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Terrorism in Afghanistan: A Joint Threat Assessment


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Report by Joint U.S.-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan.
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Terrorism in Afghanistan:
A Joint Threat Assessment
Terrorism in Afghanistan:
A Joint Threat Assessment
Introduction 7
Chapter I: Afghanistan’s Security Situation and Peace Process:
Comparing U.S. and Russian Perspectives (Barnett R. Rubin) 9
Chapter II: Militant Terrorist Groups in, and Connected to, Afghanistan
(Ekaterina Stepanova and Javid Ahmad) 24
Chapter III: Afghanistan in the Regional Security Interplay Context
(Andrey Kazantsev and Thomas F. Lynch III) 41
Major Findings and Conclusions 67
Appendix A: Protecting Afghanistan’s Borders: U.S. and Russia
to Lead in a Regional Counterterrorism Effort (George Gavrilis) 72
Appendix B: Arms Supplies for Afghan Militants and Terrorists
(Vadim Kozyulin) 75
Appendix C: Terrorism Financing: Understanding Afghanistan’s
Specifics (Konstantin Sorokin and Vladimir Ivanov) 79
Acronyms 83
Joint U.S.-Russia Working Group on
Counterterrorism in Afghanistan
Working Group Experts:
Javid Ahmad1
Senior Fellow, Atlantic Council
Sher Jan Ahmadzai
Director, Center for Afghanistan Studies, University of Nebraska at Omaha
Robert Finn
Former Ambassador of the United States to Afghanistan
George Gavrilis
Fellow, Center for Democracy, Toleration, and Religion, University of California, Berkeley
Andrey Kazantsev
Director, Center for Central Asian and Afghan Studies, Moscow State Institute of International
Relations (MGIMO University)
Kirill Koktysh
Associate Professor, Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO University)
Member, Expert Council, State Duma Committee of Nationalities
Mikhail Konarovsky
Former Ambassador of the Russian Federation to Afghanistan
Col. (Ret.) Oleg V. Kulakov*
Professor of Area Studies, Military University, Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation
Vadim Kozyulin
Project Director, Project on Asian Security, Russian Center for Policy Research, PIR Center
Project Director, Emerging Technologies and Global Security Project, PIR Center
Member, PIR Center Executive Board
Professor, Academy of Military Science
Thomas F. Lynch III2
Distinguished Research Fellow for South Asia and the Near East and Acting Director, Center
for Strategic Research, Institute of National Strategic Studies, National Defense University
1 The Joint U.S.-Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan is an independent project, concep-
tualized and implemented by the EastWest Instute. Javid Ahmad contributed to the Joint Working Group acvies as
an expert in his personal capacity. His wrings are based upon his own research and analysis and do not represent the
views of the Atlanc Council.
2 The wrings of Dr. Thomas F. Lynch III are those based upon his own research and analysis and do not neces-
sarily represent the ocial posion of the U.S. Government, the U.S. Department of Defense or the Naonal Defense
Terrorism in
Barnett R. Rubin
Director, Afghanistan-Pakistan Regional Program, Center on International Cooperation,
New York University
Ivan Safranchuk
Senior Fellow, Institute for International Studies, Moscow State Institute of International
Relations (MGIMO University)
Denis Sokolov
Senior Advisor, Center for Strategic and International Studies
Konstantin Sorokin
Member of the Board, Eurasian Center for Comparative Studies
Ekaterina Stepanova
Head, Peace and Conflict Studies Unit, Primakov National Research Institute of the World
Economy and International Relations
Scott Worden
Director, Afghanistan and Central Asia Programs, United States Institute of Peace
Irina Zvyagelskaya
Head, Center for Middle East Studies, Primakov National Research Institute of the World
Economy and International Relations
Project Director:
Vladimir Ivanov
Director, Russia and the United States Program, EastWest Institute
Project Coordinator:
Teresa Val
Program Associate, Russia and the United States Program, EastWest Institute
This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York.
The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors and
* Deceased
The EastWest Institute would like to dedicate this report to our dearly departed colleague and friend, Colonel (Ret.) Oleg
V. Kulakov. His unparalleled knowledge and wit enriched our discussions, and he will be remembered fondly.
We wish to express our deepest gratitude to the members of the Working Group, who generously gave their time and
talents to this project; your commitment has been much appreciated. We would also like to thank the many experts and
ocials in the United States, Russia and other stakeholder countries who shared their insights and feedback on our
work, including the following:
James L. Creighton
Distinguished Fellow, EastWest Institute
Catherine Dale
Senior Advisor, U.S. Army Futures Command
Ramazan Daurov
Head, Afghanistan Section, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Omar Nessar
Senior Fellow, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Alexey Nosov
Independent Consultant
Igor Panarin
Coordinator, CSTO Analytical Association
Vladimir Sotnikov
Senior Fellow, Institute of Oriental Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences
Sergey Sudakov
Corresponding Member, Academy of Military Sciences
Joshua T. White
Associate Professor of the Practice of South Asia Studies and Senior Fellow, Edwin O. Reischauer Center for East Asia
Studies, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies
We are extremely grateful to several individuals at the EastWest Institute for their invaluable contributions to this
project. Our sincerest appreciation goes to Ambassador Cameron Munter for guiding our discussions with diplomatic
finesse and always finding the thread of commonality; Anna Renard-Koktysh for her help with coordinating logistics,
research and photography for our meetings; Annie Cowan for her in-house expertise and trans-Atlantic assistance; Brita
Achberger for her impeccable notetaking and logistical support; and Jack Strosser for his inestimable help during the
publication process.
