How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
A chilling fact could get lost in the heated news coverage about the killing of al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri: the firebrand cleric was only one of many threats lurking in Afghanistan and no one has much of a plan for dealing with the security concerns arising from this volatile country. The U.S. drone strike that killed Zawahiri in Kabul on July 31 has been hailed as a counterterrorism victory, but triumphalism would be a profound error. One of al Qaeda’s top strategic minds is now dead after living on the Taliban’s doorstep, and Western officials are still wondering how they can mitigate the many other ways that the Taliban regime may prove dangerous for the world.
Such concerns may seem exaggerated given how placid the situation in Afghanistan appears on the streets. Over the last several months, we led a research team from the International Crisis Group looking at the security implications of Taliban governance, speaking to people, including those in Taliban and anti-Taliban factions, in 13 of the country’s 34 provinces. Although the picture is complicated, most of the country is relatively calm. Taliban officials portray this lull in violence as a sign that their new regime has delivered the first period of peace in the country in decades, and that, despite Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul, the transnational militant threat has evaporated.
We are less confident on both counts. The Afghans our team interviewed seem worried that the current respite in violence will not last and will prove to be only a short pause before the next civil war. The outside world also remains deeply nervous, especially regarding terrorism. Even before the revelations about Zawahiri’s presence in a wealthy neighborhood in central Kabul, many observers felt rising alarm as they watched the Taliban’s attempt at what amounted to a high-wire act: restraining jihadists without actively suppressing them, and seeking to keep the political support of extremists while preventing them from making too much trouble.
Nobody from the outside world knew for certain how the Taliban intended to maintain relationships with radical movements that dream of global revolution as it tries to build their own legitimacy in the international community. Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul made it look as though somebody inside the Taliban believed they could play both sides of this delicate game. The al Qaeda leader lived in the narrow confines of the diplomatic quarter of the capital, where he seemingly relaxed on his balcony as foreign visitors drove past in the streets below.
Another disquieting part of this balancing act has been the Taliban’s refusal to speak about it. Only two days before the death of the al Qaeda boss, the Taliban’s acting interior minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, recorded a television interview saying that al Qaeda has no organized presence in Afghanistan, even as the group’s leader was reportedly in a house maintained by the Haqqani family. (For the Haqqanis, who make up a powerful part of the Taliban, such relationships go back decades.) Taliban statements neither confirm nor deny Zawahiri’s presence. Some of the Western officials who deal with the Taliban face-to-face have found their obfuscations maddening.
Still, even after being lied to, the United States and its partners should not throw up their hands and avoid engagement with the Taliban. Mistrust is more than warranted, but modest forms of cooperation in a few key areas could help stabilize Afghanistan, which remains important for regional and global security. Foreign governments do not want South Asia falling into chaos. Despite their many faults, neither do the Taliban.
The mounting frustrations that come from dealing with the Taliban could provoke some unhelpful responses, as foreign governments grow tempted to dust off old strategies for addressing threats from Afghanistan. Hawkish officials and think tanks in Western capitals have started to call for the Biden administration to make more regular use of over-the-horizon counterterrorism capabilities—a euphemism for the renewed bombing of militants. The United States has set up a military task force in Qatar that stands ready for such missions, and the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency can also carry out such operations, as it showed in the Zawahiri strike. A few governments regionally and internationally have even considered plans for backing anti-Taliban insurgents, which could start another civil war. Neither of these bad ideas has so far been adopted as policy. Zawahiri’s killing remains the only known exception to a halt in airstrikes by the United States and its allies since last summer, and for now, both the United States and the United Kingdom have said they do not support violent opposition to the Taliban government.
Still, looking at the militant threats emanating from Afghanistan, it’s easy to see how Western policymakers might fall back on their habits of arming “good guys” with guns and hunting “bad guys” with drones. Such strategies have a mixed track record at best in Afghanistan, and this time, the conditions on the ground are even less favorable for such approaches. Neither of the two insurgencies currently fighting the Taliban could be a useful proxy force for the West. In the east and north, the Taliban are battling a local version of the Islamic State, known as Islamic State Khorasan, or ISK. This group includes militants who have carried out cross-border attacks and could pose an international threat. They are hardly candidates for Western support. In the north, the Taliban are on the receiving end of a growing number of attacks from disparate groups composed mostly of former anti-Soviet mujahideen elements and some remnants of the Afghan security forces that collapsed last summer. Some of these are courting donors; however, our research showed that these northern groups so far remain small, fractious, and incapable of mounting a challenge to the Taliban’s dominance. Even if they were to grow stronger, they would cause only more conflict and suffering in a country that has suffered more than enough.
