Afghanistan's Security Threats: Examining the Taliban's Challenges
As the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, defence officials estimated Kabul would last three months before falling to the Taliban. Even this estimate proved woefully optimistic as the Taliban returned from their twenty-year insurgency to take power in just ten days. What followed was a chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan with images of Afghans falling from aeroplanes and a major terror attack at the airport, killing 170 Afghan civilians and 13 American army personnel.
Following this initial chaos, the Taliban committed to restoring security to the country. As part of this, plans were announced for a 110,000 strong army, which they claimed would be inclusive of members of the Afghan army. In the same vein, the group promised a general amnesty for their former enemies, no reprisals against journalists and respecting women’s rights within an Islamic framework. From a Western perspective, the hope here was that the group could bring order to the country, prevent an ISIS insurgency, and avoid a return to their 1996-2001 model of rule which involved the brutal repression of women and massacres against minorities.
This article addresses three threats to the security of the new Afghan government and its civilian population. This includes threats from the remnants of the defeated Afghan National Security Force and Islamic State subgroup, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP/IS-K). It also considers whether the Taliban government itself also threatens the security of Afghanistan.
Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP)
ISKP, in conjunction with core Islamic State groups, shares the ambition of driving regime change with the ultimate goal of creating a province within a wider caliphate across the Middle East. The group's roots can be traced back to 2014, when a small group of Taliban fighters defected alongside members of other insurgent organizations like Lakshar-e-Tayyiba and Al-Qaeda. Although ISKP aims to win over the Sunni population like the Taliban, they differ in ideology due to their adherence to Salafist jurisprudence which contrasts with the Taliban's adherence to Hanafi teachings. Islamic State's brand of Salafism is known for its strict, literal interpretation of the Quran, which is more likely to attract the most radical elements of the population to its cause.
Since the Taliban's takeover, ISKP has demonstrated a willingness and ability to target security forces with little consideration for civilians. Recent reports reveal that ISKP launched numerous roadside bombings across Afghanistan in September and October 2021, specifically targeting the Taliban. These attacks have also resulted in significant civilian casualties, including women and children. This perpetuates a dangerous pattern of political violence by the ISKP that fails to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. This is consistent with previous ISKP operations in pre-Taliban Afghanistan, such as the devastating attack on Kabul University in November 2020, which claimed the lives of 35 civilians.
Moreover, ISKP has specifically targeted the country’s minority communities. The Hazara Shia community has suffered at the hands of ISKP, with Human Rights Watch identifying 13 claimed attacks and 3 possible attacks in the year following the Taliban takeover. During these attacks, at least 700 people were either killed or injured. This leads to uncertainty over both the will and capability of the Taliban to protect this community despite pledges from Taliban Minister of the Interior, Saeed Khosti, that the Taliban will protect minorities. The Taliban’s historical persecution of the group between 1996-2001 adds to the doubt surrounding this intention; during previous Taliban rule there were unlawful detentions, forced relocations, and killings against Hazaras.
Sikhs and Hindus are also targeted in Afghanistan. Their numbers have dwindled from 200,000 in the 1970s to just 140. The Taliban have failed to provide security to this minority community. In 2022, ISKP was able to conduct a deadly attack on a Gurudwara in Kabul. Despite invitations from the Taliban to Sikh and Hindu communities to return to Kabul, these attacks only exacerbate concerns as to whether the Taliban can ensure their protection.
Another aspect of the ISKP threat to Afghanistan’s security is the targeting of foreign interests in the country. This targeting has long been key to the group’s strategy, with an attack on the Save the Children headquarters in January 2018. This represented the first major strike against foreign targets. More recently, in December 2022, ISKP attacked a hotel frequented by Chinese businessmen. Critically, the hotel was at the time being used by Chinese nationals, who were involved in an infrastructure project in Afghanistan. This makes the attack particularly important for the Taliban government going forward. If it is unable to protect foreign nationals, this will deter foreign investment which is crucial to legitimising Taliban rule in the country. In this regard, the Taliban appears to have been able to allay some concerns for foreign investors. Here, China has decided to push forward with key projects such as a USD 216 million industrial estate on the outskirts of Kabul and has made positive signals about the expansion of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor to include roads and train links in Afghanistan.
National Resistance Front (NRF)
The NRF represents the most united force of anti-Taliban fighters loyal to the former Afghani government. They represent an ideology which calls for a democratic, multicultural and decentralised state. While they may not pose as significant a threat as ISKP, the NRF could still challenge the Taliban's security efforts.
In the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover, the NRF was capable of exercising control over the Panjshir valley in north-eastern Afghanistan – the only area not to be immediately taken by the Taliban. Despite this, the Taliban now seem to have been able to assert their authority over this region, with the NRF forced to change tact and adopt insurgency style attacks against occupying Taliban forces. This has only had low-level effects on security in the Taliban government; with intermittent and small-scale attacks, including an assault on a provincial headquarters.
