Twenty Years After 9/11: The Terror Threat from Afghanistan Post the Taliban Takeover.

Date01 September 2021
AuthorMir, Asfandyar

Early in his presidency, President Joe Biden faced a major decision on Afghanistan: to end America's involvement in the war that started due to the 9/11 attacks 20 years earlier, or to keep U.S. military forces in the country. Having long defined the core U.S. goal in Afghanistan as countering terrorism, Biden's decision came to depend on a critical assessment of the terrorism landscape in Afghanistan. (a) His administration appears to have made four major judgments. First, the terrorism threat from Afghanistan to the United States was assessed as being minimal. (b) Second, future threats may emerge on a long enough time horizon that they can be dealt with by utilizing offshore counterterrorism approaches. (c) Third, the Afghan Taliban can be compelled into complying with their commitment to not provide safe haven to jihadis. (d) Finally, the United States can afford to be indifferent to locally and regionally focused threats in and around Afghanistan." (5) With these judgments, Biden decided in favor of withdrawing U.S. military forces from Afghanistan.

As will be argued in this article, these judgments by the Biden administration were flawed, and the Taliban's return to power has exacerbated the terrorism threat beyond the level that existed when the decision to withdraw the U.S. forces was made. A close look at Afghanistan reveals that the United States has left the country with a dynamic terrorism landscape posing local, regional, and transnational threats. Much of this situation benefits from the Taliban's enduring relationships with various jihadi groups in the country despite the Taliban's commitments to curtail terrorist groups under the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. Groups that benefit from the Taliban's support include al-Qa'ida and its local units, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), various Central Asian jihadis, anti-India jihadis, and anti-China jihadis like the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP). There is also a sizable cadre of foreign fighters across various groups, including in the ranks of al-Qa'ida. (1) Separately, the Islamic State of Afghanistan, a rival of the Taliban, appears to be recovering after military losses--and remains committed to targeting Afghan civilians. Most of these groups face constraints, but they retain important strengths despite years of U.S. counterterrorism pressure. This overall landscape does not lend to the interpretation of major terrorist degradation that the administration has offered.

Looking ahead, the U.S. withdrawal and the Afghan Taliban's takeover of Kabul are iconic milestones for global jihadis, and both are likely to bolster their morale and strength substantially. This will increase the threats groups in Afghanistan pose locally, regionally, and to the United States. Additionally, factors like weak U.S. counterterrorism capacity, the Afghan Taliban's enduring relationships with foreign jihadis, inter-militant competition, China's growing regional footprint, Pakistani state policies, and great power competition are likely to further aggravate the threat landscape. Twenty years after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. decision to topple the Afghan Taliban regime, not only is the Taliban back in power but also the terrorism threat from Afghanistan endures for the United States and the rest of the world.

These arguments are developed in three steps. First, the article describes the Afghan Taliban's position on, and politics toward, jihadi activities in Afghanistan, particularly in light of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. Second, the article assesses the terrorism threat emanating from Afghanistan. Third, the author identifies factors that will likely worsen the threat landscape going forward. The concluding section discusses the implications for counterterrorism policy. The author draws on a combination of open-source materials and interviews in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States conducted between 2018 to 2021, including on a research trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan in July 2021.

The U.S. Withdrawal and Politics of the Afghan Taliban

With the Afghan Taliban having taken control of Afghanistan, the future of the terrorism landscape in the country depends on the Taliban's political preferences and policies toward terrorist groups in the country. (2) Amid plans to withdraw U.S. military forces from the country over the last few years, American policymakers have recognized this fact. One major argument has suggested that the Taliban have learned their lesson on giving refuge and support to terrorist groups, and that they will not allow terrorist groups to operate from Afghanistan. Some policymakers point to the guarantees the Taliban have provided against international terrorists as part of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement. (3) The agreement contains a number of detailed commitments on actions the Taliban must take to prevent the use of Afghanistan's territory by terrorist groups. In the language of the agreement:

The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will not allow any of its members, other individuals or groups, including al-Qa'ida, to use the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will send a clear message that those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies have no place in Afghanistan, and will instruct members of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban not to cooperate with groups or individuals threatening the security of the United States and its allies. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will prevent any group or individual in Afghanistan from threatening the security of the United States and its allies, and will prevent them from recruiting, training, and fundraising and will not host them in accordance with the commitments in this agreement. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban is committed to deal with those seeking asylum or residence in Afghanistan according to international migration law and the commitments of this agreement, so that such persons do not pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies. The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban will not provide visas, passports, travel permits, or other legal documents to those who pose a threat to the security of the United States and its allies to enter Afghanistan. U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who negotiated the U.S.-Taliban agreement, has been a leading proponent of the view that the Taliban are receptive to American concerns on terrorism and remain on track to comply with the counterterrorism provisions of the U.S.-Taliban agreement. During a congressional hearing in September 2020, he observed that the Afghan Taliban were implementing some of their counterterrorism commitments: "... with regard to terrorism and al-Qaeda, in this setting, what I can say is the Talibs have taken some steps, based on the commitment they have made, positive steps, but they have some distance still to go." (4)

Some analysts tie apparent Afghan Taliban efforts to uphold their counterterrorism commitments to their desire for international legitimacy, as well as the costs that being perceived as enabling international terrorism create for their domestic political agenda. (5) A proponent of this view is analyst Thomas Ruttig, who served with the United Nations in Afghanistan during the Taliban's last stint in power before 9/11. Writing in this publication, he argued that the Taliban understand that "they cannot afford for Afghanistan to again become a security threat to the international community and cannot rule Afghanistan against the international community, particularly when they openly cooperate with internationalist-jihadi terrorists." (6) He further adds that the "Taliban are primarily a movement of a 'national Islamist' character, and that their project is to run Afghanistan as an 'Islamic' state. Support for wider jihadi aims would bring them into an undesired antagonism with the international community again and actually jeopardize the implementation of their (still unclear in detail) home agenda." (7)

Yet, an enduring puzzle for this argument is that major international terrorist groups have remained in the country during the Afghan Taliban's insurgency, often co-located with the Afghan Taliban's battlefield cadres or operating in areas under the Afghan Taliban's strong influence. In addition, a variety of evidentiary sources suggest that the Afghan Taliban both shield and instrumentalize relationships with various jihadi outfits, including al-Qa'ida and its South Asia affiliate al-Qa'ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), and anti-China jihadis such as the Turkistan Islamic Party. Recently, in a bid to assert control, Taliban leadership has reportedly sent instructions to various groups of foreign fighters, including al-Qa'ida, to register them, which on the one hand indicates the Taliban's willingness to apply some constraints on terrorist groups in the country but also points to the presence of foreign fighters. (8)

This pattern of Taliban alignment with jihadi groups in the country is concerning as it has prevailed despite intense U.S. and international pressure on the group. Both the U.S. government and the international community have offered the Taliban multiple off-ramps for disassociating from jihadis in general and al-Qa'ida in particular, notably during the negotiations that...

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