The Taliban began a major, country-wide offensive in Afghanistan on 6 August, seizing the city of Zaranj, the capital of the Nimruz province. Over the next nine days, the jihadists systematically took over the provincial capitals all across the south, west, and north, before moving toward the Afghan capital, Kabul, in the east, isolating it from multiple directions and then taking it earlier today. President Ashraf Ghani has fled to Tajikistan, taking with him the legal government, and the Taliban are now back in power, almost exactly twenty years after they were deposed. The boost this will give to the jihadist cause is difficult to overstate.
The U.S. signed what it described as a peace agreement with the Taliban in February 2020. As EER’s recent report explained, this “deal” was in reality a promise of unconditional withdrawal, and the Taliban understood this. It played along with the process enough to have the U.S. force concessions on the Afghan government, most notably the release of thousands of jihadist prisoners, and once the U.S. forces were moved out of the way, the Taliban, with the full backing—as it has always had—of Pakistan, moved in a lightning strike to seize the country, a “military solution” to a conflict where the U.S. insisted no such thing was available.
The immediate impact is for the Afghans: those involved with the fallen government will be massacred; anybody who can flee, will, precipitating a refugee flow through Afghanistan’s neighbors and ultimately into Europe; and those who have to remain in the country will be subjected to an Islamist tyranny modelled in effect on the theocracy in Iran and its concept of wilayat al-faqih (rulership of the jurist).
This crisis will not remain within Afghanistan’s borders, however. As recently as yesterday a member of the Taliban reiterated that the group believes in jihad as a universal, not just for one country:
“It is our belief that, one day, mujahideen will have victory and Islamic law will come not to just Afghanistan but all over the world. We are not in a hurry. … Jihad will not end until the last day.”
The Taliban remains wedded to Al-Qaeda. Indeed, Al-Qaeda has an oath of allegiance (bay’at) to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda fights alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan, along with a an array of other Pakistani-backed jihadist groups like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Tayyiba. In the last few days, the British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace has said that with a Talibanized Afghanistan, “Al-Qaeda will probably come back”, and earlier today the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley bluntly stated that Al-Qaeda will be back and the risk of terrorism against the West in the near-term is high.
The role of Iran in Afghanistan should not be neglected, even if its assets in the country—notably Ismail Khan—are currently on the backfoot. Iran has relations with the Taliban, on one side, and on the other side Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) has cultivated a presence in Afghanistan for decades among the Sunni Islamist warlords and among the Hazara Shi’is. The IRGC recently began to transfer some of the Shi’a jihadists in its Afghan unit, Liwa Fatemiyoun, back to Afghanistan; this might result in creating an IRGC-held zone, or it might spark sectarian warfare, or both.
If the IRGC’s assets do spark a sectarian war in Afghanistan, it will likely be against the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP). Though ISKP has been repeatedly declared a spent force by American government officials and non-state analysts, the group has continued to flourish, annexing splinters from all the other Islamist groups, infiltrating these groups, and getting itself embedded in the prison system, where it was both protected and could recruit. One of the first things the Taliban has done after its conquest of the cities is—as was predicted—to open the prisons. All of the ISKP prisoners, and all of their proselytes, are either now free or about to be, and they will not only engage in horrific anti-Shi’a and other atrocities within Afghanistan. As our report made clear, ISKP has already been tied to international terrorist cells and plots as far away as Australia.
For the jihadists, the belief is that they have defeated the Americans, just as they defeated the Soviet Union—and that sense of victory over two infidel superpowers will ensure that their cause gains recruits and money with which they can sow mayhem around the world for the foreseeable future.