Afghanistan Regains Its Crown as Terror Central

The Taliban’s jihadi friends are back to threaten global security.

ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
ODonnell-Lynne-foreign-policy-columnist
Lynne O’Donnell
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author.
Taliban fighters in armored vehicles take part in a military parade.
Taliban fighters in armored vehicles take part in a military parade.
Taliban fighters in armored vehicles take part in a military street parade in Herat, Afghanistan, on April 19. MOHSEN KARIMI/AFP via Getty Images

Violence is intensifying in Afghanistan eight months after the United States’ retreat allowed the Taliban to return to power, fueling concerns that the country may again become a hub of instability and terrorism across South and Central Asia and beyond.

Afghanistan has long been a base for militants with ambitions for global jihad. Dozens of groups that have been present since the Taliban’s last turn in power from 1996 to 2001 are again operational, looking for opportunities to expand their reach, said security, diplomatic, and military sources. 

Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Lashkar-e-Taiba are the most prominent of about 20 militant groups identified by the United States and the United Nations as having an armed presence in Afghanistan throughout the 20 years of its republic.

Violence is intensifying in Afghanistan eight months after the United States’ retreat allowed the Taliban to return to power, fueling concerns that the country may again become a hub of instability and terrorism across South and Central Asia and beyond.

Afghanistan has long been a base for militants with ambitions for global jihad. Dozens of groups that have been present since the Taliban’s last turn in power from 1996 to 2001 are again operational, looking for opportunities to expand their reach, said security, diplomatic, and military sources. 

Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), and Lashkar-e-Taiba are the most prominent of about 20 militant groups identified by the United States and the United Nations as having an armed presence in Afghanistan throughout the 20 years of its republic.

“Afghanistan is al Qaeda and al Qaeda is Afghanistan,” said Ali Mohammad Ali, a security expert and consultant who worked with the former Kabul government. 

Warnings that a Taliban return to power could reignite the terrorist threat that led to the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the United States were ignored ahead of the Trump administration’s 2020 deal to pull out of the country and essentially hand over Afghanistan to the militant group. Under the terms of that deal, the Taliban pledged not to attack U.S. forces or the United States. Instead, Afghanistan is now a base for attacks on neighboring countries, including Pakistan and, seemingly, Uzbekistan.

If Taliban-ruled Afghanistan is again turning into an exporter of terror, it’s in part because of the collapse of its economy and law and order; security across the country is virtually nonexistent. An uptick in violence—from anti-Taliban attacks by a disparate but growing resistance to suicide attacks targeting ethnic minorities like Hazaras—indicates the Islamists are fast losing whatever governing grip they might have had. Militancy is thriving, much of it deployed to geopolitical ends.

“The Taliban’s inability to govern has effectively provided a carte blanche for terrorist groups to operate in and from Afghanistan’s territory,” Ali said.

Some of the terror groups operating in Afghanistan, such as the local Islamic State affiliate, known as the Islamic State-Khorasan, have teamed up with the IMU to destabilize some Central Asian neighbors that remain in Russia’s sphere of influence, said Mirwais Naab, a former deputy foreign minister of Afghanistan.

The Islamic State-Khorasan announced in a video on Monday that it had fired 10 rockets at a military base in Uzbekistan. Naab described it as “an attempt by [the Islamic State] to claim the IMU mission in Uzbekistan and connect itself with sleeping cells and extremist groups there. But I don’t see much difference between them. They are operating very closely.”

It was not immediately possible to verify the veracity of the Islamic State-Khorasan claim. The Uzbek government called it a “provocation” and said in a statement it was “absolutely untrue” and that the border region was stable.

But there may be a geopolitical motive behind attacks on Afghanistan’s Central Asian neighbors: Russia.

Many Central Asian states see their relationship with Moscow as a potential liability following the Russian invasion of Ukraine and Western sanctions that will send economic and social problems their way. Tight supplies of pricey commodities could bring unrest, as fuel price hikes did earlier this year in Kazakhstan. Loss of migrant workers’ remittances from Russia will cull billions of dollars from their economies, said Central Asia expert Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a Singapore think tank.

Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and even Tajikistan and Turkmenistan have all signaled varying levels of unease with Russia’s war in Ukraine. Pantucci said some countries with large Russian-speaking populations regard Russian nationalism as a bigger potential threat than jihadism. Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, the richest of the Central Asian states, have publicly distanced themselves from Russia over the war. Along with public expressions of disdain for the violence and support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity, both countries have sent emergency supplies of food, medicine, clothing, and bedding to Ukraine. 

These actions will not have endeared Central Asian countries to Moscow, which has stopped grain and fertilizer exports and may play tough on access to outlets for oil, gas, and other export commodities. But Russia may have a trump card: its historic links to Afghanistan. Soviet support for a communist government in Kabul led to a Russian invasion in 1979 and a 10-year proxy war with the United States that ended with the rise of the Taliban.

Ties persist. In 2020, Russia offered Taliban militants payment to target U.S. and allied troops on the battlefield. Russia—along with China, Iran, and Pakistan—was one of the few countries to support the Taliban’s return and is so far the only country to accredit a Taliban diplomat and call for the group to be formally recognized. 

“Given the increasingly cozy relationship between Russia and the Taliban and the latter’s marriage of convenience with ISKP, it is likely that Moscow signaled the Taliban to influence ISKP to strike the Central Asians states,” said Ali, the security consultant. The endgame, he said, is to quell any flirtation with independence and ensure that the Central Asian states understand the value of Moscow’s security umbrella.

The Taliban, riven with divisions of their own, are in a tough position to deal with threats from their associates and neighbors—and vice versa. China, which could invest in mining and infrastructure, wants the Taliban to deport members of the ETIM, which seeks independence for the Muslim-majority Chinese region of Xinjiang. Ethnic Uzbek and Tajik leaders of the Taliban in northern Afghanistan oppose the deportation of Uyghurs to almost certain execution.

“The fear of the northern guys is that if the Taliban are going to throw the Uyghurs under the bus, why wouldn’t they throw the Uzbeks under the bus too?” Pantucci said. The Taliban need a trade-based relationship with Uzbekistan, which supplies much of Afghanistan’s electricity.

That’s not the Taliban’s only problem. Pakistan has been infuriated by the enduring alliance between the Pakistani Taliban, or TTP, and the Afghan Taliban that Islamabad helped bring back to power. Contrary to Pakistan’s expectations, the TTP, like Islamist groups the world over, was energized by the Taliban’s victory.

A January report by the U.S. Institute of Peace said Pakistan “had long argued the TTP was largely a byproduct of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan combined with external support from the former Afghan government in cahoots with India” and expected its threat would diminish with the Taliban’s victory. The opposite has happened, with the Taliban enabling TTP attacks on Pakistani military targets. Acting Afghan Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani—himself a sanctioned terrorist—has offered to mediate a peace deal.

Pakistani air raids in Afghanistan’s eastern Khost and Kunar provinces over the weekend killed more than 40 people, Afghan officials said.

“Terrorists are using Afghan soil with impunity to carry out activities inside Pakistan,” said Asim Iftikhar, Islamabad’s foreign ministry spokesperson.

Lynne O’Donnell is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an Australian journalist and author. She was the Afghanistan bureau chief for Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press between 2009 and 2017.

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