The latest report by the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team regarding the peace and security of Afghanistan was published this month. Unsurprisingly, this report, the 14th since 2011, makes for grim reading. Running 27 pages long, it lays out in detail the growing transnational terrorist threats that have evolved in Afghanistan since the Taliban took over almost two years ago.
When reading the UN’s report, it is worth remembering what the flawed 2021 agreement made between the Trump administration and the Taliban said about terrorism. In the agreement, the Taliban pledged that it would “prevent any group or individual, including Al-Qaeda, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies.” The reality on the ground in Afghanistan today could not be more different.
There are an estimated 21 different terrorist groups operating freely in Afghanistan. Some have global ambitions, while some are more regionally focused. The vast majority of these terrorist groups enjoy the hospitality and protection of the Taliban. The two most dangerous groups in Afghanistan that have grown in size since the Taliban’s takeover are Al-Qaeda and Daesh.
Even though Al-Qaeda was specifically mentioned by name in the Taliban’s agreement with the Trump administration, no meaningful action has been taken by the Taliban to stop the group from operating in Afghanistan. In fact, the exact opposite is happening. Senior members of Al-Qaeda, who had not set foot in Afghanistan for almost two decades, are now roaming the land freely.
Al-Qaeda’s reestablished presence in Afghanistan was best highlighted when its leader, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was killed in a US drone strike in Kabul last summer. According to the latest UN report, Al-Qaeda “maintains a low profile, focusing on using the country as an ideological and logistical hub to mobilize and recruit new fighters while covertly rebuilding its external operations capability.” It also states that “the relationship between the Taliban and Al-Qaeda remained close and symbiotic, with Al-Qaeda viewing Taliban-administered Afghanistan a safe haven.”
The group mainly operates in nine provinces in the south and east. According to the UN report, there are about 400 Al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan — a number that increases to 2,000 when including family members and supporters. The report also notes an interesting link between Al-Qaeda and Iran, stating that, “since August 2021, senior Al-Qaeda leaders … were reported to have traveled between Afghanistan and the Islamic Republic of Iran.”
Another group that has benefited from the Taliban’s return is Daesh. After losing its base of operations in Syria and Iraq, Daesh has turned to Afghanistan as its main hub of activity. According to the UN report, operations undertaken by Daesh in Afghanistan “are becoming more sophisticated and lethal” and more numerous. The Taliban is unable to prevent most of Daesh’s mass casualty attacks against civilians. The situation is further complicated by the blurred and overlapping relationship between certain factions of the Taliban movement and Daesh.
There is also a myriad of regionally focused terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. Pakistan has legitimate concerns that the Taliban is allowing members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a terrorist group with the goal of overthrowing Pakistan’s government, to seek a haven in Afghanistan.
With much of the international community’s focus traditionally being on Afghanistan’s southern border with Pakistan, another region to keep an eye on is its northern border. For example, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Jamaat Ansarullah, consisting of ethnic Uzbek and Tajik extremists respectively, share the stated goal of overthrowing legitimate governments in Tashkent and Dushanbe. Both groups are now very active in Afghanistan.
While the situation in Afghanistan remains bleak, there are three things that the international community can do when it comes to the terrorist threat. First, current UN sanctions against Taliban officials should remain in place and engagement with Kabul needs to be done with eyes wide open. At least 13 members of the Taliban’s so-called government are under some form of UN sanctions. The Taliban allows transnational terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda to roam freely despite assurances to the contrary.
There should also be a global refusal to recognize the Taliban as the legitimate government of Afghanistan. There is no meaningful non-Pashtun representation in the Taliban government. Under these circumstances alone, it is inconceivable that the Taliban can be viewed as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan. The Taliban would benefit from such legitimacy and the international community should do everything it can to prevent this.
Secondly, the international community needs to identify and work with non-extremist groups willing to fight terrorism inside Afghanistan. Currently, the top group is the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan. The NRF, led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, is the only genuine resistance against the Taliban and other terrorist groups like Al-Qaeda, Daesh and Jamaat Ansarullah. Most NRF leaders are not considered to be part of the corrupt political class that existed before the Taliban takeover last August. Many were involved in opposition politics and had been demanding reforms from successive Afghan governments for years. As the Taliban’s brutality increases and it continues to mismanage Afghanistan’s economy and security, the NRF is likely to grow in size and popularity.
Finally, the international community should engage more with regional countries like Tajikistan. Of all the Central Asian states, Tajikistan has been the most critical of the Taliban and is the most under pressure from transnational terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. In the 1990s, Tajikistan played an important role in supporting the resistance against the Taliban and, by extension, Al-Qaeda. With the correct amount of discreet engagement at a senior level, those in the international community keen to counter the emerging terrorist threat in Afghanistan might find a partner in Dushanbe.
As the world approaches the two-year anniversary of the fall of Kabul, it should not turn its eyes away from the tragic situation unfolding in Afghanistan. With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Iran’s continued belligerency in the Middle East, it is easy to overlook — or even want to forget — about Afghanistan. However, history shows that what happens in Afghanistan can impact the rest of the world. Instead of burying their heads in the sand, policymakers need to wake up to the challenges posed by a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.