Afghanistan’s transition from a conflict-affected state to one that experiences post-conflict governance challenges has somewhat been stalled. Under the Taliban, which assumed power in August 2021, the country continues to witness regular structural as well as terrorist violence, orchestrated not only by the former insurgents against their opponents, but also by groups like the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISK), predominantly against their bête noire, the Taliban, and also the Hazara Shia community. Desperate for international legitimacy, the Taliban’s self-styled Islamic Emirate is itself divided between the moderate and hardline factions and has not severed its ties with Al-Qaeda (AQ). The Taliban’s claim of domination over Afghanistan is being constantly challenged by the resistance groups owing their allegiance to the deposed civilian government. All these factors hamper the Taliban’s attempts to rule by establishing a governance architecture in the country, which arguably is the foremost requirement to ensure a terror-free Afghanistan.
The Taliban-led insurgency was divided into moderate and hardline camps long before it came to power. The same split has not only been reinforced but exacerbated further ever since. The hardline faction headed by elements representing the Haqqani Network (HQN) continues to hold. Sirajuddin Haqqani, Anas Haqaani and Khalil ul Rahman Haqqani have stalled attempts by the moderate faction, comprising the likes of Deputy Prime Minister Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, to make the Islamic Emirate more acceptable to the international community. The hardline faction’s influence has been backed by the Taliban chief Haibatullah Akhundzada and his inner circle, who have been directly responsible for the closure of girls’ schools. This leaves the frustrated moderate faction to occasionally air their divergent views, but with very little influence on the policy decisions by the Islamic Emirate.
Differences also persist over who deserves credit for the Taliban’s ‘victory’ and other facets of policy formulation; these have been so acute that physical fights between moderates and hardliners have occasionally broken out. For instance, alterations over cabinet formation led to physical brawls between supporters of Khalil Haqqani and Mullah Baradar during a meeting at Kabul’s Presidential Palace in September 2021, leaving the latter injured. The Islamic Emirate’s interim cabinet has four key ministries, including that of interior and refugee affairs, assigned to the HQN, alongside the position of Prime Minister to Mullah Mohammad Hassan Akhund, previously chief of the Quetta Shura.
The Islamic Emirate has tried hard to keep such differences away from the media’s eye, with great success. However, contradictory policy announcements such as the one on girls’ education when schools were opened briefly and then shut; frequent retraction of decisions; and failure of the Islamic Emirate to not use violence against the persons associated with the previous civilian regime despite periodic assurances, suggest that the Taliban continue to speak in multiple voices.
Rampant Human Rights Violations
The Islamic Emirate has implemented a twin-objective strategy, which continues to result in gross human rights violations in the country. First, it has implemented a self-styled, shariah-based governance system, which mostly runs contrary to the spirit of democracy and freedom that prevailed during the 20 years of civilian rule in Kabul. The minorities, women and girls have been most affected by this policy, so too government workers, officials and security forces belonging to the disbanded Afghan National Defence and Security Forces (ANDSF), and those who worked for the foreign forces. Following Kabul’s takeover, the Taliban fighters have tried to track down former ANDSF personnel and government officials and persecute them. Although the Taliban announced a general amnesty scheme for such people, its implementation has been sketchy. Reports suggest that those who responded to the amnesty call were extrajudicially killed once they came overground.
Women and girls have been deprived of their rights to education and work under the shariah regime. Educational institutions were shut, briefly reopened and then shut again by the Taliban, who justified their actions by pointing to the absence of separate sitting places for boys and girls. Excluding professions such as nurses and municipal workers, women have largely been barred from pursuing any job. Protests by women have been violently put down. A series of regressive measures have put restrictions on women from venturing out of their homes without male chaperons.
Second, the Islamic Emirate is desperate to avoid any negative publicity, which may affect its standing internationally and consequently have a bearing on the prospects of its recognition by individual countries. After it came to power, a diktat on media personnel was issued, banning them from reporting anything negative on the Taliban rule and requiring them to get approval for their reports before publication. This sanitisation of media reportage has brought social media broadcasters and TV journalists under its purview. A broad range of allegations of ‘promotion of western culture’, ‘insulting verses of the Quran’ and ‘promoting the opposition’ have been made against several media persons to justify their detention and even physical abuse by the Taliban.
Anti-Taliban Resistance Gains Ground in the North
The Taliban used hundreds of fighters to crush an armed opposition to the Taliban that started in the Panjshir valley after August 2021. Leaders of the group, which calls itself the National Resistance Front (NRF), fled to neighbouring countries. However, since then, the NRF under Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been able to disperse itself into several northern provinces and continue organising attacks on the elements associated with the Islamic Emirate. Two contradictory narratives exist with regard to the NRF’s success. The NRF frequently takes to social media to claim victory in smaller battles, whereas the Taliban dismisses it as a fringe and uninfluential motley of fighters.
