Rise of Taliban Means Afghanistan Could Once Again Become Hotbed for Extremism
Sep 16, 2021
At least 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. service members were killed in a terrorist attack carried out at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on August 28 amidst a chaotic rush to evacuate American nationals and Afghans who aided the international mission over the last two decades. The United States retaliated by targeting suspected members of the terrorist organization, the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K), believed to be responsible for the attack. The tragic deaths of hundreds seeking to escape the Taliban’s rule because of fears of extremism or retaliation because of past cooperation with the U.S. government underscore beliefs that Afghanistan could once again become a hotbed for extremist activity.
Under the Taliban’s initial regime in Afghanistan that lasted from 1996 to 2001, numerous terrorist and suspected terrorist organizations operated freely in the country. For example, the Taliban harbored Al-Qaeda, the terrorist group responsible for the September 11 attacks in the United States; the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which aims to install an Islamic, Sharia-based government in Tashkent; and Jamaat Ansarullah (JA), deemed a terrorist organization by Tajikistan with the goal of toppling the government in Dushanbe. Jamaat Ansarullah is an offshoot of the IMU and still maintains ties with the organization.
ISIS-K is a regional affiliate of the Islamic State and is considered among the most brutal extremist jihadist militant groups operating in Afghanistan. The organization comprises both Afghans and Pakistanis alike with over 3,000 active fighters. ISIS-K was confined to Afghanistan’s northeastern Kunar province, but the rapid rise of the Taliban has granted it the leeway to expand operations in and around Kabul. In addition, the intensity and frequency of the terrorist organization’s attacks have increased this past year. In the first four months of 2021 alone, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for 77 attacks in Afghanistan. In the same period in 2020, only 21 such operations were conducted, revealing a staggering 266 percent increase in terrorist attacks by the organization. Even though ISIS-K and the Taliban are sworn enemies, the ease with which ISIS-K is able to conduct terrorist attacks is clear evidence of the Afghanistan’s attractiveness for terrorist organizations to survive and plot in that country.
Other terrorist organizations that once operated under the initial Taliban regime are resurfacing, causing concern for Afghanistan’s immediate neighbors in Central Asia. When the Taliban assumed control of key border crossings, it assigned Mahdi Arsalon to raise the Taliban flag, which was visible on the Tajik side of the border. Arsalon and his group were primarily raised in Tajikistan and are members of Jamaat Ansarullah. Tajik border-guard services announced that Arsalon had been granted control of border security in Afghanistan’s northern provinces, although the Taliban continued to deny these allegations.
The seemingly public cooperation between the Taliban and other extremist organizations averse to their respective Central Asian governments has many in the region on edge. The Russia-led Collective Security Treaty Organization (CSTO) has already begun military exercises in Kyrgyzstan in anticipation of a spillover of violence from Afghanistan. Moreover, Tajikistan mobilized 20,000 reservists to bolster its southern border to prevent an infiltration of Jamaat Ansarullah militants or Taliban fighters. Similarly, Russia supplied additional military equipment to its 201st military base in Tajikistan due to the rapid rise of the Taliban.
According to the 2020 peace agreement brokered between the United States and the Taliban, the Taliban agreed not to become a refuge for terrorist organizations operating in Afghanistan. However, it is unlikely that the Taliban will uphold its commitment. The UN reported that between 200 and 500 Al Qaeda operatives were still present in Afghanistan in its February 2021 report. Adding to the complexity of the situation is that many Al Qaeda fighters have intermarried with the Taliban, thus decreasing the likelihood that it will clamp down on terrorist and extremist groups in Afghanistan. The Central Asian republics and the United States will likely have to adapt to maneuver around a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan to hamper terrorist organizations operating in the country and threatening the region.