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Key military and diplomatic figures have admitted that Afghanistan could again become a hub for terrorist activity. By Karen Middleton.

Afghanistan once more a terrorism threat

Australia’s top military chief and key diplomats have conceded Afghanistan is again at serious risk of becoming a launching pad for international terrorism, a development that would obliterate the key declared achievement of the 20-year war.

In their most direct public assessment to date, key figures acknowledged this week that Afghanistan could become a terrorist haven once more.

An acting deputy secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Newnham, told a senate inquiry into Australia’s engagement in Afghanistan that the Taliban’s rise “may have serious counterterrorism implications”.

He said: “Terrorist networks may strengthen, there may be threats to the international and regional security posture and groups may strengthen their positions.”

Chief of the Defence Force General Angus Campbell described the possibility of international attacks from Afghanistan as “an open question”.

“I think this is a matter that is unclear,” Campbell said. He did not rule it out.

These concessions came as the government amended its plan to let all emergency subclass 449 90-day visas issued to Afghans during the August evacuation expire for those still stuck in Afghanistan. Former locally engaged staff still there will now have their 449 visas extended to allow more time to escape the country before applying for longer-term visas. But those issued to anyone without a former employment link will still expire from this week. Crossing borders is easier for those holding valid onward visas.

On the terrorism risk, the officials’ concession goes directly to the main reason the United States and its allies sent forces into Afghanistan originally, after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the US in 2001. They have consistently said the key objective was to ensure such a mass attack could never be launched from Afghanistan again.

General Campbell repeated that during Monday’s hearing, when independent senator Jacqui Lambie asked what gains were made during the 20-year conflict and whether they would hold. “The most important, I think, was the purpose for which we went to Afghanistan – that is, to work with our coalition nations to deny Afghanistan being a base or a safe haven for international terrorism,” Campbell said.

Both Campbell and Newnham emphasised that the Taliban was being urged to uphold its responsibility to prevent that. But the Taliban already faces a destabilisation bombing campaign by the Islamic State offshoot terrorist group Islamic State – Khorasan Province, known as ISIS-K or IS–KP, and it is unclear if it can control security across the country.

Newnham said much depended on that Taliban control and “the level of sanctuary” it was willing to grant. “I would describe as a medium- and longer-term concern, too, the flow of people, terrorists and resources, including in the region,” he said.

Australia’s ambassador-equivalent to Afghanistan, special representative Daniel Sloper, said agencies were tracking what was “certainly a risk”. The security situation and humanitarian crisis would likely drive further instability.

“That can lead to criminality, which could also lead to terrorism,” Sloper said. “Think of narcotics, for example, and human trafficking, risks associated with that as well.”

The officials said the allies were working to counter “victory narratives” that could be used for terrorist recruitment.

The Australian Federal Police deputy commissioner, Ian McCartney, said agencies were monitoring for any upgraded threat from sympathisers in Australia or around the region, especially in Indonesia. So far, they had not increased.

The officials emphasised that the Taliban must uphold undertakings given during the peace negotiations with the US that preceded the allied withdrawal. But a group of academic experts also appearing before the senate committee emphasised that those who gave the undertakings were not the ones now in charge in Kabul.

Emeritus Professor William Maley said the negotiators were not part of the Haqqani network, the hardline, Pakistan-backed Taliban wing now running the regime. He said US negotiators should have understood the distinction.

“There’s an old saying, ‘Why talk to the monkey when you can talk to the organ grinder?’ ” Maley said. “And I think that applies in this case.”

Within government, officials argue the risk of Afghanistan becoming a base for terrorists with global-scale ambitions, such as al-Qaeda, is not the same as 20 years ago. They argue technology has lessened the need for a physical base, with much terrorist planning and organising now done online via the dark web. But with the Taliban controlling infrastructure, including government computer networks, they concede Afghanistan joins those countries that may be a convenient hub.

Countering this, they note that harbouring a terrorist network had cost the Taliban control of Afghanistan for 20 years, warning any future US response would be all about firepower, not nation-building.

Given how determined the Biden administration was to get out of Afghanistan, the potency of that threat may also be an open question.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 20, 2021 as "Afghanistan once more a terrorism threat".

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Karen Middleton is The Saturday Paper’s chief political correspondent.