With the last American gone, and Afghanistan in chaos, counter-terrorism professionals are justifiably alarmed, particularly as congratulatory messages to the Taliban pour in from terrorist and extremist religious groups, indicating a degree of triumphalism that bodes ill for democracies everywhere. It certainly doesn’t look good. As television channels pick up on the threat and magnify it, what is needed is a sober assessment of the nuances rather than the noise, and then sifting out future counter-terrorism directions. In some ways, the more things change, the more they may remain the same. In other areas, prepare for the worst.
The nature of a government in Kabul
First, regardless of the US now deciding to work with the Taliban and coordinating on a ‘daily basis’, the truth of the matter is this. As Taliban leaders make propitiating statements to the international community, there is absolutely no clarity as to whether these leaders are at all positioned to speak for the group itself, at a time when it is even unclear as to who heads it. The continued absence of Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is perplexing; Mullah Baradar is far from having undisputed control, and the dreaded Haqqanis seem to have taken charge of security through Khalil Haqqani, without any order being issued from the ‘Emirate’. Sources similarly point to the presence of Red units, (elite Taliban units created for the provinces), and others like it in Kabul without any authorisation. Appointment lists so far inspire no confidence at all in any ‘inclusivity’. Some of the mullahs, such as Haji Mohammad Idris, were known to be ‘expert’ in laundering drug money, among other things.
On the upside, it may be remembered that many of the ministers of the Ashraf Ghani government were hardly pillars of respectability. Then Defence Minister Asadullah Khalid, for instance, had a record of rights abuses, not to mention warlords like Abdul Rashid Dostum and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Kabul under Ghani was a centre for infighting, where almost everyone with a war history had little commitment to reasonably honest governance. In that respect, nothing much has changed in the situation at the top. Expect more of the same, with additional extremist characteristics, as the Chinese would say, moderated by the need for foreign assistance.
Kabul’s capability at the edges
Second, don’t expect a Taliban government to have any greater power than either the Ghani government, or even the Soviet-backed government of President Mohammed Daoud in the far reaches of Afghanistan. Each of these managed under a system of loose fealty, warlordism and threat. Even while the US was at the height of its deployment, it had little actual control over any activity in districts elsewhere, other than Kabul and its immediate environs.
A new ‘government’ in Kabul, even if willing to act against terrorists, will not have the capability for some years yet, if at all. Many have marveled at Taliban resilience, and its apparent unity even in adversity. That strength has come from the group’s willingness to recognise and accept local loyalties and power centres, and coopting them into the overall structure. That includes criminal activity of all kinds, including not just narcotics, but also kidnapping, money laundering and sheer banditry, all of which is detailed in an earlier UN Report. It forms the foundation of what it means to be ‘Taliban’, and it’s highly unlikely that Mullah Baradar or anyone else will be able or even want to eliminate such elements.
In addition, analysts point out that the Taliban unity also held due to the single threat of ‘foreign occupation’. With that gone, it is unlikely whether the structure will sustain enough to carry out Kabul’s orders. More likely, local commanders will operate to sustain themselves and Kabul, as before, will just have to lump it. So, anyone expecting Kabul to act strongly against terrorists is whistling in the wind.
An abundance of terrorists
Third, there are so many of these groups about. There’s the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), led by Shahab al Mujahir, reportedly appointed by the Raqqa-based leadership. There’s the al-Qaeda, still present in some 15 provinces; the al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), a cause of considerable unease to India, Myanmar and Bangladesh, since it includes their nationals; the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), which worries Pakistan, and a medley of Central Asian and Chinese groups numbering in total some 8,000-10,000. The trouble is that all these also are operationally in support of the Taliban.
In February 2021, a directive from the Taliban appeared on social media clearly aimed at Western audiences. The directive barred cadres from sheltering ‘foreign fighters’ on threat of punishment. Since there are no reports of any mass exodus of fighters from the country, it is assumed that this directive remains on paper. These various groups will sooner or later have access to at least a part of the 600,000 weapons–including 350,000 M4 and M16 rifles, 60,000 machine guns, and 25,000 grenade launchers–left behind by the Americans. That’s the timebomb neighbours have to watch out for. As seen time and again, the debris of war resists controls even by reasonably organised governments. Given the chaos in Kabul, anything is possible.
Kashmir and beyond
And then there are Kashmir-centric groups like the Jaish-e-Mohammed – whose Masood Azhar is reported to have visited Kandahar to persuade the Taliban to take on Kashmir – and the Lashkar-e-Taiba, who have long operated in Afghanistan, acting as facilitators, trainers and advisors to terrorists of all hues. They operate around Nangarhar and Nuristan, along the Pakistan border. Since the US withdrawal, there has been a burst of victorious triumphalism from religious groups like the Jamaat-e-Islami, terrorist leaders and even members of the ruling PTI who have called for Taliban help in liberating Kashmir.
The Taliban leadership have consistently refused any role in Kashmir, despite the recentefforts of the Pakistani media to paint it as ‘interested’ and the overhyping some sections of Indian media. Any forecasting of terrorism in India certainly has to take into account a ‘Taliban’ element in jihadi activity in Kashmir, aimed as much at distancing Pakistan from the violence as jinxing Delhi’s outreach to Kabul. At a second level and more likely level, are IS-K attacks using Indian cadres on urban centres, rather than Kashmir, where they have actually been evicted by long-established jihadi groups. An al-Qaeda element is also likely to try to hit foreign nationals in India or their institutions, with the aim of eroding our fast-improving economic capability. Delhi needs to make it clear that any attack, by any group part of the alphabet soup of terrorism, will result in immediate punishment on Pakistan. There should be no hesitation in telling the world that ‘target India’ is more a Rawalpindi preoccupation than that of terrorists however wild-eyed. Meanwhile, make available all the data collected on the Pakistan connection to the IS-K that is the new focus of attention of Washington and its allies, even while acknowledging that the Syria-based IS is a threat to everybody.
In sum, the danger arises from Afghanistan going the way of Pakistan, trading a dubious counter-terror cooperation in return for goodies. Meanwhile, each immediate neighbour will use its clout to ensure that areas bordering it remain in some ‘control’ of Taliban units. China has long attempted this through Pakistan, but with indifferent success. This time it would probably opt for some direct dealing. It is hoped that China understands that cutting off just the one group inimical to you, while allowing others to operate, is also just what Pakistan has done for decades with disastrous results. To deal with terrorism, the whole cess pool has to be drained. In that task, China may need a little help from its neighbours even while expecting none whatsoever from its iron brother friend.
The author is a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. She tweets @kartha_tara. Views are personal.
(Edited by Neera Majumdar)