Taliban ascendance in Afghanistan risks return of global terrorist hub

Lisa Curtis

President Joe Biden’s ill-advised deadline to fully withdraw US troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021—the 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks —was the first hint that his administration had done little serious planning to mitigate the negative global impact of such a consequential decision. The designation of the 9/11 deadline, which has since been moved to Aug. 31, demonstrated that Biden lacked appreciation of the terrorist threats still emanating from the country and an awareness that he’d now given the terrorists two reasons for celebrating this infamous date.

The lack of planning for continuing to protect US counterterrorism interests and cushioning the impact of the withdrawal on the Afghan partners with which the United States has partnered over the last 20 years has been evident. Despite Biden’s pledge to maintain an “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism capability, it is still unclear what this entails, what will be the guiding principles for employing it, and how this option would be any safer or more cost-effective than keeping a minimal counterterrorism presence within Afghanistan. Second, the United States demanded nearly 16,000 contractors depart the country, even though the Afghans rely on them for maintenance and repair of their most critical military equipment, namely fixed and rotary-wing aircraft. Biden has since acknowledged this problem and committed to providing the Afghans what they need to maintain their air capabilities. Finally, it is unclear if the United States will continue to provide air cover for the Afghan security forces and, if so, under what circumstances. Continued US air support for the Afghans, even if performed from bases outside the country, would help them hold on to provincial capitals and resist Taliban military advances in other key terrain.

Taliban remain linked to terrorists and committed to violence

Walking in the Trump administration’s footsteps, the Biden team is making several miscalculations about the Taliban, which will exacerbate the negative impacts of the withdrawal and undermine the US ability to protect its counterterrorism interests. Unless the Biden administration develops its policy more in line with ground realities in Afghanistan, it risks facilitating a Taliban return to power and the reestablishment of terrorist sanctuaries.

Seventeen months after the signing of the Doha agreement, the Taliban remain closely aligned with al-Qaeda and have shown no indication that they would treat the global terrorist group any differently than they did before the 9/11 attacks. In a report released in early June, the United Nations said large numbers of al-Qaeda fighters and other terrorist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan and have celebrated the departure of US and NATO forces from the country as a victory for global radicalism. While the Doha Agreement states that the Taliban will instruct its members not to cooperate with groups that pose a threat to the United States and its allies, the UN Coordinator for the Islamic State, al-Qaeda and Taliban Monitoring Team, Edmund Fitton-Brown, said last October that the Taliban promised al-Qaeda, shortly before the Doha Agreement was signed, that the two groups would, in fact, remain allies. Also in October 2020, Afghan forces killed a top Egyptian al-Qaeda leader in a Taliban-controlled area of Ghazni province, further demonstrating that the Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to cooperate.

Given the continued Taliban-al-Qaeda linkages, it is increasingly clear that former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s claim in March 2020 that the Taliban had made a “break” with al-Qaeda was misleading. Given that the basis for sending US troops to Afghanistan was to eradicate al-Qaeda, the Doha agreement—at the very least—should have required the Taliban to expel al-Qaeda and publicly break ties with it. If the weak language that was agreed to in the Doha document was the best the United States could extract from the Taliban, it would have been better to leave the so-called “peace deal” on the table. When the Biden administration came to power earlier this year, it had the opportunity to reevaluate the Doha agreement and forge its own Afghanistan strategy. Instead, the Biden team decided to stick with the flawed deal and pursued a misguided effort to speed up intra-Afghan peace talks by scrapping the current Afghan administration in favor of an interim government. Not surprisingly, the gambit failed.

While talks between the Taliban and the Afghan-led negotiating team restarted in Doha over the weekend, there are no signs they will make progress. The Taliban’s campaign of targeted assassinations of human rights workers, judges, and journalists and its current military offensive throughout the country exposes the reality that the Doha document is a withdrawal—not a peace— agreement. President Ashraf Ghani recently admitted that ceding to American demands for his government to release 5,000 hardened Taliban prisoners from jail last year was a “big mistake,” and that the “Taliban have no intention and willingness for peace.”

The Taliban’s unwillingness to compromise in peace talks is one indicator that their views toward politics, governance, women, and minorities have likely not evolved significantly since they ruled the country in the late 1990s. While some US officials express confidence that the Taliban’s desire for international assistance and legitimacy will help moderate their behavior in the future, a recently declassified National Intelligence Council Memo assesses that the Taliban, “remains broadly consistent in its restrictive approach to women’s rights and would roll back much of the past two decades’ progress if the group regained national power.” In many Afghan areas currently under Taliban control, women are generally banned from working outside the home and girls can only attend school up to the primary level.

