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A New Terrorist Haven?

Aug 10, 2021
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

With the Taliban advancing rapidly in Afghanistan, the future direction of the country has become the focus of many people’s attention. Considering the role it has played in global transnational terrorist activities since the 1990s, one cannot help but worry: Is Afghanistan becoming a new global terrorist haven?

The fears about future terrorist activity in Afghanistan are not unjustified. First of all, Afghanistan has a very deep historical connection with various transnational jihadist forces since the last century. After the Soviet invasion of at the end of 1979, Afghanistan quickly became the main battleground of the global anti-Soviet jihad. Saudi Arabia, Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries provided a steady stream of militants who were willing to die for their cause.

In addition, the Islamic world and the Western camp gave large amounts of money and weapons to support those who went to Afghanistan to fight. Pakistan took advantage of its geographical proximity to Afghanistan to provide military training and religious education to these foreign fighters. In the decade between 1982 and 1992, some 35,000 Muslims from 43 countries were involved in the war, along with Afghan jihadists, and thousands more received war-related training in religious schools in Pakistan.

Pakistani scholar Ahmed Rashid, for his part, calculates that worldwide, more than 100,000 extremists hooked up with the Pakistani government and the war in Afghanistan. Not only did they acquire the necessary military skills in the process but they also formed a vast international network.

After the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan, some jihadists continued to fight in the Afghan civil war as “Arab Afghans” — or to live in Afghanistan — while many more went to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Chechnya, Kosovo and other places as “Afghan graduates,” the mainstay of a new generation of global transnational terror.

Second, a number of transnational terrorist organizations are still active in Afghanistan. After 9/11, during the global war on terror, violent organizations in Afghanistan were dealt a heavy blow one after another. However, as the reconstruction of Afghanistan has been stagnant in recent years, there are signs of a resurgence of terrorist activity in the country. In February, for example, the United Nations said in a report that Afghanistan remains the world’s most vulnerable country to terrorism. According to the report, there are at least 20 international terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan, including Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K), the Haqqani Network, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), al-Qaeda, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), and the Islamic Jihad Group (IJG).

While there is reason to be concerned about future terrorist activity in Afghanistan, this does not mean that the country will necessarily revert to being a global terrorist haven. For one thing, the door to political reconciliation in Afghanistan has not been completely closed. Despite Taliban aggression on the battlefield after the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the group has so far not abandoned its willingness to participate in political peace talks. In addition, it is not easy for the Pashtun-based Taliban to completely replace the current Afghan government.

As long as all political forces can successfully achieve reconciliation, Afghanistan is expected to see a restoration of domestic political and social order, and the space for transnational terrorist organizations to operate there will be greatly reduced.

Second, although there were close ties between the Afghan Taliban and some transnational terrorist organizations, this does not mean that the Taliban will continue this policy:

1. Under the agreement reached with the Trump administration in early 2020, the Taliban cannot allow various transnational terrorist forces to operate within its territory or attack the United States and its allies via such forces in the future.

2. The Taliban seems to have learned from the war since 9/11 and has repeatedly stated that it “will not allow anyone to use its territory to attack other countries.”

3. Afghanistan today is very different from what it was in the 1990s. It will not be easy for the Taliban to resume radical Islamic policies or to relive their old dreams with transnational jihadist forces.

Third, the current international environment facing Afghanistan is not the same as it was 20 years ago. After two decades of the global war on terror, the international community has a clear understanding of transnational terrorist activities. Although the U.S. military is withdrawing from Afghanistan, the international community is on high alert to the development of terrorist activities in the country. As long as Afghanistan’s neighbors remain vigilant and work together, they can prevent the escalation of the country’s civil war and cut off the proliferation of transnational jihadists in the country. For the Taliban, which is trying to regain power in Afghanistan, these are important factors that it cannot afford to ignore. Therefore, the Taliban’s recent positive statement may be a good start. We must wait and see.

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