Resuming a U.S.-led bombing campaign is also the wrong choice right now. Lacking credible allies on the ground, the United States would have even more difficulty routinely using airstrikes to effectively counter security threats than in previous decades, when picking the right targets was already notoriously hard. Even when such strikes are informed by good intelligence, the inevitable civilian deaths and the resulting political upheaval often make targeted killing operations counterproductive. The United States’ successful strike against al Qaeda’s most wanted man is not a template for neutralizing entire militant groups in the mountains. Pakistan discovered this in April, when it launched cross-border strikes aimed at the resurgent Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militant group that shelters inside Afghanistan. The attacks killed dozens of civilians and inflamed tensions with Afghanistan.
Another option would be to stand back and simply monitor the security problems in Afghanistan, which is what some governments have been doing as they recalibrate after the Taliban victory. This approach has a certain amount of logic: doing nothing is a good alternative to making a bigger mess. The ghosts of 9/11 make this unrealistic, however. The main lesson from previous decades is that neglecting Afghanistan can have terrible consequences. The startling revelation about Zawahiri’s presence in the heart of the capital seems likely to prompt further evaluation to discover other threats that may linger in the country.
On the surface, violence has cooled: in the early months of 2022, according to UN estimates, the number of violent incidents was 82 percent lower than during the same period a year earlier. Civilian casualties also declined. But a little digging uncovers more worrying trends. Potentially destabilizing contradictions are built into the new regime’s fragile transition from insurgency to governance. The Taliban’s supporters include foreign militant groups historically aligned with the former insurgency, operating in an uneasy alliance of sorts. The new Taliban bosses are trying to run the civil service with many of the same employees who previously served an anti-Taliban government, and some members of the Taliban appear uncomfortable with the regime’s conciliatory approach toward their former enemies, who received amnesty and sometimes state jobs. Some militants feel uneasy with the Taliban leadership positioning itself as a player within the international order, watching Taliban officials shake hands with diplomats from the United States and European governments, whose aircraft used to bomb Afghan villages.
In these diplomatic settings, the Taliban repeatedly promise that Afghan soil will never again serve as a staging ground for terrorism. But putting those pledges into action is hard, not least because many militant groups remain ideologically affiliated with the Taliban to some degree. In addition to al Qaeda and its local chapter, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, these include Jamaat Ansarullah, Jaish-i Mohammed, Lashkar-e-Taiba, and some Uyghur militant groups. Most of these are small organizations. Much bigger is the TTP, which, according to Pakistani authorities, has tens of thousands of militants and their family members living in Afghanistan.
The TTP has also proven the most troublesome regionally, making repeated attacks on Pakistan. The ISK is the deadliest threat to Afghans but has also started regional operations, with a few harassing rocket strikes on Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Taliban claim to be taking action against the militant cells responsible for cross-border attacks, but these flare-ups of terrorist activity have raised concerns about whether the Taliban can and will keep their word on counterterrorism.
Little is known about the mechanics of the Taliban’s efforts to address security threats, especially any efforts to keep a lid on groups with international ambitions, such as al Qaeda. Over the past several months, the Taliban appeared to be quietly taking steps to control militant groups, moving foreign jihadists away from border areas. We have heard rumors about the Taliban establishing what they refer to as “refugee camps” for militant fighters and their families—an unusual use of the term “refugee,” which reflects the sympathetic way the Taliban often speak about Islamist fighters. In some cases, the Taliban are integrating jihadists into government structures. Their strategy appears to rely on resettling dangerous groups away from remote places where they enjoy historical roots and moving them to Taliban heartlands where the authorities can keep a watchful eye on them when inclined to do so.
