April 28, 2023
IntelBrief: Back to the Future in Afghanistan?
The United States announced earlier this week that the Taliban had killed a high-ranking leader of Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) who led the cell that attacked the Abbey Gate at Kabul airport amid the U.S. withdrawal in August 2021, killing 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. servicemembers. Yet in other ways, Afghanistan in 2023 looks eerily similar to how it looked before September 11, 2001, with the Taliban firmly entrenched in power, transnational terrorist groups spreading throughout the country, and al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, seeming to enjoy sanctuary in Afghanistan provided by its Taliban hosts. Regional powers, including Iran, Pakistan, China, and Russia, are each cultivating their own proxies in the country and seeking to gain leverage and spread their influence. Fighters with experience in Syria have also reportedly made their way to the Afghan-Tajik border. As al-Qaeda attempts to keep a relatively low profile while rebuilding its networks, the Haqqani Network maintains significant influence at the highest levels of the Taliban, which has yet to gain formal international recognition as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. Despite a recent suggestion by the UN Deputy Secretary-General that appeared to favor recognizing the Taliban to facilitate engagement, particularly on humanitarian issues, the Secretary-General and other international actors have quickly walked back that implication. Just yesterday, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution condemning the Taliban’s ban on women and girls working for the UN. The resolution, drafted by the United Arab Emirates and Japan who co-lead the Afghanistan file, was unanimously adopted by all fifteen members and cosponsored by over 90 countries – and describes the Taliban’s ban on Afghan women working for the UN as "unprecedented in the history of the United Nations." The resolution reaffirms that the ban on Afghan women working for the U.N. "undermines human rights and humanitarian principles" and calls on Taliban leaders to "swiftly reverse" these actions.
In addition, the Taliban is battling a resilient insurgency in the form of ISK. Despite repeated leadership losses, ISK has managed to spread to nearly all of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. It maintains the ability to launch high-profile attacks with relative impunity, though the recent Taliban killing of an ISK cell leader who plotted a major attack suggests it may not be as invulnerable as previously perceived. Nonetheless, by targeting the Shia Hazara community in Afghanistan, ISK has demonstrated that the Taliban are either unwilling or incapable of protecting Afghan civilians. ISK is not strong enough to usurp the Taliban, but it is strong enough to endure, evolve, and remain a major destabilizing force in Afghanistan and the broader region.
It is not believed that the U.S. played any role in the Taliban’s killing of the ISK cell leader this week. It may, however, have been timed to coincide with international discussions about engaging with the Taliban to present the group in a favorable light. While Washington and the Taliban share an enemy in the Islamic State’s Afghan affiliate, they have little-to-no communication regarding counterterrorism issues. Any notion of a possible U.S.-Taliban counterterrorism partnership was exposed as a pipe dream after the U.S. killed al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in July 2022, after he was found living in a Haqqani guest house in Kabul, which many observers took to mean the Taliban had permitted him to reside in the city.
ISK is among the most potent of all IS franchise groups. In the 20 months since the Taliban took power, ISK has conducted a bloody campaign of bombings and other attacks across Afghanistan, seemingly at will. While firm numbers are hard to come by, it is estimated that, since August 2021, ISK has committed nearly 400 attacks in Afghanistan and Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa region, with approximately 330 in the former and 70 in the latter. According to the Islamabad-based research organization Khorasan Diary, these numbers include the 379 attacks claimed by ISK in its magazine al-Naba, plus an estimated 20 additional unclaimed attacks, including bombings of mosques and schools, assassinations, etc. Casualty counts are more difficult to assess but, since August 2021, could be in the range of more than 1,800 killed and many more injured.
An ongoing series of hearings on Capitol Hill is investigating the chaotic U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan while taking stock of some of the major challenges that lie ahead. Speaking before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security last week, Soufan Center Senior Fellow Nathan Sales, also the former U.S. Ambassador-at-large and Coordinator for Counterterrorism, observed that “the terrorist threat environment in Afghanistan has deteriorated dramatically since August 2021 – and it is getting worse. Due to a combination of Taliban-provided safe haven, the Taliban’s lack of counterterrorism capability, and the absence of sustained counterterrorism pressure from the United States, Afghanistan has become hospitable terrain for a variety of terrorist groups.” In another Congressional hearing last week, the official responsible for overseeing U.S. assistance to Afghanistan told lawmakers that it was possible U.S. aid could be redirected from Afghan civilians toward the Taliban. In March, U.S. Army General Michael Kurilla testified to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee that ISK could conduct attacks outside of Afghanistan within six months of his testimony. However, his comments referenced Asia and Europe as viable targets, not the United States.
Recently leaked U.S. intelligence documents revealed that ISK is actively plotting transnational terrorist attacks, though its ambitions seem to outpace its current capabilities. The documents revealed that ISK was in various stages of planning 15 separate terror plots on embassies, business centers, churches, and had even planned to attack the FIFA World Cup soccer tournament in Doha, Qatar. In rebuilding its external operations attack network, ISK seeks to leverage assets outside of Afghanistan, similar to the “virtual planner” model that core Islamic State operatives helped develop during the group’s apex in 2015-2017. ISK also maintains its connection to the Islamic State’s global logistics network, as evidenced by Islamic State Somalia’s financing of the Abbey Gate attack. Bilal al-Sudani, the Islamic State financier killed in Somalia in January by U.S. special forces, provided the funds for the attack, and served as a major facilitator.
The situation in Afghanistan will get worse before it (potentially) gets better. While the United States and its allies have shifted focus to great power competition with China and supporting Ukraine in the war against Russia, transnational terrorist groups continue to rebuild —from the Sahel to South Asia — reminding the international community that insecure failing states can pose just as much of a challenge as strong ones.