That there will be no functional state is to the terrorist group's advantage
In his speech last night announcing the end of the American presence in Afghanistan and what happens next, Secretary of State Blinken said: “The Taliban seeks international legitimacy and support”, and “the Taliban can do that by meeting commitments and obligations”, which include “counter-terrorism”.
To most people it will seem strange that the Taliban could be regarded as a counter-terrorism partner, and it is. Despite the U.S. never formally listing the Taliban as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO), the Taliban is fully integrated in a jihadist network under the control of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) that includes Al-Qaeda.
Among the most capable and savage of ISI’s factions is the Haqqani Network, which overtly holds senior positions in the Taliban and is a registered FTO. On Friday, the U.S. administration claimed that they were “separate entities”. A senior Haqqani operative ripped away this fig-leaf days later, declaring bluntly: “We are the Taliban”.
What the Biden administration was trying to do was defend its decision to rely on the Taliban for security at the Kabul airport, using a legalistic fiction that it was not passing names of Americans and Afghans to a terrorist group. Blinken’s statement tries to continue this fiction. The plain fact is that terrorists with global ambitions have taken over Afghanistan, and if disaster akin to 9/11 is to be avoided, policy must be made to deal with that reality.
Another fact is that the “over-the-horizon” capabilities the administration is promising — the satellites and drones based outside the country that will be used to monitor and eliminate terrorist threats in Afghanistan — are of very limited utility. Information is needed from the ground and with the collapse of the Afghan government there is no more access to a reliable intelligence stream. Even if intelligence were to become available, acting in time would be unlikely since the nearest bases are a thousand miles away in the Gulf.
The Islamic State’s “Khorasan Province” (ISKP), which caused such devastation at the airport last week, did so partly to underline its message as the “true” jihadist cause, while the Taliban and Al-Qaeda were collaborating with the West in the evacuation. ISKP has already peeled away sections of the Haqqani Network — this is partly why its urban attacks have become so effective. What’s more, the trend of Taliban losses to ISKP is likely to increase as the rank-and-file are unable to reconcile the ideology they have been taught with the reality of government.
ISKP will also have more freedom to operate since the Taliban cannot establish a functional state that rules all of Afghanistan. In short, the areas governed by the new authorities in Afghanistan will give space to international terrorists and the ungoverned areas will also give space to international terrorists. It seems very unlikely that this does not become a problem for Western security quite soon.
The most immediate consequence of the final withdrawal is the Terror, which has already begun. What this means for members of the former government and Afghan women is well-understood, but what this means for religious minorities like Shi’is and Sikhs — in Pakistan, too — should not be underestimated. A refugee wave is already leaving Afghanistan, putting Turkey in a very awkward spot, and that wave will only increase as the Taliban consolidates its rule through purges and massacres. The chances of a repeat of the 2015 crisis in Europe are very real.
An obvious answer is to try to assist Afghans within the country. The Russians — who actually have put the Taliban on their terrorism list — are suggesting that the U.S. unfreeze Afghan state assets and pour aid into the country. The difficulty is that this amounts to funding a terrorist regime, not just as a practical matter but as a legal one. A difficult argument is coming about balancing sanctions to try to contain the Taliban with the humanitarian needs of Afghans.
Going forward, then, the transnational terrorists both within the new Afghan government and those fighting against it are concerns we cannot ignore. Moreover, the domestic persecution by the Taliban regime is already creating a refugee flow that has the potential to destabilise neighbouring states and ultimately our own politics. These were the problems being held in check by our small footprint in Afghanistan sustaining a friendly government that bore the brunt of the fight. That option is gone now, and the blunt instrument of sanctions is about all that is left to us.