Overview of the Situation in Afghanistan in 2022
After the Taliban (banned in the Russian Federation) takeover in August 2021, regular terrorist attacks still take place in the country. They are not only aimed against supporters of the previous government. They are also arranged by groups such as IS-Khorasan (banned in the Russian Federation), mostly against the Taliban and the Hazara Shia community.
The government of the Islamic Emirate itself is divided into factions of hardliners and moderates. Despite the obligations stipulated in the 2020 peace agreement between the US and the Taliban, the movement has not severed ties with al-Qaeda terrorist organization (banned in the Russian Federation).
The Taliban's claim to dominance in Afghanistan is constantly challenged by the armed opposition. All of these factors hinder the movement's efforts to gain legitimacy and recognition fr om the international community, as well as to create a governance architecture that would ensure the security of Afghanistan.
The Taliban movement (banned in the Russian Federation) used hundreds of militants to suppress armed resistance that started in the Panjshir Valley after the events of August 2021. The leaders of the group that calls itself the National Resistance Front (RNF) fled to neighboring countries. However, since then, the RNF, under the leadership of Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, has been able to disperse into several northern provinces of Afghanistan and keep assaulting Taliban forces.
There are two conflicting opinions about the successes of the RNF. The leadership of the organization often turns to social media to claim victory in small battles. The Taliban denies such information, saying that the RNF is a marginal and scattered group of militants that does not influence the situation in any way.
However, the fact that the RNF is increasingly challenging the Taliban’s attempts to dominate the country is evident from the August 2022 decision to appoint Abdul Qayyum Zakir, who is in charge of countering RNF, as the senior Taliban commander in the Andarab and Panjshir valleys.
Ethnic divisions within the Pashtun-dominated Taliban movement also jeopardise its efforts to fight the NRF. It has been reported that local Tajik Taliban forces are no longer willing to fight against NRF in Panjshir, wh ere NRF is reclaiming territories. A local Tajik Taliban commander deserted and joined the NRF in May 2022, while Tajik Taliban units fr om Badakhshan refused to continue fighting against the NRF in July that year in Panjshir.
The success of the NRF and the spread of anti-Taliban sentiment have led to the emergence of at least 22 resistance groups, including the Afghanistan Freedom Front led by Yasin Zia, which continues to wage scattered military operations, seize and hold territory in almost a dozen provinces in northern Afghanistan.
However, the challenge for these groups is to unite and, by presenting themselves as a united opposition to the Taliban, gain international support that is not currently there.
Operational Superiority of IG-Khorasan
After the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, the IS-Khorasan terrorist organization (banned in the Russian Federation) became the toughest armed group in the country.
IS-Khorasan is rapidly gaining strength in certain parts of the country, including the northern provinces of Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar and Mazar-i-Sharif, wh ere it used to be less active. Its targets included Taliban leaders and supporters, as well as minority Hazara communities.
In a report released in early September 2022, Human Rights Watch listed 13 IS-Khorasan armed attacks on Hazara mosques and schools across Afghanistan that killed more than 700 people since August 2021.
It is also worth reminding that the IS-Khorasan suicide bomber blew himself up near the Russian embassy in Kabul on September 5, 2022, killing two members of the diplomatic mission and at least six Afghan civilians.
The organization insists that it is not a terrorist group looking for random targets to raise public outcry. Now, according to their leaders, IS-Khorasan is able to identify specific complex targets and carry out precise attacks against them.
The purpose of the group was to declare itself as the only surviving anti-Western terrorist organization and actively recruit Taliban supporters. At the same time, IS-Khorasan emphasizes its multinational status, counting on the recruitment of militants belonging to different ethnic groups. Recent IS-Khorasan propaganda materials have indicated that Uyghur, Baloch, Tajik and Uzbek militants are involved in the attacks and suicide bombings.
In March 2022, a suicide bombing at a Shia mosque in Peshawar, Pakistan, killed more than 60 people. In April and May 2022, IS-Khorasan reported rocket attacks on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan fr om Afghanistan. Although both countries deny that the missiles have reached their territory, the UN Security Council fears that “the risk of such attacks persists.”
Safe Haven for Regional Terrorist Organizations
The leader of Al-Qaeda terrorist organization (banned in the Russian Federation) Ayman al-Zawahiri was eliminated by an American drone strike in Kabul on August 2, 2022. Reportedly, the house in the Sherpur district wh ere al-Zawahiri lived was taken over by the Taliban in August 2021.
The assassination of the group leader raised questions about the future of al-Qaeda in the Afghan-Pakistani region, the prospects for its relationship with the Taliban, and the consequences of this incident for a global terrorist landscape dominated by a weakened but still powerful Islamic State (IS, banned in RF). Even after some months after al-Zawahiri's assassination, al-Qaeda still has not appointed a new leader, possibly indicating a crisis in the succession.
Some counter-terrorism experts have named Saif al-Adel and Abd al-Rahman al-Maghrebi as potential successors to al-Zawahiri. Regardless of who takes over, al-Qaeda, which is active through regional branches in Africa, will find it difficult to maintain a foothold in the Afghan-Pakistani region. The assassination of al-Zawahiri as a result of the ongoing US fight against international terrorism could keep al-Qaeda dormant even if the price of the inactivity is its functional extinction in the region.