However, the fact that the NRF has increasingly posed challenges to the Taliban’s attempts to dominate the country is evident from the latter’s August 2022 decision to appoint senior Taliban military commander and Deputy Minister of Defence Abdul Qayum Zakir in charge of the efforts to counter the NRF in the Andarab and Panjshir valleys. Ethnic differences within the Pashtun-dominated Taliban are hampering its anti-NRF efforts too. According to reports, in Panjshir, where the NRF is retaking territory, local Tajik Taliban forces appear to be increasingly unwilling to fight the NRF. A local Tajik Taliban commander defected from the Taliban and joined the NRF in May, while Tajik Taliban units from Badakhshan reportedly refused to continue fighting the NRF in Panjshir in July.
The NRF’s success and the spread of anti-Taliban sentiments have led to the birth of at least 22 resistance groups, including the Yasin Zia-led Afghanistan Freedom Front, which continues to wage disparate fights, gain and hold territory in nearly a dozen provinces in northern Afghanistan. The challenge for these groups, however, is to establish unity and present themselves as a cohesive opposition to the Taliban and to gain international support, which is absent at the moment.
ISK’s Operational Ascendency
After the Taliban takeover of Kabul, the ISK has emerged as the most violent terrorist group in Afghanistan. The group has been rapidly gaining power in some parts of the country, including the northern provinces of Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar and Mazar-e-Sharif, where the terror group was less active. Among its targets have been the Taliban leaders and supporters and the minority Hazara communities. In a report released in early September 2022, Human Rights Watch listed 13 ISK attacks targeting Hazara mosques, schools and workplaces across the country, killing more than 700 people since August 2021.
On September 5, an ISK suicide bomber blew himself up near the Russian embassy in Kabul, killing two Russian embassy staff and at least six other people. This is a significant operational achievement by the group, which considers both Russia and the US as part of the “Jews, the crusaders, [and] their allies” group pitted against the “Muslims and the mujahideen”. At the same time, the ISK continues to establish that it is no longer a terror formation seeking random targets for fame, but is now capable of identifying particular hard targets and executing precision attacks against them.
The objective of the group has been to project itself as the only surviving anti-West, transnational entity and to recruit heavily among the Taliban rejectionist constituencies. The group has been underlining its ‘melting pot of sorts’ status for cadres belonging to various ethnic backgrounds. Its recent publicity materials have shown Uyghur, Baloch and Uzbek cadres participating in terror attacks and suicide bombings. At the same time, it is also trying to shed the tag of being an Afghan-centric group by carrying out attacks in Pakistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. In March, the deadly suicide bombing of a Shiite Mosque in Peshawar killed more than 60 worshippers. In April and May 2022, ISK claimed to have carried out rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan from Afghan soil. Although both countries have denied that the rockets reached their territories, the United Nations Security Council fears that “the risk of similar attacks remains”.
Setback to Al-Qaeda, and Yet Safe Haven for Other Terror Outfits
On August 2, Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul. The house in Kabul’s Sherpur locality where Zawahiri was staying had reportedly been taken over by the Taliban in August 2021. The killing of a largely uninspiring leader of a weakened outfit nevertheless raised questions about the future of Al-Qaeda Central in the Af-Pak region; the future of its relationship with the Taliban; and the relevance of the outfit in a global terror landscape dominated by a weakened yet still potent Islamic State. Even months after al-Zawahiri’s killing, Al-Qaeda has yet to name a new chief, which possibly points at a succession crisis. Some counter terror experts have identified Saif al-Adel and Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi as potential successors to Zawahiri. Notwithstanding who replaces al-Zawahiri, it is almost certain that Al-Qaeda, which operates potently through its affiliates in Africa, would find it challenging to maintain a foothold in the Af-Pak region. Al-Zawahiri’s killing, a result of continued US counter terrorism focus on the group, could constrain it to lie low further, even at the cost of becoming functionally extinct in the region.
Al-Zawahiri’s killing also highlighted the Taliban’s fragile commitment to not allow Afghan soil to be used by international terrorist groups against the US and its allies. Quite predictably, the Taliban, after a delay of few days, responded by feigning ignorance about al-Zawahiri’s presence, and also by protesting against the violation of the country’s sovereignty by the US.
Reports by the UN continue to highlight that the ties between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have largely remained intact. Although Al-Qaeda may not be operationally active within Afghanistan, its presence under safety provided by the Islamic Emirate is bound to have an inspiring impact on its affiliates worldwide. The Taliban are clearly adopting a clever policy on such groups, which were part of its network previously. It is willing to restrict groups like the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) to placate China; it has facilitated negotiations between the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Pakistan; it remains ambivalent with regard to Kashmir-centric groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM); and is apparently using the presence of groups like Al-Qaeda to gain leverage in its bargaining with the US and the international community. The Taliban remains a hotbed of multiple terror formations with varying agendas.
Responses to terrorism within Afghanistan and terror threats emanating from Afghan soil are visible at three levels – from the Taliban, from the US and the international community: and from regional powers.
