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After the Exit from Afghanistan

Sep 07, 2021
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

All U.S. troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan by Aug. 31. During the drawdown, however, multiple terrorist attacks took place in the country, among them an Aug. 26 blast that killed at least 170, including 13 American soldiers, and wounded more than 100 others. The infamous ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the incident. Such bloodshed has heightened worries in the international community. What will happen to the counterterrorism campaign in Afghanistan absent the United States? 

It certainly is no easy job to predict terrorist activities in Afghanistan, where the situation remains volatile. Internal tribal, racial and religious contradictions are deep and complicated, and international terrorists find safe havens. But three angles may help project what a future campaign against terrorism might look like in Afghanistan.

First, cross-border jihadist forces will inevitably split up further after the Afghan Taliban assumes power. Globally, the Taliban’s success in Afghanistan will inspire a great number of cross-border jihadist forces, which may see the U.S. pullout as a significant win against the world’s superpower. Yet global jihadist forces have never been one uniform entity, even inside Afghanistan. With the Taliban in power, jihadist forces that have been at odds with it — ISIS-K and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, for example — will unavoidably face suppression and exclusion.

A small number of extremist organizations with which the Taliban has close ties, such as the Haqqani network, may change their radical past positions to preserve their historical connections with the group. And an extremely small number of cross-border terrorist organizations that used to find protection from the Afghan Taliban may choose to leave Afghanistan, or turn to other major military organizations, fearing they might suffer suppression and exclusion once the Taliban fulfills its international commitment to resist terrorists.

Second, the Afghan Taliban’s future policy orientation will have important impacts on terrorist activities in the country, which will be obvious in three aspects. If the Taliban can truly eliminate domestic sectional and tribal struggles by forming a coalition government, and gradually restore order and stability in the country, it certainly will greatly reduce the room for the existence of international terrorist organizations.

At the same time, if the Taliban fulfills its commitments to the international community, there may be a quick escalation in retaliatory terrorist activities in a short time frame, but in the long term this will reduce the room for, and capabilities of, major terrorist organizations in its territory. Finally, the Taliban may selectively fulfill its international commitments, cracking down only on those hostile to it, such as ISIS-K, while providing a way out to those with whom it has had close ties.

Predictably, should the Taliban honor its international commitments in a selective manner, it will be difficult for it to dissolve the international community’s suspicions, let alone gain international recognition and external aid. The Taliban may be able to restrain terrorist organizations from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks. But those organizations’ huge global networks and dirty records suggest they will continue to be a hot potato in the Taliban’s hands in the future.

Third, the international community’s posture toward the Taliban will directly or indirectly influence the anti-terror situation in Afghanistan. The country’s counterterror capacities to a great extent hinge on outside assistance, which includes both efforts to eradicate infighting and to promote political reconciliation. Such direct supports may include anti-terror information sharing, exchanges of expertise and upgrades of equipment. Airstrikes and intelligence-sharing are critical to success in the anti-terror realm but are, ironically, what the Taliban cannot have without external help.

In addition, the anti-terror situation in Afghanistan may also get more complex if some neighboring countries, or a major country outside the region selectively cooperates on the counterterror campaign to achieve geopolitical benefits.

Finally, Western countries’ self-contradictory positions on the Taliban may worsen terrorist activities in Afghanistan. Some Western countries, on one hand, ask the Taliban to fulfill its commitments to the international community by rooting out terrorist forces in its territory. On the other hand, they continue sanctions against the Taliban on various pretexts, refusing to provide assistance or support. Just imagine: If the Taliban can’t get rid of the shackles imposed by the West, how can it be willing and capable in a fight against terrorism?

The future of the anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan rests both on the Taliban’s own endeavors and the joint support of the international community. So long as the international community can truly learn the lessons from 20 years of a global campaign against terror, we have reason to be optimistic. 

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