This strategy was working from the Taliban’s perspective because no major acts of terrorism abroad were linked to Afghanistan over the last year. But the Zawahiri strike makes the policy seem untenable. Militants themselves may feel uncomfortable about accepting Taliban hospitality now that a U.S. drone strike has proven that the Taliban cannot guarantee their safety. At the same time, Taliban efforts to more tightly control the militants could antagonize them, and there is a chance they could rebel against the new government. Nor would it be a good idea for the Taliban to allow these groups permission to wander the territory freely, increasing their ability to resume transnational plotting and attacks whether the Taliban leadership likes it or not.
A U.S. official with whom we spoke said the Taliban faced a dilemma: Should they stay friendly with terrorists or build relations with the world? “The problem is these guys want to have their cake and eat it, too,” the official said. A similar idiom exists in the Pashto language, the native tongue of most Taliban members: “You cannot balance two watermelons in one hand.” Even before Zawahiri’s death, the Taliban’s efforts to gain international recognition were going badly, as the world reacted with outrage to their ongoing discriminatory treatment of women and girls. Taliban programs to rebuild the Afghan economy faced an uphill struggle against Western sanctions and asset freezes. The fledgling government had been negotiating with U.S. and European donors about ways to aid Afghanistan’s economic recovery, but the Zawahiri debacle will make those talks harder. Diplomatic recognition of the Taliban government is now completely off the table for the United States and its allies, and some commentators argue for further isolation of the Taliban regime.
Dialogue should not stop entirely, however. The Taliban’s clumsy lies about al Qaeda make diplomatic engagement with them politically toxic, but Washington and its allies still have plenty of reasons to keep talking to the group. In recent days, the United States and the Taliban have accused each other of violating the 2020 bilateral agreement they signed in Doha, an accord that should, in theory, have defined the scope of the Taliban’s responsibilities for preventing terrorism and included American promises not to conduct strikes on Afghan territory. Revising the text of the agreement with fresh negotiations would be a mistake, opening up a Pandora’s box that could lead to renewed Taliban insistence on formal recognition, but the United States and the Taliban should have a conversation about how to implement the accord. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who made the deal, has said that secret annexes to the agreement contain benchmarks for evaluating the Taliban’s performance and compliance; such an evaluation could now be useful as a way of clarifying how both sides want to handle security in the future.
The Taliban may prove themselves to be unavoidable interlocutors.
Engagement with the Taliban in a few other areas could help stabilize the country in a way that the whole world would welcome. The Taliban would like outside help on internal security, as their impoverished government struggles to cover its bills. Their acting defense minister recently flew to Qatar and requested assistance from his Gulf allies to build Afghan security forces. This is a long shot. No foreign government will feel eager to join a wholesale effort to bolster the security capabilities of the Taliban’s authoritarian one-party regime, and Western governments absolutely will not do so. Still, as they settle into power, the Taliban may prove themselves to be unavoidable interlocutors on a few security issues such as border security, arms trafficking, counternarcotics, de-mining, and civilian policing.
If the outside world wants stability in Afghanistan through more professional policing, donors might want to expand the existing programs aimed at educating Taliban forces about their international legal obligations, which should govern their security forces. If Afghanistan’s neighbors want better management of the borders, they could support cooperation with the Taliban on border security. Foreign expertise might also be useful in helping the Taliban with safe storage or disposal of weapons they confiscate as part of their general disarmament campaign. According to the International Committee of the Red Cross, the laws of armed conflict require former combatants to help clear up the explosive remnants of war; too many Afghan children die or are injured as they forage for scrap metal in the detritus of materiel used or supplied by U.S. and NATO forces. The UN has called for foreign technical and financial support for the Taliban’s prison administration to bring essentials such as health and education services into detention facilities.
None of these practical ways of engaging the Taliban implies trusting them. In fact, it is precisely because the outside world does not feel confident about the Taliban providing security for Afghans and shielding other countries from the spillover effects of instability in Afghanistan that a greater degree of attention is warranted. Someday, if greater trust develops, it might be possible to imagine sharing discrete pieces of intelligence with the Taliban—about ISK, in particular, or other issues of mutual concern. For the moment, however, in the aftermath of the Taliban’s duplicity about al Qaeda, the best option would be to find modest, pragmatic ways of cooperating, even as all parties watch each other with deep suspicion.