A member of Taliban armed forces sits on an armored vehicle outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug.16.

The new restraints on Taliban threats

Muslims worldwide are more opposed to violent jihadi ideology, which may help make Afghanistan less of a terrorist sanctuary.

Just ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Americans are again shocked at an event originating in distant Afghanistan. The Taliban have not only retaken power after being ousted in 2001 by the United States for harboring Al Qaeda but have done so with unexpected speed. The jihadi group easily overpowered the forces of a democracy that had weak roots in Afghan tribal culture.

Much of the shock lies in a fear that history will repeat itself. Might the Taliban again allow a safe haven for terrorist groups to plot attacks on the West?

In June, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin predicted that Al Qaeda, while now weak and dispersed, could develop the capability within two years to carry out attacks from a Taliban-run Afghanistan. By many estimates, there are far more Sunni Islamic extremists today than in 2001. Many are eager to operate in the sanctuary of a strict Islamic emirate like the kind the Taliban promises.

The problem with such a fear, as the world has only slowly learned, is that it gives power to terrorist groups. Fear is their goal. And their dream is for an overreaction that feeds a narrative of an anti-Islam conspiracy that might unite the Muslim world – under their rule.

The hard part is not to react out of revenge or fear. “If you really [want]to weaken them, you have to take away their relevance. You have to take away their following,” says Gina Bennett, a senior analyst at the National Counterterrorism Center.

The Taliban know how unpopular they are among Afghans, especially women. “You do not see Muslims flocking to become part of these very antiquated and rigid and idiosyncratic versions of a caliphate,” says Ms. Bennett. In 2019, it was in large part the low support among Muslims living under the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria that helped lead to the demise of ISIS.

In many Muslim countries, from Tunisia to Indonesia, the people have rejected violent jihadis, often quietly if not overtly. The peaceful intent of most of the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims remains a powerful force. The U.S. and its partners must continue to harness it. One example is the Abraham Accords in 2020 that established formal ties between Israel and several Arab nations. In the past six years, deaths from terrorist attacks of any kind have declined year by year, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace. The largest decreases were in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria.

Jihadi fighters are most vulnerable from their own Muslim communities. The Taliban must know this and might decide to keep foreign jihadis out of Afghanistan.  An avenue of hope is for the world to encourage Afghan Muslims to practice their faith by rejecting a violent ideology.

The best reaction to the Taliban takeover is not fear. Then the U.S. efforts in that country – including building up education and women’s rights over 20 years – were not in vain.

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