Nonstate threats in the Taliban’s Afghanistan

A general view of Kabul, Afghanistan, October 16, 2021. Picture taken October 16, 2021. REUTERS/Jorge Silva
Editor's note:

This piece is part of a series titled “Nonstate armed actors and illicit economies in 2022” from Brookings’s Initiative on Nonstate Armed Actors.

While Afghanistan’s new Taliban leadership has been preoccupied with the near-term challenges of forming a government, managing internal tensions, and pursuing foreign recognition and funding to stave off an economic collapse, nonstate armed actors in Afghanistan have begun to assess the opportunities and limitations that come with a return to Taliban rule. For them, the new environment is likely to be favorable. These groups, including designated terrorist organizations, will find themselves less vulnerable to monitoring and targeting by the United States and its coalition partners; will be able to take advantage of a huge pool of experienced armed labor drawn from former Taliban, Afghan security forces, and other militant ranks; and will have increased space to forge new collaborations and plan operations in the region and further afield.

This new environment poses numerous risks to the U.S. and its partners. This analysis reviews three of the most prominent and their implications for the United States.

Islamic State Khorasan

The first risk is that the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), which has had an openly adversarial relationship with the Taliban, takes advantage of the new government’s weakness and preoccupations to bolster its own recruiting, fundraising, and territorial control within Afghanistan; and that its pressure on the government makes the Taliban leadership less likely to offer concessions to domestic or foreign critics.

ISK, the Afghanistan affiliate of the larger Islamic State group, emerged in 2015 and established a main base of operations in the country’s mountainous eastern regions. Salafi in outlook, it is militantly anti-Shia and rejected both the Pakistani government and the Western-backed Afghan government as apostate regimes that ought to be overthrown and replaced.

From its founding, ISK has also been fiercely critical of the Taliban, which it regards as insufficiently Islamic. Taliban and ISK fighters have clashed frequently, and the Taliban played a critical role in defeating ISK strongholds in rural Afghanistan, coordinating informally at times with U.S. forces. Following the Taliban takeover last summer, ISK continued its attacks, this time targeting the Taliban not as insurgent competitors, but as illegitimate governing authorities. Already ISK is taking advantage of the Taliban government’s divided attention and its struggles to establish basic social services. Its ranks renewed by prisoner releases and prison breaks during the tumultuous collapse of the Ashraf Ghani government, ISK has stepped up the pace of urban attacks and, according to United Nations reporting, is “positioning itself as the sole pure rejectionist group in Afghanistan.” As the U.S. and its Afghan partners learned over many years, defending urban areas against dedicated teams of small-cell terrorists is a daunting task, even for a well-resourced government.

While ISK might seek to copy elements of the Taliban’s insurgent strategy, it stands little chance of replicating the Taliban’s success. The group’s Salafi ideology and embrace of wanton violence against civilians will continue to alienate most Afghans, even religiously conservative Pashtun leaders. Even so, a revitalized ISK would be disruptive and dangerous. It could modestly expand its territorial control, giving it the opportunity to extract rents and engage in coercive recruitment, and could leverage spectacular attacks against the government to raise its profile. In theory ISK could use safe havens and expanded resources to plan attacks against Western targets, but there are no public indications that it is plotting to do so; more likely it will remain focused on contesting for control of the Afghan state.

ISK’s campaign of attacks is also shaping the Taliban leadership’s calculations in unhelpful ways. The Taliban has been relatively cohesive, but as it pivots to governance, its factionalization is becoming more apparent. Some of the movement’s leaders who negotiated with the international community clearly prefer a somewhat more accommodating posture toward foreign donor institutions and a more inclusive government, while others, most notably Sirajuddin Haqqani, interior minister and leader of the infamous Haqqani Network, have successfully pushed the government to adopt hardline positions on domestic and foreign policy. Facing a vigorous challenge from ISK, the Taliban will likely worry about defections and a loss of ideological legitimacy. These pressures will only empower hardline elements.

Increased freedom for other militants

The second risk is that a Haqqani-dominated Taliban government in Kabul, with few reputational incentives to constrain the activities of al-Qaida or Pakistan-aligned militant organizations such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM), will allow these groups increased freedom to use Afghanistan for logistics, recruiting, and planning, and to reduce their dependencies on Pakistan.