The elimination of al-Zawahiri once again demonstrated the Taliban's failure to comply with the terms of the Doha agreements signed with the United States, according to which the movement should not allow foreign terrorist groups to use Afghan territory against the United States and its allies. After the elimination of al-Zawahiri, the Taliban predictably stated that they did not know about his presence in Kabul, and protested against the violation of the sovereignty of the Islamic Emirate by the United States.
UN reports continue to emphasize that connections between al-Qaeda and the Taliban are effectively intact. While the group may not be operational in Afghanistan, its presence in the security allegedly provided by the Taliban will certainly inspire other units to step up.
At the same time, the Taliban are using a rational approach towards groups that were previously part of their network. For example, they are willing to restrict the activities of organizations such as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in order to reduce tensions with China. The Taliban also facilitated negotiations between the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP, banned in Russia) and the Pakistani government. However, the movement remains ambivalent about Kashmir-oriented groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM).
The presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan is likely to be used by the Taliban to gain leverage in negotiations with the United States and the international community. Thus, a year and a half after the Taliban came to power, Afghanistan remains a breeding ground for numerous terrorist groups pursuing goals of a regional and global scope.
Measures taken against the extremist threat emanating fr om Afghanistan can be divided into several types: the counter-terrorism policy of the Taliban movement (banned in the Russian Federation), measures taken by the United States and the international community, and those taken by the regional powers.
The Islamic Emirate believes that the main challenges to its dominance in Afghanistan come from two sides: from the armed opposition represented by the National Resistance Front (FTS) and the terrorist organization IS-Khorasan (banned in the Russian Federation). Therefore, the bulk of its military capacity is used against these two groups.
As previously mentioned, the Taliban have prioritized operations against the NRF by appointing a new military commander in Afghanistan's northern provinces. At the same time, such opposition groups as NRF will still experience such weaknesses as the lack of international support and unity. Therefore, it is highly likely that prolonged resistance will eventually overwhelm them.
However, there are two trends in the Taliban's approach to IS-Khorasan. First, the Taliban fear the group's growing influence among a frustrated opposition. For example, some cells within the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) could potentially be recruited by IS-Khorasan.
The group's recent attacks took place in the northern parts of the country, including Balkh, Kunduz, Takhar and Mazar-i-Sharif, wh ere there was less IS-Khorasan activity prior to the Taliban's rise to power. Consequently, the Taliban's military operations against the group have one goal: to prevent it from becoming so large that it poses a threat to the regime of the Islamic Emirate.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported extrajudicial executions of at least 50 people suspected of having links to IS-Khorasan. Such tough actions allow the Taliban to demonstrate their commitment to containing terror to the international community. Therefore, any failure to prevent IS-Khorasan attacks raises questions about the Taliban's ability to provide security in Afghanistan.
Although the Taliban insist that their government take all necessary measures to protect the Hazara community, it is likely that they allow IS-Khorasan to have a free hand in dealing with this minority.
In early 2022, a UN Security Council Taliban Sanctions Committee report suggested that the Taliban “may be overlooking IS-Khorasan attacks and benefiting from actions that were not directed against Taliban interests.” This approach on the part of the Islamic Emirate reveals an extremely dangerous trend of a selective approach to combating terrorism in Afghanistan.
The withdrawal of the US troops from the country also indicates a visible change in their approach to the problem. Washington remains committed to containing terror that potentially threatens its own interests.
Thus, the assassination of al-Zawahiri in August 2022 is important for two reasons. First, it hinders al-Qaeda's plans to restore positions in the Afghan-Pakistani region. This means that al-Qaeda will have to make do with having branches in Africa and parts of Asia for now.
Second, US promises to carry out over-the-horizon operations after the withdrawal from Afghanistan may now deter Islamist groups from concentrating under the rule of the Taliban, as Washington has promised to repeat such strikes in the future. However, the US approach remains difficult because the US government does not attach much importance to the Taliban's connections to other regional terrorist groups.
In recent months, there has been some convergence of views between the countries of the region regarding the terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan. This was indicated by the statements of Pakistan, Iran and India in the UN. The media also reported that China was concerned about the Taliban's lack of commitment to oppose ETIM, which is why Beijing has suspended its plan for economic investment in Afghanistan. However, in the absence of unity of purpose and an agreed plan of action, the statements of these countries are declarative and unlikely to put much pressure on the Taliban.
IS-Khorasan is strengthening its position in Afghanistan due to the selectivity of the Taliban’s counter-terrorism activities. While the elimination of Ayman al-Zawahiri is a setback for al-Qaeda, it cannot be construed as a death blow for the group. In addition, in 2022, the Taliban continued to provide the territory of Afghanistan to other regional terrorist organizations.
It is likely that the Taliban will spend more resources on achieving international recognition and funding, as well as on the destruction of the National Resistance Front, than on making the country free from terror.
It is important to understand that none of the twin goals of the Taliban will be achieved in the short to medium term. The international community must be aware that neither its policy of boycotting the Taliban government nor its over-the-horizon operations can provide a solution to the Afghan problem. This is only possible with the creation of an inclusive government in Afghanistan and the provision of continued international assistance, based on the principles of transparency and total accountability.