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Has Afghanistan Turned into a Sanctuary for Jihadist Groups?

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Has Afghanistan Turned into a Sanctuary for Jihadist Groups?

Unlike the mid-1990s, Afghanistan under the Taliban has not become a hub of jihadists. However, the threat level has risen.

Has Afghanistan Turned into a Sanctuary for Jihadist Groups?

Taliban fighters patrol on the road during a celebration marking the second anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops from Afghanistan, in Kandahar, south of Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Abdul Khaliq, file

August 15 marked two years since the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, following the U.S. withdrawal and the collapse of the Ashraf Ghani regime. Among other discussions, policymakers’ particular concern has been Afghanistan’s return, or the lack thereof, as a sanctuary for the militant groups.

Two years on, the emerging security landscape in Afghanistan is both complex and concerning. Though it is too early to arrive at a definitive conclusion, the Taliban’s commitment to the counterterrorism obligations that it made under the Doha Agreement and its capabilities have simultaneously generated optimism and alarm. The Taliban have been ruthlessly effective against the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISK), but remain in denial of al-Qaida’s presence in Afghanistan.

After two years in power, the Taliban have physically established their writ across Afghanistan. Presently, they do not face any existential challenge to their monopoly of power and seem to have been successful in restoring order and bringing down the levels of violence in the country.

Since August 2021, around 1,095 people have been killed in Afghanistan in ISK terrorist attacks. The Taliban’s ability to gain full physical control of Afghanistan underscores the fact that no group can operate from Afghanistan without their approval or support. Hence, the Taliban’s complex relations with different militant groups are an important vector in understanding how the jihadist challenge is evolving in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

Regional experts and policymakers have two opposing views on this issue. One school of thought believes that Afghanistan has become an incubator of militant groups under the Taliban’s two-year rule. In this regard, the most damning assessment has come from the United Nations Monitoring Team’s June report that the Taliban have not fulfilled their promises under the Doha Accord. Furthermore, the report maintains that the threat of terrorism is rising both in Afghanistan and the region. According to the report, about 20 militant groups have greater freedom of movement and operation under the Taliban’s rule and they are making good use of this.

Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)’s rising attacks in Pakistan from its Afghan hideouts is the most vivid demonstration of the Taliban’s questionable commitment to the Doha Agreement. Since the Taliban’s return to power, militant violence in Pakistan has surged by 73 percent. The TTP has become a major challenge in Afghanistan-Pakistan relations under Taliban rule. Alarmingly, not just TTP militants, but some Afghan nationals have also been found participating in terrorist attacks against Pakistan under the TTP’s umbrella. This forced the Taliban to issue a religious ruling warning its nationals not to participate in conflicts outside of Afghanistan.

However, the Taliban have denied the TTP’s presence in Afghanistan, maintaining that the group is operating from Pakistan. Furthermore, the Taliban have snubbed Pakistan by maintaining that Islamabad is not a party to the Doha Agreement, so the Taliban are under no obligation to address Pakistan’s security concerns. It bears mention that the Taliban have tried to broker peace talks between the TTP and Pakistan twice, but the temporary truces did not culminate in a political settlement due to intractable differences.

Likewise, despite al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri’s killing in downtown Kabul in July 2022, the Taliban continue to deny al-Qaida’s presence in the country. Ironically, the Taliban are still investigating the identity of the individual killed in the U.S. drone strikes in Kabul. To take a position consistent with the Taliban’s stance, al-Qaida too has not acknowledged al-Zawahiri’s death. Even though Saif al-Adel is overseeing al-Qaida’s affairs as its new de-facto leader, al-Qaida remains silent on al-Zawahiri’s killing.

Reportedly, a unit of the Taliban’s spy agency, the General Directorate of Intelligence, is responsible for the security and monitoring of al-Qaida leaders and their families. The Taliban have advised al-Qaida to downplay their presence in Afghanistan and remain low.

The opposing opinion is that the Taliban have cooperated in curbing the threat of terrorism in Afghanistan, some challenges and disagreement notwithstanding. For instance, U.S. President Joe Biden maintained in July that the Taliban have kept their word. He said, “Remember what I said about Afghanistan? I said al-Qaida would not be there. I said we’d get help from the Taliban. What’s happening now? What’s going on? Read your press. I was right.” Biden was referring to the Taliban’s outreach to the U.S. for intelligence and logistical support against the ISK.

Undoubtedly, the Taliban have been ruthlessly effective against the ISK, in both the physical and cyber domains. They have killed several ISK top leaders, including the mastermind of the Kabul Airport suicide bombing in August 2021, leaving the group in a tailspin. In the second year of Taliban rule, the ISK’s attacks in Afghanistan have declined by 83 percent. As opposed to 231 attacks claimed between August 2021 and August 2022, the group only carried out 41 attacks in the corresponding period the following year.

At the same time, the Taliban have also infiltrated the ISK’s social media channels, particularly those on the Telegram messaging app, forcing the group to ask its operatives to migrate to more secure channels and platforms. It has hampered the ISK’s propaganda output as well. Though after a lengthy reconsolidation period, the group’s social propaganda is resurging, it is not as effective as it was during the first year of the Taliban rule.

The ISK engages in endless name-calling against the Taliban, labeling them as “apostates” to undermine their ideological legitimacy. In retaliation, the Taliban describe ISK members as “deviants.”

The Taliban have also launched al-Mirsaad counternarrative initiative to produce propaganda against the ISK in Dari, Pashto, Arabic and English languages. Al-Mirsaad regularly publishes books, essays and statements to ideologically discredit the ISK.

Needless to say, the Taliban have gone out of their way to crush the ISK as it is the only jihadist entity that has challenged their ideological legitimacy on their own turf. Alarmingly, despite the Taliban’s ruthless efficacy, around 15 terrorist plots, nine in very advanced stages, to target Western embassies, consulates and interests in Europe were traced to the ISK in Afghanistan in April 2023. Hence, despite its apparent weakening and diminished propaganda capabilities, the ISK persists and poses risks to regional and global peace.

Unlike the mid-1990s, Afghanistan has not become a hub of jihadists under the Taliban; however, the threat level has gone up.

The Taliban have selectively cooperated with the U.S. against the ISK. Keeping this in view, the international community will have to calculate the trade-offs of working with the Taliban against common threats like the ISK and de facto legitimizing the “Islamic Emirate” or avoiding cooperation and allowing the ISK threat to surge. It is a Catch-22 situation that will test the international community’s moral compass.