Countering a Resurgent Terrorist Threat in Afghanistan
Contingency Planning Memorandum Update
With al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Khorasan growing in strength since the U.S. withdrawal, Seth Jones lays out a strategy for the United States to prevent a renewed terrorist threat from emerging in Afghanistan.
April 14, 2022
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In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of Taliban rule, the United States is now contending with a resurgent terrorist threat. Both al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K) are growing in strength and could pose a significant threat beyond Afghanistan, according [PDF] to recent U.S. government estimates. As a recent UN Security Council assessment concluded [PDF], “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history.”
A 2020 CFR Contingency Planning Memorandum, A Failed Afghan Peace Deal, warned that a U.S. military withdrawal from the country could result in a collapsed peace process and an overthrow of the Afghan government. It also argued that one of the most significant consequences of a withdrawal would be a resurgence of terrorist groups. These concerns have proved true. This update assesses the evolving terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan and how best to counter it.
Two factors account for the growing terrorist threat in Afghanistan. First, the Taliban government has close links with several terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and has allowed them to rebuild and reestablish training camps in the country.
Second, Afghanistan is a weak and failing state, a prerequisite for a terrorist sanctuary. The Taliban does not control law and order outside of most cities. In addition, the Taliban government has been unable to establish basic services, and the Afghan economy has shrunk by at least 40 percent since the U.S. withdrawal. The poverty rate could hit 97 percent of the population by the middle of this year. Afghanistan has jumped to the top of the International Rescue Committee’s 2022 Emergency Watchlist as it nears the collapse of virtually all basic services. The combination of a weak state and a collapsing economy gives terrorist groups relative freedom within which to operate and provides a pool of potential recruits.
With the terrorism problem worsening, the United States needs to design and implement a more effective counterterrorism strategy to mitigate this threat.
In August 2021, President Joe Biden remarked that the United States’ “only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on [the] American homeland.” Since the U.S. withdrawal, however, the terrorist problem has become steadily worse. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan has increased since U.S. forces withdrew in August 2021. As one senior U.S. Department of Defense official concluded [PDF], “the intelligence community [assessed] that both ISIS-K and al-Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations,” with ISIS-K capable of conducting external attacks in 2022.
Al-Qaeda’s primary goal remains the same: to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate and overthrow the corrupt “apostate” regimes in the Islamic world. Led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda today comprises disparate networks around the globe with uneven centralized control. Its main affiliates are located in the Middle East, including Hurras al-Din in Syria and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen; Africa, including Jama’at Nasr al-Islam wal Muslimin in the Sahel and al-Shabab in Somalia; and South Asia, including al-Qaeda’s global leadership and local affiliate al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). In some countries, such as Yemen, al-Qaeda has been significantly weakened and appears to be on a declining trajectory in terms of popular support and capabilities.
But Afghanistan remains a central strategic node for al-Qaeda, where the group now has a refuge. In addition to al-Zawahiri, several other senior leaders likely reside in Afghanistan, including Saif al-Adel and Amin Muhammad ul-Haq Saam Khan. AQIS is headquartered in Afghanistan and is led by Osama Mehmood and his deputy, Atif Yahya Ghouri. In early 2021, U.S. intelligence agencies estimated [PDF] that al-Qaeda was the weakest it had been in years and included fewer than two hundred members in Afghanistan. But now, al-Qaeda’s total numbers in Afghanistan could have doubled to four hundred fighters [PDF], with most members coming from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Myanmar, and Pakistan.
Afghanistan is different from any other country where al-Qaeda operates because the group enjoys a sympathetic regime with the Taliban. Al-Qaeda leaders have a particularly close historical relationship with some Taliban leaders—such as Sirajuddin Haqqani, the Taliban interior minister and a U.S.-designated terrorist. Haqqani’s government position is roughly equivalent to the combined jobs of the director of the FBI and secretary of Homeland Security, giving him enormous power in Afghanistan and making him a serious threat to the United States.