It was inevitable, even under the best of circumstances, that the departure of U.S. and coalition forces from Afghanistan would lead to a more permissive environment for terrorist groups. Indeed, the U.S. government estimated in October that ISK could reconstitute its ability to conduct external operations against the United States in six to 12 months while al-Qaida could do so with “a year or two.” India and its global partners, meanwhile, are rightly worried that LeT and JeM, which have largely used Afghanistan as a secondary theater for recruiting and training, will have even greater room to plan attacks against Indian targets.

The prominence of Haqqani Network-associated militants in the security apparatus of the new government merely exacerbates these risks. The Haqqanis and certain other Taliban military commanders have sustained close ties with al-Qaida, and although they may advise the terror group to maintain a low profile, they do not appear to have made meaningful — much less irreversible — efforts to constrain its freedom of action. The Haqqanis’ links with Pakistan-sponsored jihadi groups are also longstanding, complex, and mutual. LeT and JeM could gain from securing — with presumed Pakistani mediation — sustained support by the Haqqanis to train and recruit in Afghanistan. And the Haqqanis and their allies would benefit from stitching together a broad coalition of militants that can oppose ISK and deny it legitimacy and space to recruit.

The reality is that al-Qaida, LeT, JeM, and other groups targeting Western and Indian interests do not need the Taliban’s active support and facilitation. They need only that the new Afghan government remain largely passive — and on that count, the Taliban are likely to oblige. Even though the Taliban has obvious incentives to prevent al-Qaida in particular from planning foreign attacks from its soil, and al-Qaida itself may be hampered by organizational weaknesses, the U.S. cannot rely on the Taliban’s reputational anxieties to constrain al-Qaida and other (non-Islamic State) militants. Pakistan, therefore, may well continue to be a valuable, if fraught, counterterrorism partner: It is close enough to the Taliban to gain unique insights into al-Qaida’s activities in Afghanistan, and sufficiently anxious about al-Qaida’s historic animus toward Pakistan that it might be willing to cooperate in limited ways with Washington to degrade the group.

The new known unknowns

The third risk is that the increasingly permissive and opaque environment in Afghanistan, combined with the large pool of unemployed armed labor, will lead to novel operational partnerships among nonstate armed actors that could make it hard to identify new threats to the U.S. and its partners.

The risks, in other words, are not simply anchored in what the counterterrorism community can discern about today’s Taliban-led Afghanistan, but about what it cannot see or predict. Afghanistan is a fecund environment for new militant partnerships. Even before the fall of the Ghani government, the Haqqanis were acting as the default broker among a dizzying array of groups: al-Qaida; India-focused militants; anti-Shia sectarian groups; the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), focused on challenging the Pakistani state; Uyghur militants, about whom China has pressed the Taliban to crack down; and others.

This complex organizational network of Sunni militant groups is now intersecting with a market that is flush with former Taliban, unemployed ex-Afghan National Security Forces foot soldiers, and militants arriving from nearby countries to take advantage of the permissive environment or the recruiting opportunities. Militant organizations are unlikely to be able to absorb more than a small fraction of these available fighters, but they will benefit from the unusually high-quality labor pool.

Washington’s ability to understand the militant landscape in Afghanistan has already been dramatically degraded with the loss last summer of many of its human intelligence and technical collection platforms. U.S. visibility will decrease further as militant labor flows in unpredictable ways. Unfortunately, this risk cannot easily be mitigated by diplomatic partnerships or military infrastructure. U.S. insights into the Afghan militant environment will inevitably be more heavily mediated by Pakistan — which despite its narrow assistance against al-Qaida, and of course TTP, is considered by most U.S. officials to be an unreliable narrator due to its substantive support to the Taliban and anti-India militants.

A large-scale U.S. and coalition presence in Afghanistan did not prevent the United States from being startled and embarrassed in 2015 by the discovery of a massive al-Qaida training camp in southern Afghanistan. That discovery created waves in the U.S. counterterrorism community, which had grown overly confident in its assumptions about the militant environment. Afghanistan’s ability to surprise us is even greater today than it was seven years ago. The United States has little choice but to remain vigilant.