The Soufan Center held a webinar on 7 December entitled, “Promise and Peril in Afghanistan? Taliban, IS-K, and the Human Security Dimension”. The panellists discussed the situation in Afghanistan after the NATO withdrawal and the jihadist takeover.
Opening the webinar, Ioannis Koskinas, a Senior Fellow at New America and CEO of the Hoplite Group, says that the problem in Afghanistan was that in the last two years particularly decisions had been made on the U.S. side by “people who did not understand the environment in Afghanistan, did not understand the consequences of their actions”. Given that the U.S. now does not have a presence in the country, this understanding is likely to get worse. The U.S. invested too heavily in the Doha talks, while ignoring that a full-scale war was going on within Afghanistan, on the ground, and “underestimated” the Taliban’s strategy and their capacity to carry it out. The U.S. ended up playing a good hand very poorly, “strengthening the Taliban’s game plan and weakening the Afghan government”. The Taliban at present is not, says Koskinas, quite the same as the first time around, with a “different centre of gravity”, less a cult of personality around founder Mullah Muhammad Omar and more based in places like Khost—always, of course, with “Rawalpindi”, i.e. the Pakistani military-intelligence establishment, guiding matters.
Wazhma Frogh, a founder of the Women and Peace Studies Organization (WPSO), says that—without unsaying any criticisms of the Afghan government—this catastrophe is a “direct consequence” of the U.S. withdrawal. Frogh says the withdrawal was “not based on the conditions but based on President Biden’s preconceived notions”, which were “bizarre”. So this was “not about reality” and instead was “about the politics of the U.S. administration”. The key turning point was the U.S. announcement in April that it was leaving, collapsing morale within the Afghan state, so that when the Taliban “Spring Offensive” began—as it had so many years—this time it started taking over provinces, rather than being blocked. The Taliban had a very powerful message, asking Afghan soldiers if they were going to keep fighting when the U.S. was “going to leave them to die in a few weeks”. Then the U.S. “left during the night” from Bagram Airbase, the “biggest symbol of the War on Terror”, and all through this the “political recognition granted to the Taliban” had fuelled their gains on the ground.
Since the U.S. withdrawal, Frogh notes that the crimes against the Afghan people have become rampant: at least four women stoned to death, dozens of former soldiers murdered, former officials tortured, and widespread bombings as the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) or Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP) rampages. The narrative in the U.S. is that “the war is over”, but it is not: it has gotten far worse. There is starvation looming and this is an entirely “man-made crisis”—this is not like the humanitarian crises elsewhere in the world. The Taliban and its jihadist friends are stealing humanitarian aid and denying it to their enemies. Meanwhile, all the designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) are now in power.
The director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, Colin Clarke, noted that while ISKP is getting a lot of attention on the terrorism front at the moment, “and for good reason”, Al-Qaeda remains a threat and is still inextricably linked to the Taliban, to which it has sworn an oath of allegiance (bay’at). The idea that the U.S. could work with the Taliban “government” against terrorism is belied by the fact the interior ministry is under the control of Siraj Haqqani, the leader of the Haqqani Network, which is part of both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, a designated terrorist with a ten-million-dollar bounty on his head. When Clarke has asked U.S. officials about this, they “shrug”; they have no ideas or answers about what to do. The U.S. must not, says Clarke, join with the Taliban as a counter-terrorism partner; this is a fruitless path. The Taliban appears to have the upper-hand over ISKP, but it cannot suppress ISKP and its “counter-insurgency” tactics manage to combine cruelty and inefficiency. ISKP looks likely to become a “threat to the region” after it consolidates in Afghanistan. Behind all of this there are numerous outside states involved: Pakistan, Iran, India, Turkey, and the Gulf states, among others. “If that’s not great power competition, I don’t know what is”, says Clarke, who notes that the Biden administration has sold its withdrawal as a contribution to great-power competition but this suggests it “doesn’t understand the concept”.
