The way Afghanistan fell in Taliban’s hands represented a huge blow for the United States and its allies. Not only did it reflect the many flaws of a two-decade-long military campaign which resulted in huge human and economic costs for locals and foreign forces alike, but it also unequivocally stressed the superior will to fight of a foe, the Taliban movement, that, despite the huge blows it had to sustain, never relinquished its goal.
Albeit significant, the strategic losses caused by the Taliban takeover might appear minimal when compared to the impact Kabul’s capture may have symbolically and ideologically within and beyond the Afghan borders.
«You may have the watches, we have the time». This old adage, often cited to underline Afghan hostility towards any external influence fits particularly well not only in the Taliban mindset but also in the weltanschauung underpinning the broader jihadist movement.
This holds particularly true for al-Qa‘ida (AQ) and its affiliated groups, especially since Ayman al-Zawahiri took the lead of the organization following Osama bin Laden’s death (2011). The Egyptian leader invited on several occasions his followers to focus on a long-term strategy aimed at preserving the survival of the jihadist movement, de facto limiting the purely offensive posture that has always represented an hallmark of the group. This stance was made particularly clear in the General Guidelines for Jihad al-Zawahiri released in 2013:
«As far as targeting the proxies of America is concerned, […] the basic principle is to avoid entering into any conflict with them, except in the countries where confronting them becomes inevitable […] wherever we are afforded the possibility to pacify the conflict with the local rulers so as to avail of the opportunity for propagation, expressing our viewpoint, inciting the believers, recruiting, fund raising and gaining supporters, we must make the most of this opportunity; for our struggle is a long one, and Jihad is in need of safe bases and consistent support in terms of men, finances, and expertise».
Against this backdrop, the restoration of the Taliban government acquired an importance for AQ stretching well beyond the borders of the Hindu Kush region. The group celebrated it as proof that its modus operandi (which came under growing criticism, especially after the emergence of the IS) could bear its fruits and that Osama bin Laden’s dream of expelling US forces out of the dar al-islam could be realized. One of its most important regional nodes, al-Qa ‘ida in the Arabian Peninsula, went even further, declaring the events that took place in Afghanistan could relaunch the whole jihadist movement and its global ambitions.
Yet, despite the tone of these declarations, a series of factors seem to play against a full-scale re-emergence of the jihadist galaxy within and beyond the Afghan operational theatre.
While the Taliban-AQ partnership may appear more solid than ever, the situation on the ground is more complex and fluid than generally assumed. Far from being a cohesive group led by a supreme and uncontested leadership, today the Taliban are quite different from the movement Mullah Omar led at the turn of the XXI century. Their structure is much more similar to a network of different actors with specific interests and agendas than to a monolith responding to a cohesive command and control system.
Officially, the Taliban leadership continues to be committed to its partnership with al-Qa‘ida, especially after the latter reaffirmed its pledge via Ayman al-Zawahiri. However, it is no secret that parts of the movement nurture a significant resentment towards the group that set in motion the de facto fall of the Islamic Emirate in 2001, making them particularly receptive to Western demands of restricting AQ’s freedom of action. These dynamics are well reflected in the terms of the 2020 Doha agreement: while setting the stage for the withdrawal of US forces, the pact committed the Taliban to prevent any organization (al-Qa‘ida included) from using Afghanistan as a staging ground for operations able to harm the United States or its allies.
Aware of these aspects, al-Qa‘ida officially welcomed the 2020 accord as a decisive step towards a full liberation of Afghanistan. Yet, it kept repositioning itself closer to factions deemed more aligned with its own agenda, the Haqqani network in primis. A process that gained further momentum especially after Hamza bin Laden and other senior AQ operatives were killed, allegedly due to a series of tip-offs originating within the Taliban movement itself.
The “Islamic State” (IS) too does not seem to have benefitted from the fall of Kabul. Its bitter relations with the Taliban significantly hinder its ability to exploit the strategic opportunities offered by the end of the US presence both in the Afghan and in the Pakistani operational theatres.
If the new Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan cannot be compared to the safe haven the jihadist movement could count on in the 1996-2001 period, the situation does not appear particularly promising in the wider Middle East, too. The restoration of the Taliban regime produced a significant echo in the region. It proved that the US and its allies are not invincible and that the hostility of their public opinions towards prolonged military interventions makes them vulnerable to opponents able and willing to resist and bide their time. Nonetheless, it seems not to have led to increased support for the jihadi galaxy.
Thanks to the solidity of its networks, Al-Qa‘ida remains a significant actor whose influence stretches from North Africa to the Persian Gulf and beyond, yet it has still to recover from the damages it endured throughout a decade marked by his founder’s and several of its leaders’ assassinations, the spread of the “Arab springs”, and the ascendance of the “Islamic State”.
The situation appears even more difficult for IS: the movement is a pale shadow of its former self. While retaining important operational capabilities and maintaining a significant foothold in the Syraqi theatre and beyond, it appears unable to muster levels of support similar to the ones it enjoyed at the apex of its offensive. Its message has been tarnished by the vivid memories of the atrocities it perpetrated and by a dichotomist approach that leaves no room for dissent, even within the jihadi galaxy.
 Ayman al-Zawahiri, General Guidelines for Jihad, As-Sahab, Media, 2013, pp. 1–4.
 See Asfandyar Mir, Afghanistan’s Terrorism Challenge. The Political Trajectories of al-Qaeda, the Afghan Taliban, and the Islamic State, Middle East Institute, October 2020.