Yesterday, Americans commemorated the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. In the years before those attacks, the U.S. took little note of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, or al-Qaeda’s murderous assaults on the USS Cole and on the American embassies in Tanzania and Nairobi. H.R. McMaster and Bradley Bowman argue that Washington remains in the grip of a “bipartisan habit of self-delusion” about the dangers of al-Qaeda, which has recently restored its base of operations in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan:
The Taliban gave al-Qaeda a safe haven to plan 9/11, and the two groups have remained attached at the hip ever since. Indeed, no less than a United Nations monitoring team reiterated in an April 2021 assessment that “the Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” You know there is a problem when a UN entity has a clearer view of the United States’ enemies than the White House.
The Biden administration failed to learn from the last complete withdrawal: from Iraq in 2011 and the subsequent reemergence of al-Qaeda there, soon to morph into Islamic State. By the summer of 2014, Islamic State had gained control of territory in Iraq and adjoining Syria roughly the size of Britain and became one of the most destructive and powerful terrorist organizations in history. It turns out that threats don’t subside when one simply ignores realities on the ground, decides to stop fighting, and returns home. In fact, they usually get worse.
The United States and its partners in the region have now deprived Islamic State of its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria because a small number of U.S. troops were kept there to support others bearing the brunt of the fighting. The Taliban-al-Qaeda terror syndicate now has an emirate because the United States failed to do the same in Afghanistan.
So why does this all matter today? If the United States fails to keep pressure on terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, it should expect more attacks on its homeland. But more than that, if Americans don’t demand an end to self-delusion in Washington regarding the nature and objectives of the country’s adversaries and what is necessary to secure its national interests, they should expect more self-defeat when confronting other adversaries—such as Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Tehran.