With a haven in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda’s threat to U.S. interests is likely to grow. While al-Qaeda will probably establish additional terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, it will have difficulty conducting a centrally planned attack against the U.S. homeland because of improved U.S. intelligence cooperation and homeland security measures. But al-Qaeda operatives could conduct—or inspire—attacks against U.S. and Western targets in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia.
The self-proclaimed Islamic State’s local affiliate, ISIS-K, also presents a growing threat. While ISIS-K is a sworn enemy of the Taliban and al-Qaeda, its goal is similar to that of al-Qaeda: to establish a pan-Islamic caliphate. ISIS-K was severely weakened through mid-2021 because of aggressive U.S. and Afghan counterterrorism operations, Taliban offensives, and internal divisions within ISIS-K. However, the U.S. withdrawal has allowed the group to recover.
ISIS-K’s size has now doubled in less than a year, increasing from two thousand to roughly four thousand operatives [PDF] following the release of several thousand prisoners from Bagram Air Base and Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside of Kabul. Up to half [PDF] of ISIS-K’s operatives are foreign fighters. The group is led by Sanaullah Ghafari (also known as Shahab al-Muhajir), an Afghan national. Other ISIS-K leaders include Sultan Aziz Azam, Maulawi Rajab Salahudin, and Aslam Farooqi. In addition, some former members of the Afghan military and Afghanistan’s intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security, have joined ISIS-K because it is the most active opposition group to the Taliban in Afghanistan.
Much like al-Qaeda, ISIS-K is unlikely to successfully orchestrate a centrally planned attack in the United States because of improved U.S. homeland security measures, though ISIS-K has been more successful than al-Qaeda in inspiring attacks in the United States. In addition, ISIS-K could conduct attacks against U.S. targets in other countries. In Afghanistan, ISIS-K has already demonstrated an ability to conduct high-profile and complex attacks—including an attack at the Kabul airport on August 27, 2021, which killed more than 180 people. According to one estimate, ISIS-K carried out seventy-six attacks on Taliban forces between September 18 and November 30, 2021, a significant jump from 2020, when it conducted only eight attacks during the entire year.
Other Terrorist Groups
In addition to al-Qaeda and ISIS-K, other regional and international terrorist groups now operate in Afghanistan. These include the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Jihad Group, Khatiba Imam al-Bukhari, and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Several groups, such as Jaish-e-Mohammed and Lashkar-e-Taiba, pose a significant threat to India—a major U.S. partner—and have conducted high-profile attacks in Mumbai, New Delhi, and other Indian cities. More broadly, the Taliban’s victory has inspired jihadis around the world. Groups in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and elsewhere gleefully celebrated the Taliban’s conquest of Kabul on chat rooms and other online platforms, pledging the revitalization of a global jihad. Al-Qaeda released a statement after the U.S. withdrawal congratulating the Taliban for its victory and calling it a “prelude” to other jihadi victories.
Two main U.S. policy options could help prevent the reemergence of Afghanistan as a base for terrorist operations against the U.S. homeland and U.S. interests overseas.
The first is to work with the Taliban against some terrorist groups, most notably ISIS-K. This option could involve providing economic and humanitarian assistance—and potentially even intelligence—to the Taliban government in return for a sustained campaign against ISIS-K. When asked in 2021 whether the United States could work with the Taliban to combat ISIS-K, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley responded that “it’s possible.” A variant of this option could be for the United States to de facto leave counterterrorism operations to the Taliban—but provide little or no U.S. assistance.
However, this option falls short in at least two ways. First, the Taliban has close ties with numerous terrorist groups in Afghanistan, including al-Qaeda, that are enemies of the United States. While the Taliban has conducted some operations against ISIS-K, Taliban leaders have shown little interest in countering other terrorist groups. Consequently, this approach could worsen the broader terrorism problem by aiding a government that supports terrorist groups. Second, the Taliban is unlikely to significantly weaken ISIS-K with or without U.S. help, because it lacks the capabilities and control of territory. The Taliban’s Ministry of Interior and General Directorate of Intelligence have tried to better synchronize [PDF] their efforts to combat ISIS-K’s operations in urban areas, but ISIS-K has continued to increase the number of its attacks in Afghanistan.
