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As the Taliban swept across Afghanistan this summer, all eyes were on their fighters as they triumphed over the Afghan security forces, which surrendered in large numbers as the Taliban rapidly advanced. But the Taliban’s victory did not happen overnight, and it did not come about because of the group’s military might alone. Rather, it was the result of a two-decade-long insurgency against the Afghan government and its Western supporters, chiefly the United States. This struggle for power largely played out on the battlefield but also included efforts to win political influence within Afghanistan’s provinces at the local level. This allowed the Taliban to become more deeply entrenched in communities that had grown tired of the predatory and corrupt Afghan government and disillusioned with the presence of foreign military forces. According to a new report from The Wall Street Journal, Taliban members also managed to go undercover and infiltrate government ministries, universities, and businesses, putting themselves in key positions when the opportunity came to seize power this past summer.
The Taliban’s victory did not go unnoticed by jihadi groups around the world, who looked on with a mix of admiration and envy. Al Qaeda and its affiliates celebrated the Taliban’s triumph, lauding their strategic patience and releasing statements in support of the so-called Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch hailed the Taliban’s strategy as a “realistic path” to success. Al Shabab (an al Qaeda affiliate in Somalia), al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, and the Sahel-based Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) all released similar messages of praise. No doubt these groups took careful notes about what it took for the Taliban to win in Afghanistan and how their local governance efforts helped them acquire political legitimacy. This gradualist approach could serve as a model for terrorist groups seeking enhanced influence in places all over the world—and it recalls, in some ways, the experience of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that has become a major player in Lebanon’s political system and economy.
For the United States and its partners, this means rethinking the current approach to counterterrorism operations, which are overly focused on tactics and quick-hit “wins,” such as decapitation strikes against suspected high-value targets. These methods overlook the ability of terrorist organizations to accrue political legitimacy and enmesh themselves in the social and political fabric of weak and failed states. To avoid this phenomenon from spreading further, the United States needs to do more to address the governance vacuums that allow these groups to become de facto governments. At the same time, Washington needs to figure out how to interact with them once they are in power, especially when it comes to addressing the urgent humanitarian needs of the people under their rule.
From the earliest stages of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Taliban understood the need for a sophisticated political strategy. Although terrorist tactics, including suicide bombings, ambushes, and the use of improvised explosive devices were central to the group’s military strategy, the Taliban also focused on establishing regional shuras, or “councils,” that would form the political backbone of their insurgency.
Many of the leaders of these councils were based outside Afghanistan but maintained a kind of shadow government in most of the country’s provinces. Through Taliban-appointed district governors, the group offered mediation in sharia courts and juxtaposed its rule to the rapacious nature of the Afghan government. Over time, the Taliban gradually consolidated control in their traditional heartland of southern Afghanistan, especially in Helmand and Kandahar. Meanwhile, the group took advantage of its connections to the Haqqani network, a faction of the Taliban designated a terrorist organization by the United States, to project military strength in Kabul and along the Afghan-Pakistani border. By 2015, the Taliban enjoyed a monopoly on violence in large swaths of Afghanistan and also had the ability to tax local populations—essentially functioning as a state within a state.
The Taliban are not the first group to realize that playing a role in local governance is an important pathway to power beyond winning on the battlefield. Hezbollah was once a small, ragtag Shiite militia best known for carrying out twin suicide bombings in 1983 against U.S. Marines in Beirut, killing 241 in total. But with significant financial assistance from Iran and a keen understanding of how to convert the provision of social services into widespread political legitimacy, Hezbollah has become the archetypal hybrid organization—part terrorist group, part political party. Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanon’s government now oversee an estimated two-thirds of the governing portfolios, even as Hezbollah combatants fight in Syria to prop up the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. When the COVID-19 pandemic devastated Lebanon, many Lebanese looked not to the state for assistance but to Hezbollah, which responded by establishing testing centers, marshaling a fleet of ambulances, and providing access to a hospital reserved exclusively for coronavirus patients.
This model has worked outside the broader Middle East, as well. During its three-decade-long conflict against the British in Northern Ireland, the Provisional Irish Republican Army spoke of the power of “the Armalite and the ballot box,” putting elections on a pedestal along with the group’s preferred rifle. Ultimately, the PIRA pursued politics and jettisoned its arsenal, ending one of Europe’s longest-running conflicts.
But the Taliban won’t be forced to decommission any weapons. On the contrary, in addition to leading the government of Afghanistan, the Taliban are also now in control of the security forces, the intelligence system, the police, and the military. Unlike Hezbollah and the PIRA, the Taliban do not need to concern themselves with power sharing, since the group’s takeover of Afghanistan was complete—the result of a patient and deliberate strategy. And because the Taliban took power by force, there is less onus on the group to respond to the needs of a specific constituency, which would be the case for any group concerned with elections or governing by consensus.
By outlasting the United States, the Taliban have proved the old maxim, “Insurgents win simply by not losing.” Like the rest of the world, other jihadi groups took notice of the Taliban’s astonishingly fast victory. It was clear to them that focusing on providing services at the local level could win invaluable influence. According to a report by the International Crisis Group, members of the jihadi group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) said that the Taliban’s blueprint for success in Afghanistan “helped inspire their own efforts” in northwestern Syria, where they are engaging in diplomatic outreach while consolidating power as a nonstate armed group.
HTS seems to be emulating the Taliban model, working to entrench itself among the population in Idlib Province and allocating resources for grassroots political activism. HTS is one of the most powerful insurgent groups still standing in Syria. It continues to consolidate control over large swaths of northwestern Syria, and counterterrorism experts, including Charles Lister, have observed that what is occurring is akin to the mainstreaming of a “local jihadi model.” As part of its provision of services, HTS has attempted to subsidize the cost of food and stabilize the banking and energy sectors in the areas under its control. By working with external actors to improve health and education, HTS is also accruing outside legitimacy, a nod to the Taliban’s playbook.
