The questions caught me off-guard: Giving a lecture at the University of Hargeisa in Somaliland in 2019, first a faculty member and then a student asked me whether and when the United States would negotiate with al Shabab, an al Qaeda affiliate waging a terror campaign across Somalia and East Africa.
It seemed a far-fetched question: In September 2013, for example, the group attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, slaughtering 67 before the terrorists themselves died. Two years later, al Shabab terrorists entered Garissa University in Kenya, took 700 students hostage, and killed those who said they were Christian. Then, in October 2017, the group killed more than 500 in a twin truck bombing in Mogadishu.
In follow-up conversations after my talk, I realized they had a point. What really is the difference between the Taliban and al Shabab? Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad insisted that the Taliban were newfound Afghan nationalists and extricated themselves from al Qaeda; in reality, they did neither. Some analysts, meanwhile, say that al Shabab members are Somali nationalists. The U.S. might look at al Shabab as terrorists because they target civilians, foreigners, and ethnic and religious minorities. That, too, makes them little different than the Taliban.
At the very least, should al Shabab want to drive Western interests from the Horn of Africa, they now have a blueprint: Continue the most horrific terrorism, and the U.S. and other Western powers will give up or figure out that the price of maintaining the post-World War II liberal order simply is not worth it.
In 1996, al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden goaded on his followers with the suggestion that Reagan’s 1983 Beirut withdrawal was evidence that America was a paper tiger. Terrorism is a tactic driven by cost-benefit analysis. Even though bin Laden ultimately paid with his life, for the al Qaeda mastermind and the ideologues who followed him, the benefits of terror far outweighed the cost. The chaotic Afghan withdrawal with Taliban fighters raising their flags over districts they never even held pre-9/11 shows the price in their minds to be worth it.
For Washington, the long-term impact of the Afghan withdrawal will be evident not only in Afghanistan, where the Taliban may soon rampage over a more cosmopolitan, tolerant generation in the way that the Khmer Rouge once did in Cambodia. Rather, the U.S. will pay the price in the Horn of Africa, Iraq, Libya, and areas of the Middle East that now seem placid and calm. Nor will the problems faced be limited to the Islamic world. Mexican cartels, Chinese revanchists, and Russian cold warriors will all draw the same lesson: The U.S. is weak and does not have staying power. Distract Americans with diplomacy, and they will let wishful thinking triumph over reality.
The White House might spin the Afghanistan withdrawal as an opportunity for peace, inconsequential beyond Afghanistan itself, or a sign of President Joe Biden’s desire to end “endless wars.” In reality, however, it will mark the beginning of a far bloodier chapter, one in which the stakes are not Afghan democracy or an end to terrorism emanating from that country, but rather a terrorist and revisionist challenge to the rules-based world order.
By Michael Rubin
Michael Rubin (@Mrubin1971) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner’s Beltway Confidential. He is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.