Doing nothing, and hoping that the Taliban becomes more effective, is also problematic. As the commander of U.S. Central Command noted [PDF], “ISIS-K may gain strength and be emboldened to expand its operations and target neighboring countries” absent sustained U.S. pressure.
A second policy option is to conduct a robust “over-the-horizon” counterterrorism campaign, which uses aerial platforms and satellites to collect signals intelligence and imagery intelligence on terrorist activity. The United States can also conduct strikes from fixed-wing aircraft and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the MQ-9A Reaper. These platforms and systems could be used to monitor terrorist groups and periodically strike targets to degrade terrorist capabilities and disrupt operations.
U.S. officials have contended that implementing an over-the-horizon strategy is a viable option, as it would require the deployment of fewer military forces, minimize casualties, decrease the financial costs of a large military deployment, and reduce political risks. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan argued that the United States has demonstrated the feasibility of an over-the-horizon strategy in other countries:
We have to deal with the threat of terrorism in Yemen and Somalia and Syria. We have to deal with the threat of terrorism across the Islamic Maghreb. . . . And what we have shown is, in many of the countries I just mentioned, among others, we have been successful to date in suppressing the terrorist threat to the U.S. homeland in those countries without sustaining a permanent military presence or fighting in a war. And that is what we intend to do with respect to Afghanistan as well.
However, the counterterrorism campaigns Sullivan mentions differ from the situation in Afghanistan today in three critical ways. First, in contrast to virtually every other U.S. counterterrorism campaign since 9/11, the United States has no partner force on the ground in Afghanistan. The United States worked with the Iraqi government, including the U.S.-trained and equipped Counter Terrorism Service, in Iraq; local security forces, such as the Libyan National Army, in Libya; the Somali government, African Union Mission in Somalia forces, and clan militias in Somalia; the Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria; and militias aided by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in Yemen. In Afghanistan today, however, the Taliban is an enemy, and anti-Taliban leaders and groups have fled the country, been killed by the Taliban, laid down their weapons, or even joined ISIS-K.
Second, the United States has virtually no intelligence architecture in Afghanistan. The United States shut down its embassy and CIA station when it withdrew military forces in August 2021. U.S. military intelligence organizations—such as the Defense Intelligence Agency and National Security Agency—also withdrew most of their intelligence collection capabilities. As the head of U.S. Central Command acknowledged in December 2021, “we’re probably at about 1 or 2 percent of the capabilities we once had to look into Afghanistan,” making it “very hard” to understand what is happening there.
Third, the United States has no bases in the region to fly aircraft for intelligence collection or strike missions. The United States withdrew from all bases in Afghanistan, such as Bagram Air Base and Kandahar International Airport, and does not have bases in Central Asia or South Asia. Instead, the United States has been forced to utilize locations such as Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar, which is approximately 2,500 miles from Kabul (assuming Pakistan allows U.S. aircraft overflight rights). It takes an MQ-9A approximately fourteen hours to fly round-trip, leaving it limited time in Afghanistan before returning to Qatar. The United States could also launch UAVs or cruise missiles from vessels in the Indian Ocean, though those ships and platforms could be needed to counter Chinese activity in the Indo-Pacific region.
The lack of partner forces, scant intelligence, and no nearby bases leaves the United States severely hamstrung in conducting counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan. The failed U.S. drone strike in Kabul against a supposed ISIS-K target on August 29, 2021, was a good example of the United States’ current counterterrorism challenges. While President Biden and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Mark Milley initially lauded the attack as a textbook example of over-the-horizon capabilities, it was in fact a failure: the U.S. Department of Defense eventually acknowledged that the strike was a horrific mistake that killed ten Afghan civilians, including seven children, rather than ISIS-K members.
The best U.S. option is to conduct a robust over-the-horizon counterterrorism campaign, as long as the United States first addresses the challenges it faces in collecting intelligence and orchestrating effective operations. This campaign should have three components.
