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How Taliban Revisionism Helped Doom Our Mission in Afghanistan
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How Taliban Revisionism Helped Doom Our Mission in Afghanistan

America’s policy has been divorced from reality for some years now.

Speaking on August 30, Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the end of America’s role in the war in Afghanistan. He spoke of America’s diplomatic dealings with the Taliban, including the thorny issue of future terrorist threats emanating out of the country. “The Taliban has made a commitment to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies, including al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s sworn enemy, ISIS-K,” Blinken said.  “Here too, we will hold them accountable to that commitment.”  

Three days later, Radio Television Afghanistan (RTA), a national Afghan television network, aired a disturbing video across the country. The nearly 40-minute film, titled Victorious Force 3,” was produced by the Taliban’s propagandists. As one might expect, the Taliban’s men celebrate their victory over the U.S.-backed government. But they do something else—something that should have drawn at least a rhetorical rebuke from Foggy Bottom. 

The Taliban says America deserved to be struck on September 11, 2001. A Taliban narrator explains to Afghans that the 9/11 hijackings, the deadliest terrorist attack in history was “the result of the United States’ policy of aggression against the Muslim world.” 

Much of the rest of the production is devoted to glorifying the Taliban’s own suicide bombers. These “martyrdom seeking” units are divided into specialized squads, each responsible for different aspects of the jihadists’ kamikaze missions. Ominously, a narrator explains that these suicide terrorists will continue to play a large role in the future, as the defense of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate will be placed in their hands.   

You can watch the video, with rough English subtitles, online here. If you have time, I encourage you to do so. 

As you know, I’ve spent a lot of time writing about the war in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it was obvious that the American mission had been doomed to fail for some time. But the military’s failure and the collapse of Afghan security forces is only part of the story. 

About 10 years ago, many in the U.S. government adopted apologetic and revisionist views of the Taliban. I know because I debated these people at the time. Many officials came to believe that the Taliban wasn’t really America’s enemy. They began to make excuses for the Taliban. I won’t list them all, but here is one example. It is not uncommon to hear people say, to this day, that the Taliban wasn’t really culpable in any way for the 9/11 hijackings. Never mind that the Taliban’s emir, Mullah Omar, provided safe haven to al-Qaeda and refused to turn over Osama bin Laden. The apologists came up with all sorts of flimsy arguments, based on exceptionally weak evidence, to get around these basic facts. They did so even though the Taliban and al-Qaeda don’t deny Mullah Omar’s obstinance. Quite the opposite: They celebrate it. In recent weeks, both the Taliban and al-Qaeda have reminded their audiences of Omar’s repeated defiance of America, arguing that it paved the way for the jihadists’ ultimate victory two decades later.

You should know by now that I could go on, citing extensive evidence that shows a close working relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban from the 1990s onward. Their bond is unbroken. But at some level, we shouldn’t need all that evidence. 

In Victorious Force 3, the Taliban itself taunts America once again concerning the 9/11 hijackings. The Taliban hasn’t accepted any responsibility for the events of that day. The group won’t even blame al-Qaeda. No, 20 years later, the Taliban still says America had it coming. 

Which brings me back to Secretary Blinken’s remarks. When Blinken cited the Taliban’s “commitment,” he was referring to supposed counterterrorism assurances in the February 29, 2020, deal between the Trump administration and the Taliban. The revisionism and apologia I mentioned above absolutely shaped that agreement. Again, I know because I debated some of the key officials responsible for crafting it. But as the world witnessed these past weeks and months, that deal was a farce. The Taliban was planning on taking over the country all along. And it has done nothing to distance itself from al-Qaeda.

There’s no need to litigate all of that once again. But I want you to keep in mind that video, Victorious Force 3, when considering how divorced from reality America’s policy has been for some years now.    

To be sure, Blinken stipulated in his speech that the U.S. wouldn’t “rely on the Taliban” to stop terrorist attacks.  “We’ll remain vigilant in monitoring threats ourselves” and “maintain robust counterterrorism capabilities in the region,” Blinken claimed.  

Even so, it is clear that America’s leaders not only lost the war, they’ve lost their bearings completely. The Pentagon is still entertaining the idea of some sort of partnership with the Taliban in the fight against the Islamic State ISIS). But America’s generals are ignoring the elephant in the room: al-Qaeda. It is absurd that any American official could look the other way as the Taliban gloats over al-Qaeda’s deadliest day. That is exactly what they are doing. 

That’s not all that was lost during this 20-year debacle. After watching the Taliban’s Victorious Force 3, or at least part of it, check out the content RTA was producing just a few weeks ago—before the jihadists took control of the government’s facilities. 

On August 10, for example, RTA posted a video of Afghans chanting: “This land is Afghanistan,” “It is the honor of every Afghan,” “House of peace, house of the sword,” “It’s every child is a hero.”

Those chants have now been replaced by those of the Taliban’s and al-Qaeda’s suicide bombers. 

Al-Qaeda rises.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.