The recent and growing attention to the critical situation in Yemen, where al Qaeda’s presence is spreading and the government is weak and does not control much of the physical space, is perhaps the best argument for pursuing a vigorous Afghanistan policy.


It is clear that the jihadist movement, to reuse an overused cliche, will flow like water downhill, taking the paths of least resistance. Yemen, with its declining oil revenues, weak central government, inhospitable geography and population that is at least intellectually in tune with al Qaeda’s fundamentalist theology, is such a place. It has the added benefit and symbolic value for Osama bin Laden and his family of being their ancestral home, from whence bin Laden’s father came to Saudi Arabia.

Radical Islamists need different spaces for different reasons. Criminalized states allow them to move money and generate funds. Failed or failing states with a strongly sympathetic population in which to move undetected afford something even more valuable – the chance to establish a physical space that is part of their vision of the Caliphate, or Allah’s kingdom on earth.

It is easy to forget that immediately after 9/11 there were many in the jihadist community that argued that the attacks had been a mistake, not because of the loss of human life but because it mobilized the international community to invade Afghanistan and put an end to the existence of the Muslim state that declared itself the beachhead of the global Caliphate.

This is of primary importance to the Islamist community, and one that highlights the reasons for such fierce fighting and penetration in Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan. It is not so much the training camps and safe havens that draw the Islamist combatants to these regions. It is the possibility of creating a divinely-mandated earthly government under the rule of Sharia law (as they interpret it).

Afghanistan is another such place, now part of the mythical narrative the movement is creating as it moves forward. If the Taliban can succeed there, not only will it be a sign of divine favor but a place where Allah rules. Once that is established, the global jihadists have a place from which to expand and continue the war against the infidel world.

Yemen has already shown the danger of allowing these groups to settle in and become a focal point for teaching and training of would-be “martyrs” from around the world. If the base exists, they will come. At its center, al Qaeda understood this from the beginning.

Afghanistan would be many times more dangerous, and that is why the idea of negotiating with Mullah Omar and his true believers is a pipe dream. Even if the Taliban really wanted to give assurances their territory would not be used to attack the United States (and that is a very big if), it could not stop it from happening. Jihadists from around the world will flock in to the new piece of the Caliphate and, secure in the knowledge they will not be driven out, but greeted as heroes, they will plot their next attacks.

I agree that the jihadist movement is decentralized and franchised out, and the core historic leadership cannot and does not call many of the shots any more. But wherever there is space to occupy, the Islamists are prepared to move in, and the more permissive the environment, the more rapidly they do so. Afghanistan under Taliban rule would be a second Mecca for those seeking to attack the unbelieving world, and that is our strategic interest in getting Afghanistan right.

Douglas Farah is the president of IBI Consultants and a Senior Fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center.  This essay previously appeared at Counterterrorism Blog