The Islamic Emirate envisages challenges to its project of dominating Afghanistan from two primary sources – the resistance groups like the NRF and the ISK. Therefore, the bulk of its military capabilities have been employed against these two. As mentioned, it has prioritised its operations against the NRF by appointing a new commander. It is relatively confident that the absence of any international backing and the lack of unity will remain weaknesses for resistance groups such as NRF. Hence, a sustained operation would eventually overwhelm them.
Regarding its approach towards ISK, however, two trends are visible. First, the Taliban are apprehensive of ISK’s growing influence among the anti-Taliban disenchanted groups. Sections within the TIP, for instance, could potentially switch their alliance to ISK. Recent ISK attacks have occurred in the country’s northern parts, including Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar and Mazar Sharif, where the terror group was less active before the fall of Kabul to the Taliban. Hence, the Taliban’s anti-ISK military operations seemingly have a single-point agenda of not letting ISK grow big enough to potentially threaten the Islamic Emirate. The UN political mission in Afghanistan in January reported extrajudicial killings of at least 50 individuals suspected of affiliation with ISK. Such operations also help the Taliban to showcase its commitment to contain terror to the international community. Hence, any inability to limit ISK attacks pertains mostly to the question of capacity of the Taliban.
Second, it also amounts to the question of willingness, that is, to what extent the Taliban wishes to limit ISK. Although the Taliban insists that its government has taken all necessary measures to protect the Hazara community and any report to the contrary does not reflect the reality on the ground, it could also possibly be allowing ISK to have a free rein in the latter’s anti-minority attacks. In early 2022, a report by the Taliban Sanctions Committee of the UN Security Council suggested that there is “scope for the Taliban overlooking or seeking advantage from ISK attacks that were not directly against Taliban interests, especially those targeting minorities”. This brings to light an extremely dangerous trend regarding the sincerity of the Islamic Emirate to pursue a selective approach to terror.
The US departure from Afghanistan has marked a noticeable change in its approach towards the latter. The US remains committed to contain terror that potentially threatens its own interests. Al-Zawahiri’s killing in August, therefore, is important for two reasons. First, it makes any plan of Al-Qaeda’s to re-emerge potently in the Af-Pak region more difficult. This means that Al-Qaeda, for the time being, will have to remain satisfied with the steady gains of its affiliates in Africa and its marginal presence in parts of Asia. Second, the drone strike, in line with the US promise to carry out over-the-horizon operations after its departure from Afghanistan, would potentially deter global jihadists from converging on a ‘safe Afghanistan’ under the Taliban. The US has promised to repeat such strikes in the future as well.
However, the US approach remains problematic, as it does not attach much seriousness to the Taliban’s linkages with other regional terror formations. While ruling out any support for the NRF, the US has provided enough indications that it views the Taliban as a partner in counter terrorism. Such a selective approach would embolden the Taliban to continue maintaining its strategic linkages with groups like the TTP, LeT, JeM and others.
In the past months, there has been some sort of convergence in views among regional countries regarding the terror threat posed by Afghanistan under the Taliban. Statements made by Pakistan, Iran and India at the UN have pointed to this fact. Even China reportedly appears concerned with the Taliban’s lack of commitment to act decisively against the TIP and has halted its plan for economic investment. However, in the absence of unity of purpose and an action plan, such statements by these countries have merely fleeting relevance and are unlikely to put much pressure on the Taliban.
ISK thrives in Afghanistan due to a lack of both capacity and intent on the part of the Taliban, which remains opposed to any international assistance to deal with the group. While al-Zawahiri’s killing is a setback for Al-Qaeda, it cannot be construed as a death blow to the group. In addition, in 2022, Afghanistan has not become an inhospitable territory for other regional terror groups. Afghanistan is still home to a plethora of regional and transnational jihadist groups. The Taliban are likely to spend much of its energy in eliciting international recognition and funding and decimating the NRF, and not so much on making the country terror free. Neither of its twin objectives are likely to succeed in the short to medium term. The sum of all this unveils a spectre of chaos in the country, with potential repercussions for regional as well as global stability. The international community should realise that neither its policies of detachment nor overwhelming reliance on over-the-horizon drone operations can provide a solution to the Afghan problem. Establishment of a broad-based inclusive government and continued international assistance based on accountability and transparency can offer a more viable solution to the country’s problems.
About the Author
Dr Shanthie Mariet D’Souza is Founder and President of Mantraya; Visiting Faculty & Member of Research & Advisory Committee, Naval War College, Goa, India; Non-Resident Scholar, Middle East Institute, Washington, D.C. She has conducted field research in Afghanistan, Pakistan, China, Africa, Jammu and Kashmir, and India’s Northeast. Dr D’Souza is editor and co-editor of several books, including Countering Insurgencies and Violent Extremism in South and Southeast Asia (United Kingdom: Routledge, January 2019), Afghanistan in Transition: Beyond 2014? and Saving Afghanistan and Perspectives on South Asian Security, respectively. She can be reached at [email protected].
Thumbnail photo by Farid Ershad on Unsplash
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