitious attempt this year to seize ground as the U.S. combat mission winds down in Afghanistan.”
What this means is that when America withdraws all its troops by 2016, as President Obama is planning to do, it will not take long for the Taliban to regroup and retake territory it had lost to the Americans. Then al Qaeda will be free to return to Afghanistan and reestablish the safe haven it lost in that country after the 9/11 attacks. Moreover, without bases in Afghanistan, America will be unable to carry out drone strikes in Pakistan, giving al Qaeda freer movement within the trial regions of Pakistan.
With a challenge from ISIS and a restored safe haven, al Qaeda will have both the incentive and asylum it needs to do something spectacular to regain the momentum in the struggle for leadership of the radical Islamic movement. A resurgent al Qaeda will provide a similar incentive to ISIS to maintain its newfound supremacy.
As a result, there will be two Islamic caliphates – one in Afghanistan/Pakistan and the other in Iraq/Syria – competing with each other for the hearts and minds of the jihadist faithful.
Which means they will both be competing to be the first to attack us.
What can be done to prevent this scenario from unfolding? The first step is getting the situation in Iraq under control again, which will be an immense challenge. Danielle Pletka and Gen. Jack Keane have laid out a plan to do it.
The second step is to learn from the lessons of our Iraq withdrawal, so we don’t repeat them in Afghanistan. That means cancelling Obama’s plans for a complete withdrawal in 2016. Our Iraq withdrawal has allowed a mortal danger to emerge in the rise of ISIS. A zero option in Afghanistan will have the same result.
I agree that a precipitous pullout of troops will do nothing but enbolden the efforts of the Taliban and their ancillary supporters. What concerns me is what happens prior to 2016 with regards to the Afghan government and their proclivity to reach out unilaterally to the Taliban prior to 2016. Having just returned from eight (8) years in Afghanistan supervising a program that evaluated societal and tribal dynamics I fear for the next two years and the groundwork that could be laid for the inclusion of the Taliban in future Afghan Ministries. All this hinges on what the US does with the announced plans the worst possible scenario.