Reemerging terror threats

The Taliban’s ascendance in Afghanistan, especially if they are able to establish control in most or all parts of the country, would almost certainly inspire Islamist extremists across the globe. As both the Taliban and al-Qaeda push a narrative of having defeated the United States and over 40 other NATO countries, extremists of all stripes are likely to reconverge on Afghanistan much like they did in the 1990s. The Doha agreement says the Taliban will deal with those “seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law…so that such persons do not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies.” However, the next clause presents a major loophole, saying the Taliban will not provide official documentation to those seeking to enter the country who pose a threat to the United States. In other words, the Taliban can simply turn a blind eye to the arrival of foreign terrorist fighters into Afghanistan, and still be within the letter of the Doha agreement.

Without US forces on the ground in Afghanistan to support intelligence collection and counterterrorism operations by the Afghan forces, al-Qaeda and other terrorists will have more freedom of operation and the ability to rebuild their leadership networks and capabilities. The United States had been successful in addressing the remnants of al-Qaeda through joint operations with Afghan forces over the last several years. Continued US financial assistance to the Afghan security forces and intelligence cooperation with the Afghans could help to mitigate terrorist threats in the near-term but the challenges to maintaining pressure on most terrorism threats will mount over time. The only potential exception to this trend may be threats from ISIS-K. The Taliban’s opposition to ISIS-K could prove helpful in reducing the threat it poses to the United States and its allies.

Regional perspective

While Pakistan maintains significant influence with the Taliban leadership, it has been unwilling to use this leverage to moderate Taliban behavior or sever the Taliban’s links to terrorism. Pakistan has supported the Taliban in the form of supplying weapons, training, and battlefield advice, and facilitating Taliban fighters’ cross-border movements, despite strong US pressure and the risk of being designated a state sponsor of terrorism. Pakistan may hope US officials will shrug off its role in assisting the Taliban all these years and focus instead on using Pakistani ties to the group to moderate its behavior in the future. However, it would be naïve for the Biden administration to believe Pakistan would alter its policies toward the Taliban now that they are ascendant in Afghanistan. Until Pakistan gives up its long-held belief that the most effective way to limit Indian influence in Afghanistan is through support to the Taliban, Pakistani officials will be loath to pressure the Taliban on issues of concern to the United States.

Instead of continuing to tolerate Pakistan’s double game on Afghanistan, the United States should focus instead on developing counterterrorism partnerships with Central Asian states, namely Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Tajikistan. Senior leaders from these countries recently visited Washington to discuss the deteriorating security conditions in Afghanistan and how they might cooperate with the United States to mitigate terrorist threats in the region. While the Central Asian states would be unlikely to host US forces, they would be open to closer intelligence cooperation and may allow the United States to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) missions from their territory. The Biden administration also has reportedly asked the three Central Asian nations if they would temporarily host around 9,000 Afghan Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) applicants, while their visas are being processed.

China, Russia, and Iran share concerns about the likelihood of a rising terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan as the Taliban gains ground, but none of them on their own has sufficient leverage or political will to significantly influence the situation. Each country will pursue tactical steps to guard its own counterterrorism interests. It is unlikely, however, that these countries will be able to forge a coherent strategy for bringing peace to the country.

Over the last 20 years, China, Russia, and Iran have called for the departure of US forces from the region. However, they may soon begin to regret the US withdrawal as they realize it kept a lid on global terrorist threats that now threaten to reach their own borders. A prolonged civil war also threatens to send refugee flows into neighboring Iran, which already hosts some 2 million Afghans, and can ill-afford to add more refugees to its already teetering economy.

Sustain support for Afghan partners

The best chance for avoiding a rapid Taliban military victory is for the United States to sustain robust financial support for the Afghan security forces and continue air support in certain situations, such as a Taliban siege of a major provincial capital. The United States must also retain contractor support to allow the Afghans to maintain critical air capabilities. Washington should focus its diplomacy—not on fruitless peace talks the Taliban use only to establish their international legitimacy— but instead on shoring up the Afghan government and pushing Ghani to work with other power brokers and unify the Afghan factions to resist Taliban military advances.

The United States must not accept the Taliban forcing its will on the Afghan people through the barrel of a gun. If the Taliban eschew a negotiated political settlement in favor of continued violence, Washington should deny the Taliban recognition and legitimacy.

The United States is losing leverage fast in Afghanistan and must use the limited tools at its disposal—like financial assistance and diplomatic sway—more wisely, and it must do so immediately.

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