After the last American left Afghanistan, counter-terrorism professionals are understandably concerned, especially as congratulatory messages pour in from terrorist and extremist religious groups, which is a sign of triumphalism that bodes ill for democracies everywhere. Certainly not a good look. Television channels are emphasizing the threat and magnifying it, but what is needed is a sober assessment of the nuances rather than the noise, and then the next step in counterterrorism needs to be determined. Some things remain the same even as they change. Prepare for the worst in other areas.
In spite of the US working with the Taliban and coordinating on a ‘daily basis’, the truth remains the same. While Taliban leaders make supplications to the international community, it’s not clear whether these men are in any way positioned to speak for the group itself, at a time when it’s not even clear who’s in charge. Despite the absence of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, the dreaded Haqqanis seem to be taking control of security through Khalil Haqqani, without an order from the ‘Emirate’. Similar reports indicate the presence of Red units, (elite Taliban units created for the provinces), and others like them in Kabul without any authorization. So far, appointment lists offer no indication that inclusion will be achieved. Mullahs such as Haji Mohammad Idris were known to be ‘experts’ at laundering drug money, among other things.
However, it should be noted that many of the ministers of the Ashraf Ghani government were not exactly pillars of respectability. For instance, Asadullah Khalid, then defence minister, had a history of rights abuses, not to mention warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Under Ghani, Kabul was a centre of infighting, where almost everyone with a war history showed little commitment to some degree of honest governance. In that regard, nothing much has changed at the top. As the Chinese would say, expect more of the same, but with additional extremist characteristics moderated by the need for foreign assistance.
Kabul’s edge capabilities
Second, do not expect a Taliban government to have more power than either the Ghani government or even the Soviet-backed government of President Mohammed Daoud in the far reaches of Afghanistan. All of these were managed by loose fealty, warlordism, and threat. However, even at the height of its deployment, the US had little control over activity outside of Kabul and its immediate surroundings.
The new ‘government’ in Kabul, even if it is willing to take action against terrorists, will not have the capability for years to come, if ever. In spite of adversity, many have marveled at the Taliban’s resilience. The group’s strength comes from its willingness to acknowledge and accept local loyalties and power centers, and coopt them into its overall structure. The UN report describes narcotics, kidnapping, money laundering and even banditry among other forms of crime.
Mullah Baradar and others are highly unlikely to be able or willing to eliminate the elements that make up’ Taliban.’ In addition, analysts point out that the Taliban unity also held due to the single threat of ‘foreign occupation’. Kabul’s orders will likely not be carried out as long as those are gone. The local commanders are likely to operate to sustain themselves, whereas Kabul has to do the same as before. Kabul will not act against terrorists unless it is forced to.
Terrorists in abundance
Thirdly, these groups are so numerous. The Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) is led by Shahab al Mujahir, reportedly appointed by the Raqqa leadership. There is Al-Qaeda, which is still present in some 15 provinces; al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), which has caused alarm in India, Myanmar, and Bangladesh, since it includes their nationals; Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which worries Pakistan, and an assortment of Central Asian and Chinese groups numbering 8,000 to 10,000 people. The Taliban is also operationally supported by all of them.
A directive from the Taliban appeared on social media in February 2021 clearly targeting Western audiences. Under the directive, cadres were forbidden from sheltering ‘foreign fighters’. As no mass exodus of fighters has been reported, this directive remains in paper form. The various groups will soon have access to at least some of the 600,000 weapons-including 350,000 M4 and M16 rifles, 60,000 machine guns, and 25,000 grenade launchers left behind by the Americans. Neighbors need to be wary of that timebomb. Every time a war is fought, the debris of war resists control even by reasonably organized governments. Kabul is a chaotic place, so anything is possible.
There are groups such as Jaish-e-Mohammed, whose commander has visited Kandahar to persuade the Taliban to attack Kashmir, and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who have long operated in Afghanistan, acting as facilitators, trainers and advisors to terrorists of all hues. Along the Pakistan border, they operate around Nangarhar and Nuristan. Since the US withdrawal, religious groups like Jamaat-e-Islami, terrorist leaders and even members of the ruling PTI have called for Taliban help in liberating Kashmir.
Taliban leaders have consistently denied any role in Kashmir despite recent efforts by Pakistani media and the overhyping of parts of Indian media to portray them as ‘interested’. In predicting terrorism in India, one must certainly consider that jihadi activity in Kashmir is influenced by the Taliban, which is meant to distance Pakistan from the violence as opposed to jeopardizing Delhi’s outreach to Kabul. At a second level, the IS-K is employing Indian cadres to attack urban centers rather than Kashmir, where they are actually being evicted by long-established jihadi groups. Al-Qaeda is also likely to attack foreign nationals in India or their institutions to undermine our rapidly improving economic capabilities. Any act of terrorism carried out by any group part of the alphabet soup of terrorism must be met with immediate consequence by Delhi. ‘Target India’ is more a Rawalpindi preoccupation than that of terrorists, however wild-eyed. Furthermore, make available all the data that Washington and its allies have collected regarding the Pakistan connection to the IS-K, even while recognizing that the Syria-based IS is a threat to everyone.
Overall, Afghanistan is at risk of following Pakistan’s path by trading shaky counterterrorism cooperation for goodies. Meanwhile, each immediate neighbour will use its clout to ensure that areas bordering its territory remain under Taliban control. Pakistan has long been China’s route to this, but with indifferent success. Probably, it will opt for direct contact this time. It is hoped China will realize that cutting off just one group hostile to you, while allowing others to operate, is exactly what Pakistan has done for decades with disastrous results. It is imperative to drain the cesspool of terrorism. China may need a little help from its neighbours but expect nothing from its iron brother friend in this regard.