The only possibility for the NRF, and other opposition groups to pose greater threats to the Taliban is with tangible international support. This includes both military and funding. However, this appears to be an unlikely prospect, given the catastrophic withdrawal fresh in the minds of any potentially sympathetic western benefactors. Western support does however appear to continue. The US special representative for Afghanistan did meet anti-Taliban commander Ata Mohammed Noor and NRF commanders have travelled to western countries for political events. This may seem encouraging but given public and perceptions of the war in Afghanistan, the type of support needed to challenge Taliban rule is highly unlikely to transpire.
The greatest threat to stability and security in Afghanistan may lie within the very group that now governs the country. The current government is a coalition between the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, a militant group notorious for complex terror attacks and suicide bombings. However, recent infighting within the coalition has threatened to destabilize the government. This is highlighted by Interior Minister and Haqqani Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani's public criticisms of Taliban leadership for “monopolising power”. These tensions are rooted in ideological differences over key issues such as female education, economic struggles, and international participation. This makes reconciliation difficult, given the strong leadership of both groups and the inexperience of political appointees.
In the event of escalating political tensions resulting in the Haqqani Network's withdrawal from the Taliban government, there are two potential security risks that Afghanistan could face. First, with estimates of its membership ranging from 5,000 to 10,000, the group could mount an insurgency. Second, the Haqqani Network's history of engaging in terror attacks, and its inclination towards this type of conflict, is a cause for concern. Certainly, the Haqqani Network’s campaigns prior to the Taliban’s takeover demonstrate their capability and willingness to engage in such activities. Moreover, since the Haqqani Network is now part of the Taliban military, losing their forces could weaken the Taliban's ability to maintain internal security against other groups.
The defection of parts. or the whole, of the Haqqani Network also threatens to bolster the threat of the ISKP. Prior to the Haqqani Network entering government, the group provided “the necessary assistance to enable ISKP to carry out attacks". Any renewed collaboration between Haqqani and ISKP would result in a potentially overwhelming security threat to the fledgling government.
Outside of high-level political splits within the Taliban, defections are possible from within the group. Here, opposition groups may be able to leverage their comparative financial strength as a recruitment tool. The Taliban is particularly vulnerable to this, as prior to their takeover 75 percent of the Afghan operating budget was provided by donors. When the Taliban took over, most of this support was cut, leaving financial shortcomings. Comparatively, groups like ISKP can offer more money to its fighters, which is gained through local donations, extortion, and support from central Islamic State leadership.
Defections from the Taliban may also occur due to the rapid change in lifestyles resulting from moving past insurgency into government. Following the twenty year long violent conflict, members of the Taliban lost a degree of freedom, along with the comradery and thrill that comes with insurgency fighting. An “Afghan Analysts report illustrates this. The report interviewed several former militants living in Kabul, one of whom bemoaned that:
"The Taliban used to be free of restrictions, but now we sit in one place, behind a desk and a computer 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Life’s become so wearisome; you do the same things every day"
Another fighter described feeling alienated as:
"[Other Taliban members] forgot their old comrades on whose shoulders they secured victory and instead seek the praise and approval of sycophants’.
Given this, it is likely that Taliban members struggling to adapt to their new and more mundane lives, may seek membership in other terror groups, such as ISKP.
The final way in which the Taliban could potentially compromise its own security is through being unable to uphold its own promise to offer amnesty to former members of the Afghan security forces. This issue was raised by a Human Rights Watch report which found that more than 100 former security force members have been either killed or forcibly disappeared by Taliban forces. This could be a result of Taliban leadership pursuing an amnesty but maintaining plausible deniability, or, more likely, that they do not have full control of their own forces in provincial areas, with the latter suggesting a threat to security emerging from its own forces. Furthermore, this type of persecution may push people to join insurgent movements such as the NRF. In the worst-case scenario for the Taliban, this could provoke some foreign intervention in the country. More likely however, this could affect the Taliban by making international deals, which are crucial for success and stability, less likely to happen in the future.
Due to the comprehensive victory of the Taliban in 2021, and a shift in focus from the country in western media, there is a prevailing notion of a stable and unchallenged Taliban regime in Afghanistan. Whilst currently the security forces have managed to force threats towards insurgency conflicts, ISKP (and to a lesser extent NRF) maintain a threat to the security of the fledgling Taliban political and security system. A more pressing challenge however, comes from within the organisation itself. The uneasy coalition with the Haqqani network, coupled with a lack of resources and an inability to meet the material and lifestyle needs of its members, present a real risk of defections and internal strife which may amplify existing threats.
By Joseph Church - MECS Intern