First, the United States should work with local forces inside and outside Afghanistan to rebuild the United States’ intelligence architecture in Afghanistan against terrorist groups. The U.S. military and CIA have a long history of working with local Afghan forces—including Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, and some Pashtun militias—to collect intelligence and conduct counterterrorism operations. Some U.S. activities were orchestrated as covert action programs under Title 50 of U.S. Code, which allows the United States to conduct political, economic, and military activities abroad that are not acknowledged publicly. During the 1990s, for example, the CIA provided covert funding and equipment to anti-Taliban groups, such as the Northern Alliance.
The Biden administration’s withdrawal of U.S. military forces does not preclude the United States from using CIA paramilitary units from the Special Activities Center or U.S. special operations forces operating under Title 50 authority to work with forces in Afghanistan and nearby countries. The main goal should not be to overthrow the Taliban regime, but rather to collect intelligence on terrorist groups and individuals operating in Afghanistan. The United States does not need to deploy CIA or special forces to Afghanistan, at least on a routine basis. Instead, U.S. agencies can work with Afghan partners outside of the country.
Those U.S. partners—which could range from supporters of the National Resistance Front to anti-Taliban Hazara, Pashtun, Tajik, Uzbek, and other networks—can provide valuable information on terrorist leaders, training camps, and other activities, which the United States should supplement with intelligence collected from other sources. The United States can leverage such individuals as Ahmad Massoud, Amrullah Saleh, Bismullah Khan Mohammadi, and Ali Nazary, as well as their networks. In addition, there is deep opposition to the Taliban among some Pashtun tribes and subtribes, such as Barakzais and Popalzais, that U.S. intelligence and military units could leverage.
Intelligence from U.S. partners on the ground in Afghanistan is critical for “tipping and cueing,” the process of monitoring an area or specific target of interest by a sensor. If there is evidence of terrorist activity, U.S. intelligence operatives can request “tipping” from another complementary sensor platform—such as an MQ-9—to acquire “cueing,” an image over the same area. Effective human intelligence on the ground is critical for this process to ensure accurate information on the location and actions of a terrorist target. The tip-and-cue process allows the United States to build an intelligence picture, which it then uses to conduct an action—such as a strike—against the target. Without partners on the ground, however, U.S. intelligence is largely blind.
Second, the United States should negotiate basing access in the region, especially for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities. The United States should jumpstart negotiations with countries in the region—such as Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and possibly even India—to house manned and unmanned aircraft to conduct intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance over Afghan territory.
The Biden Administration has started those discussions, but they will be difficult. Allowing the U.S. military or intelligence community to fly strike aircraft—and strike missions—could be too politically risky for many of these governments. In addition, Russia has already voiced strong opposition to U.S. bases in Central Asia. Washington’s escalating tensions with Moscow over the war in Ukraine and broader geostrategic competition will make negotiations difficult. Surveillance aircraft could be more politically palatable for some countries.
Third, the United States should expand its over-the-horizon capabilities. Given the mission requirements for Afghanistan, one of the best aircraft for the job is the unmanned MQ-9 because of its range, sensor package, and strike capability. However, the United States has primarily purchased the MQ-9A Reaper variant. It takes a Reaper roughly fourteen hours to fly round-trip from Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar to Afghanistan, giving it only twelve to fifteen hours to collect intelligence and strike targets if necessary.
The MQ-9B SkyGuardian would allow the United States to fly at least fifteen additional hours over Afghanistan with a larger payload. The United States could complement its UAVs with manned aircraft—including F-15E strike fighters, F-16 fighter bombers, A-10 ground attack jets, and B-52 strategic bombers—to conduct strikes. Since the Taliban do not possess significant surface-to-air missile capabilities or an air force, the United States would continue to enjoy air superiority.
A U.S. failure to significantly improve its counterterrorism capabilities and posture—particularly by establishing relations with local partners, rebuilding an intelligence architecture, and negotiating additional bases—will put the United States and its partners at growing risk of a terrorist attack. U.S. intelligence agencies now assess that al-Qaeda and ISIS-K could develop external operations capabilities as early as 2022. This reality makes it important for the United States to move expeditiously and adopt a more effective counterterrorism campaign before the next attack.