How Afghanistan's Overthrown Governing Elites Viewed the Violent Extremism Challenge.

AuthorMotwani, Nishank

Without an Afghan partner on the ground, not much can be done to restrain the rising tide of violent extremism in the current environment in Afghanistan. The so-called "Taliban caretaker" government has done little to assuage concerns that Afghanistan's new rulers are enabling an environment of violent extremism. More than half of the Taliban's 33-member cabinet appointed in September 2021 appear on U.N. or U.S. terrorist sanctions lists. (1) Among the individuals sanctioned is the Taliban's caretaker prime minister, Mullah Hassan Akhund, who served as foreign minister and then deputy prime minister during the Taliban's previous rule from 1996 to 2001. Similarly, the United States has listed the Taliban's interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) with a US$10 million reward for information that directly leads to his arrest in connection with attacks targeting Americans. (2) These appointments have poured cold water over any hope that the Taliban could be partners in countering violent extremism in Afghanistan.

The Taliban's victory has stimulated violent extremist groups within Afghanistan's shifting terrorism landscape, which features an array of actors including al-Qa'ida, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), and the Pakistan-focused Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The U.S. exit and the unraveling of the Afghan government has left behind a dangerous environment in which violent extremism can grow virtually unchecked. As the Taliban have never eschewed links with foreign terrorist groups, there is growing concern that organizations pledging allegiance to the Taliban will pose a renewed threat in Afghanistan. Among the immediate beneficiaries, Taliban rule has provided an enabling environment for al-Qa'ida to regenerate itself and reorient its local, regional, and global objectives. Indeed, al-Zawahiri's death in a U.S. missile strike in Kabul's upscale neighborhood of Sherpur in late July underlined that al-Qa'ida continues to operate under the Taliban's protection. According to the White House, "senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri's presence in Kabul." (3) In addition, al-Qa'ida affiliates such as al-Qa'ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) stand to gain from the Taliban's ascendance. (4)

This article provides a survey of how former governing elites saw the violent extremism problem in Afghanistan before the August 2021 Taliban takeover. Taken at face value, the focus on how Afghanistan's previous governing class viewed the violent extremism problem might seem irrelevant in a world in which violent extremists have taken over Kabul. However, Taliban rule over Afghanistan will likely not last forever, and it is necessary for moderate Afghans and the international community to take stock of previous challenges in Afghanistan so they can learn lessons for the future.

This article begins by outlining the author's research design and methodology, before presenting the findings. Finally, in light of the findings, the concluding section provides recommendations for future policymakers on what should guide an effective countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy in Afghanistan if and when the Taliban eventually lose power. And more pressingly, it suggests measures the United States and its allies can take to mitigate the most pernicious effects of violent extremism stemming from Taliban rule.

Research Design and Methodology

The former Afghan government commenced work on a draft CVE strategy between 2018 and 2019, but the effort did not gain traction and the strategy never materialized. The strategy was in development when the author was stationed in Kabul as a senior executive of a research organization. The fieldwork associated with this research encompassed 33 semi-structured interviews conducted in person between 2019-2020 in Kabul and virtually in 2021 (before the Taliban takeover) with national stakeholders in Kabul based on their experiences of tackling violent extremism, which was supplemented by a snowballing process to identify additional interviewees. These included national government officials representing the dual wings of the then National Unity Government, security and intelligence officials, senior advisors and practitioners across ministries, and representatives from civil society organizations. (a) One of the interviews was conducted in 2022 in a location the author cannot disclose.

The interviews allowed the author to inductively identify six counter violent extremism challenges perceived among Afghan officials and civil society leaders, which are outlined below. The methodology has limitations due to its reliance on policy and practitioner interviews carried out in Kabul, which gives a snapshot of elite opinion confined to the capital at a specific period of time. In addition, using respondents' perceptions as a primary source has some constraints, including potential respondent bias, representation limitations particularly related to gender inclusivity, and the reality that perceptions are only perceptions. The measures taken to offset these limitations include triangulation of data, in-country analysis, running a pilot, (b) and consequently modifying the qualitative interview tool based on the pilot's results by changing the sequencing and phrasing of questions. To diversify opinion, some interviewees were selected based on their experiences working at the provincial level to ascertain views from the ground up. Despite the limitations of speaking to mostly state representatives, the perspectives conveyed in this article offer practical insights from then-serving Afghan government officials dealing with the problem of violent extremism.


  1. The concept of CVE was misunderstood in the Afghan context, and labels such as "extremist" or "violent extremist" risked creating a backlash.

    The interviews made clear that the notion and terminology of "extremism" and "violent extremism" (c) are loaded, problematic in the Afghan context due to the historical baggage that accompanies it. Interviewees noted that violent extremism is an alien term, lacked clarity, risked creating sweeping categorizations of individuals and organizations, and that its use may backfire against moderate forces or international actors, particularly if the terms are seen as attacking Islam.

    Then-serving officials in the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) noted that labels such as "extremist" and "violent extremist" tended to encounter significant resistance. (5) The ONSC officials stated that mullahs (they meant many, not all) were a primary source of the problem of amplifying violent extremist ideologies, but also had the potential to be a part of the solution if they engaged more with the themes of "non-violence" and "coexistence." Labeling mullahs as extremists or violent extremists was seen by interviewees as counterproductive with the potential to cut off a critical resource that a government needs to promote unity. A former member of the Afghan High Peace Council shared a similar view: that as the Taliban used religion as a political tool against the state, categorizing clerics as violent extremists would play into the Taliban's hands. (6) Echoing these views, a former deputy minister stressed that CVE needed to be 'Afghanized' because "if you can't explain CVE to the president, how would you explain CVE to a mullah in Kunduz?" (7) His point underscores that for any CVE strategy, appreciating the context and having local buy-in are vital ingredients.

    But that is easier said than done. Despite the consensus against using imported terms unsuited to the Afghan context among the interviewees, the interviewees struggled to find an alternative phrase that reflected the country's CVE challenges. One serving minister at the time defined violent extremism as "when a person does not like dialogue and looks to impose their ideas in a violent manner." (8) A director of a civil society organization preferred the description of "using fundamental beliefs to carry out physical acts of violence," (9) and similarly, a deputy minister said that violent extremism is "the violent suppression of others that hold different views." (10) There remained broad agreement that violent extremists believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through the violent transformation of societies and that violent extremists eschew dialogue and justify targeting civilians or individuals based on their ideological beliefs, which sanction the use of force.

    Several interviewees stressed that extremism is a relative term, and a binary distinction (extremist or not extremist) is not helpful. As a whole, they argued that a more accurate way to view extremism is to see it on a continuum, where individuals and groups would slide up or down depending on their messaging and actions. A continuum would allow the identification of non-violent but exclusionary groups, extremists that support violence, and violent extremists that use physical violence in pursuit of an objective. A vital point to note is that extremists may not use violence themselves, but their endorsement of violence casts them as enablers of violent extremists. Or in other words, extremists should not be called nonviolent if they facilitate, advocate, and/or provide logistical support or financial resources to enable acts of violence.

    Extremist mullahs are a valuable case in point in identifying the links between extremism and violent extremism on a continuum. Mullahs who refrain from violent activities might still be considered violent extremists if they provide ideological indoctrination, religious justification, and a steady stream of recruits to violent extremist groups. Some interviewees familiar with the workings of madrassas drew attention to problematic preaching, religious education, ideological indoctrination, military training, and deployment occurring in many of them. The...

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