Over time, HTS could operate autonomously, functioning as a state within a state, all while straddling the line between rebel group and substate governing party. Given HTS’s prior connections to al Qaeda, its acceptance as a legitimate political entity should spark concerns among Western countries, including the United States. Although most experts assert that today HTS has concretely broken ties with al Qaeda and does not pose an international terrorism threat similar to groups such as Hurras al-Din, an al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria, HTS is still a violent terrorist group that will benefit from the political legitimacy that accompanies governing. If HTS turns its sights on targets outside Syria’s borders, attempts to combat the group will be made difficult by its sanctuary and safe haven in a densely populated pocket of Syria.
From the earliest stages of the conflict in Afghanistan, the Taliban understood the need for a sophisticated political strategy.
A similar story is unfolding in Mali. There, the government is seriously considering the possibility of peace negotiations with JNIM, the local al Qaeda affiliate. It is a move staunchly opposed by France, the primary external actor in Mali, because it will bestow a sense of legitimacy on a group that at its core is a violent terrorist organization inspired by jihadi ideology. Even if JNIM publicly disavows attacks on the West, bringing terrorist groups into the government sets a dangerous precedent, because so little is asked of these groups in return. Moreover, as the leadership in terrorist organizations turns over, priorities can change, and groups once considered to be purely local threats could assume transnational objectives. After all, al Shabab was once viewed as a threat only to Somalia, but it has morphed into a regional danger and has even had a member arrested for plotting an attack on U.S. soil.
Given the Taliban’s success, these groups may seek to mimic the jihadis’ gradualist strategy with an eye toward building the political infrastructure necessary to govern, even if this governance is provided in parallel to or in competition with the institutions of a formally recognized state. And just like the Taliban, groups such as HTS and JNIM seem to be positioning themselves to seize and maintain power, making public commitments not to carry out international acts of terrorism but declining to relinquish their arms.
But the Taliban have shown that talk is cheap. Far from distancing themselves from international terrorism, the Taliban have appointed several members of the Haqqani network to leadership positions within the new government. They include Sirajuddin (Siraj) Haqqani as interior minister and Khalil Haqqani, his uncle, as acting minister for refugees. The United States placed $5 million bounties on their heads, and Sirajuddin is on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Nor have the Taliban broken from al Qaeda. In mid-September, Amin al-Haq, who provided Osama bin Laden’s security during the 2001 battle between U.S. forces and al Qaeda in Tora Bora, made a triumphant return to Nangarhar Province, having spent years hiding out in Pakistan. With an intensifying insurgency now being waged against the Taliban by Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), the Taliban realize they will need al Qaeda more than ever, as the jihadis serve as a force multiplier by embedding within Taliban fighting units and providing critical logistical and manpower support.
In Afghanistan, the international community is in a lose-lose position—the country’s best chance for stability, at least for the time being, depends on the Taliban providing effective governance. But to do so, they require significant cash infusions and development assistance. The European Union recently pledged more than $1 billion in an effort to stave off economic and humanitarian disasters in the near term. In some ways, the Taliban are holding the international community hostage. If countries help the Taliban, they are cementing the legitimacy of a ruthless insurgent group inextricably linked to some of the world’s most dangerous terrorists. But if countries eschew aid and Afghanistan collapses, it will lead to a massive humanitarian disaster and a civil war that could attract foreign terrorist fighters recruited to bolster the ranks of groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State (or ISIS).
Conventional wisdom holds that once terrorist groups are forced to govern, they become more pragmatic as they contend with the realities of trash collection and the other mundane responsibilities of running a country. Yet as Hamas has proved, this does not necessarily mean that a group will grow less radical over time. Hamas first sat for elections in 2006, but in the 15 years since, has kidnapped Israeli soldiers, fired rockets at civilian populations, and launched suicide attacks. Governing also opens the door for current leadership to be outflanked by hard-liners within the organization or other extremists who view any accommodation with the political system as unacceptable. In this way, it can be the worst of both worlds—governance can bring groups local legitimacy while not having an impact on their extreme ideology, but their mere participation in politics creates an opportunity for more hardcore jihadi groups to usurp them, as has occurred in Gaza over the past several years.
Counterbalancing terrorist groups that evolve into established political actors requires carefully calibrating policies to ensure that any punitive actions don’t harm already vulnerable populations in fragile states, such as withholding aid to Afghans facing famine. Holding the Taliban and other hybrid groups accountable will not be easy and requires close coordination between governments and international aid groups to ensure that much-needed assistance reaches the target population and isn’t abused as a cudgel by nonstate armed groups. After two decades of a global war on terrorism, Washington and its allies are understandably suffering from counterterrorism fatigue. But walking away from weakened states as they are co-opted by terrorist groups is a recipe for ongoing conflict and instability.
Dealing with the fallout from Afghanistan won’t be easy. The Biden administration has little leverage with the Taliban and will be forced to work through intermediaries, such as the Qataris. Still, Washington should muster whatever pressure it can to ensure that the Taliban do not allow Afghanistan to once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups determined to attack the United States. More broadly, the policy solutions for dealing with terrorist groups emulating the Taliban’s approach all have downsides. Addressing civilian needs in places such as Mali, Somalia, and Syria is essential to preventing the next generation of violent extremists, but these efforts are costly, take years to implement, and are not guaranteed to succeed. Yet the alternative is unacceptable—allowing terrorist groups to garner legitimacy while the international community brushes off concerns that nationally or locally focused groups could once again “go global” and begin attacking Western targets in a replay of the ebb and flow of dangerous jihadi groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and their global network of franchises and affiliates.
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