The Reality of Terrorist Groups in Afghanistan

23 August 2021

For years the Taliban have denied the presence of foreign fighters amongst their ranks and the truth has been quite the opposite. Al-Qaeda and other groups, such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, have supported the Taliban’s 20-year campaign to take over the country. US President Joe Biden is firm in his belief that the mission was accomplished when it came to dismantling the al-Qaeda network that plotted and carried out the 9/11 attacks. In his speech to the nation, and to the world, Biden reflected on how the terrorist threat has become global from Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Al-Qaeda supporters from around the globe have celebrated the Taliban’s seizure of Afghanistan.

NATO warned that the Taliban risks military strikes if they host terrorist groups again. The Taliban also risk the dangling prospect of international aid as well. The Afghan economy is in shambles after the exit of NATO troops and of course has never recovered from the 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. And without a clear direction as to where the Afghan economy, let alone the level of governance, it is foreseeable that the Taliban government will seek international assistance.

This probably explains how the Taliban have moved forward thus far. The fact that a female news anchor, in a hijab, was interviewing a Talib in-studio mellowed the torrid whirlwind of criticism. However, it is still very unclear how the Taliban will treat women. And although Kabul airport remains open to those that wish to feel, it is also unclear how much amnesty the Taliban will give to those that worked with, or cooperated with, US and NATO troops. It is chaos to even get through the multiple Taliban checkpoints to the airport. There are also reports that the Taliban are going door to door hunting those on their blacklist. And a relative of a Deutsch Welle journalist was killed by the Taliban while searching for the journalist.

It will take some time for the Taliban to fully consolidate their gains. They have invited Afghans to resume their old government roles, but that should be also seen that the Taliban do not have the experience of running a government, and also more importantly a lack of personnel. It has been estimated that the Taliban’s core fighters could number 60,000 (+/- 10-20%) but with members of local militias (approximately 90,000) and “tens of thousands of facilitators and support elements”.

This core number of 60,000 is crucial going forward. It is well known that the Taliban have had a continuing relationship with al-Qaeda. The Haqqani Network, under Khalil Ur-Rahman Haqqani, was placed in charge of security for Kabul. The Haqqani Network has close ties with al-Qaeda which should be illustrated by the fact that Khaili Haqqani has a USD 5 million bounty for him by the US Treasury Department. The Taliban’s ties with terrorist groups do not end there.

In a May 2020 report, the UN found that Pakistani groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) and Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) are operating in eastern provinces under the umbrella of the Taliban. LeT was responsible for the 2008 Mumbai attacks which locked the city down for days. Both LeT and JeM were also responsible for the 2001 Indian Parliament attack which led both countries to the brink of war and allowed for al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership to escape to Pakistan after the Pakistani army moved its resources to its southern border with India. The Pakistani Taliban, Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), also have a presence under the Afghan Taliban. The presence of the Pakistani Taliban demonstrates their resolve for the Afghan emirate to form, but also its turf war with the ISIS-Khorasan chapter, an affiliate formed out of former TTP members. Back in May 2020, the number of Pakistani fighters, under the auspices of terrorist groups, could amount to 6,000-6,500. According to the UN, these two groups facilitate the import of foreign fighters from Pakistan into the country.

In the north of the country, Uighur militant groups have been seen in Afghanistan as well. These groups are the ones that the Taliban will have to rein in to ensure positive diplomatic and economic relations with China. There is also a presence of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan – again outlined by the UN report.
There are a plethora of terrorist groups that have supported the Taliban with its insurgency for the past 20 years. It is hard to believe that the Taliban will abruptly cut ties with these groups. And in fact, the Taliban simply cannot afford to do so.

When Bin Laden moved al-Qaeda from Sudan to Afghanistan after the 1998 Kenya bombings, he brought financing and support to the burgeoning Taliban government. Al-Qaeda in the 1990s was not the only group. LeT had training camps in the country, which also would have provided financial support to the Taliban. Now that the Taliban are back in control of most of the country, the Taliba need these groups even still. If not just for possible financial support due to hosting their training camps and recruits, but also as a gap filler when it comes to their governing capabilities. There are thousands of foreign fighters in the country that can now help with tax collection, policing and judicial matters and so forth.

Going forward, we will see the Taliban refute the presence of foreign terrorist groups and make advancements against the ISIS-Khorasan chapter. They may make an example of some Uighur groups to appease China. We will see the Taliban quietly shuffling some of these groups in areas where they will not be so noticeable to the international community. This is aided by the fact that the United States, and its NATO allies, do not have hard intelligence-gathering capabilities in Afghanistan anymore. There are at least 500 al-Qaeda members in Kunar’s forested province where it will be much easier to hide a training camp from the purview of satellite imagery. For the past twenty years, our counterterrorism efforts have been a game of Whack-a-Mole. Now the Taliban’s efforts to hide the terrorist group presence will be a Shell game.