The last speaker was Elizabeth Joyce of the United Nations Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), which supports the Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC), and recently released a rare public report. South Asia had a serious terrorism before all this; now, it is obviously worse. Regional cooperation would be necessary for human security in Afghanistan; this seems unlikely in the foreseeable future. There remain issues, too, around the judicial systems in neighbouring states, which—apart from concerns about properly investigating and prosecuting terrorism—continue to struggle to manage terrorists who are imprisoned. CTC has pushed neighbouring states to set aside political issues and focus on technical matters, and this has had success, claims Joyce. While there has been considerable cooperation between security officials across borders, there has been little coordination between judges. International cooperation would be needed to stop the flow of foreign fighters and the creation of safe havens, and an immediate concern is the safety of judicial officials, which was a problem in Afghanistan even before this. In terms of terrorist finance, “cash is still King”, despite all the new worries about cryptocurrency. The heroine trade and wide availability of weapons are also problems that will have to be resolved at some point.
Question and Answer
Koskinas says that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is a stain on the U.S. and what has been done will return to “bite the U.S.” over time. This assessment of what the U.S. is and how it has conducted itself is now being used by U.S. adversaries like China and Russia and Iran, and “will be for generations”. In theatres all of the world from Ukraine to Taiwan, U.S. adversaries can point to Afghanistan and ask whether people want to throw in their lot with the Americans. This is not something that can be solved quickly or by throwing money at it; the U.S.’s role as a superpower managing global order is now strained.
While Afghans wanted the war to end, it could not be done by handing over a nation of forty million to an armed gang of 100,000, says Frogh, not least because the Taliban has no interest or ability to govern. The U.S. has demolished the institutions that were functioning, however imperfectly, but now millions of civil servants are out of work, adding to the already large numbers of poor people, and the Taliban—even if it wanted to govern—cannot pay its forces, who are now extorting farmers and others. It is leaving terrorist groups a free hand to recruit by offering money and security.
The truth at present is that the U.S. just does not know how and what terrorist groups have learned, says Clarke. With ISKP, the likelihood is that there will only be clarity “after a major attack”, when the U.S. can forensically look over how it was brought about. The U.S. “over the horizon” policy is not practicable in general and to the extent it is a feasible idea, the U.S. is not good at it. Governance is the centre of things—insurgency is a contest about governance—and the Taliban cannot govern, Clarke argues. But there is now little the U.S. can do: it has “zero leverage” over the country.
Handling the question about a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions, Frogh said this is an obvious short-term necessity in a situation where people are selling their children to afford food—and for Afghans there is something strange about the U.S. having “dined for two or three years” with the Taliban and handed the country over to them, but now refusing engagement with the Taliban to get food into the country. That said, Frogh notes that the Taliban is stealing the aid that is sent—notably a recent wheat shipment from Australia—so aid without accountability mechanisms is deeply troublesome.
The Taliban being a sworn enemy of ISKP “doesn’t really mean anything”, Koskinas argues; it does not make them allies. Giving over cash to the Taliban is no kind of solution: clearly, they will just pay their own armed cadres and not whatever is left of the civil service. There is “no silver bullet” now that the U.S. has no influence in the country.
Clarke picked up on the silver bullet point, saying that the inability of the U.S. to manage Afghanistan over the long term was a problem throughout all of this, with the U.S. showing no ability to handle underlying problems, particularly the jihadist “sanctuary in Pakistan” and corruption in the Afghan government. The issue now is that the U.S., whatever its failings in execution, had “good intent” toward the Afghan population, while the new regional managers like China and Russia, do not.
“Afghanistan was the only country that was an ally in the region”, notes Frogh. The surrounding states—China, Iran, and Pakistan—are all hostile, even as Pakistan plays a “double game”. And now the U.S. has given it up. Frogh suggests reopening the U.S. Embassy—without recognizing the Taliban—to deal with what the U.S. has done in “bringing the Taliban into power”.
Asked the same question of the priority, Clarke says ensuring humanitarian aid gets into the country over the winter. Joyce focused on governance and rebuilding institutions. Koskinas’ actionable solutions track Clarke’s humanitarian and Frogh’s political priorities, adding that the U.S. needs to develop a proper cadre of country experts to deal with states—not just Afghanistan—since interventions will be needed in future.