Special thanks go to Henrietta Belaya for her eortless interpretation at all our convenings.
Lastly, we are immensely grateful for the sponsorship of the Shelby Cullom Davis Trust, and in particular, Carnegie
Corporation of New York, without whom this report and project would not have been possible.
Terrorism in
The Project and
Its Evolution
Launched in October 2017, the EastWest
Institute’s (EWI) Joint U.S.-Russia Working
Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan has
sought to facilitate cooperative engagement
between the United States and Russia by
providing a forum for constructive dialogue on
joint counterterrorism eorts in Afghanistan.
In contrast to the many issues currently
straining U.S.-Russia relations,
counterterrorism and Afghanistan have
generally stood out as two promising areas
for bilateral cooperation. To that end, the
project has pursued dual aims: 1) to highlight
the extent of the threat of violence posed by
militant terrorist groups in Afghanistan—not
just to the United States and Russia, but also
to other regional and global actors; and 2) to
identify avenues for future counterterrorism
cooperation, with the intention to generate
positive momentum in the bilateral
The disintegrating state of U.S.-Russia
relations and the ever-evolving, uncertain
political and security context in Afghanistan
have made this a challenging feat—but by the
same token, have made the Working Group’s
discussions and deliberations especially
relevant. The need for frequent and sustained
dialogue to inform concrete and persuasive
policy solutions is more critical than ever.
Five years after the 2014 crisis in Ukraine, the
United States and Russia remain at odds. The
initial fanfare following U.S. President Donald
Trump’s election—with promises of improved
bilateral relations—has since diminished as
ongoing allegations of election interference,
continued sanctions and diplomatic
expulsions, among other issues, have dogged
prospects for progress. With the U.S.-Russia
Bilateral Presidential Commission suspended
since 2014, intergovernmental contact
between the two countries remains episodic.
Unlike the immediate post-9/11 period of
bilateral counterterrorism coordination and
cooperation, including on Afghanistan, the
current state of policymaking in both countries
is driven primarily by geopolitical competition.
As for Afghanistan, the dire state of its national
circumstances—exacerbated by deteriorating
security and a struggling economy—has been
further complicated by the country’s uncertain
politics. Violence, low voter turnout and
fraud allegations marred the October 2018
parliamentary elections. Twice postponed, the
September 2019 presidential elections faced
similar hurdles with preliminary vote results
twice delayed. The outcome of the elections—
securing a second term for incumbent
President Ashraf Ghani—was immediately
contested by his challenger Abdullah Abdullah;
This report aims to provide a clear-eyed assessment of
terrorism and armed conflict in Afghanistan and related security
threats for the United States, Russia and key stakeholder
countries, approaching these issues with a cooperative outlook.
Terrorism in
however, a May 2020 power-sharing agreement
has since resolved the political deadlock. During
the same period, U.S.-Taliban negotiations
gathered momentum, and even though formal
intra-Afghan talks have yet to begin, the broader
Afghan polity and the Taliban held a number
of Track 2-style intra-Afghan dialogues. After a
temporary halt in September 2019, U.S.-Taliban
negotiations resumed in a renewed bid to usher
in enduring peace and stability in Afghanistan
and culminated in a signed formal agreement in
February 2020.
Comprised of American and Russian non-
governmental policy and technical experts,
EWI’s Working Group convened in Moscow,
Washington, D.C., Brussels and Vienna over
the course of two years, hearing insights from
ocials representing the Russian Ministry of
Foreign Aairs, European Union (EU), North
Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and
Organization for Security and Co-operation in
Europe (OSCE), among other organizations.
Despite the unfavorable political climate
in the overall U.S.-Russia relationship, the
Working Group maintained channels of
dialogue. Focused topics of discussion included
developments in U.S.-Russia relations and
Afghanistan, and specifically, implications
for counterterrorism cooperation; U.S. and
Russian approaches to counterterrorism and
to managing the broader Afghan problem; the
impacts of militant terrorist groups; terrorist
recruitment and radicalization in Afghanistan;
and regional perspectives on terrorism, armed
conflict and instability in Afghanistan. The
Working Group also touched on more technical
issues, such as illicit financial flows, porous
borders, illegal migration and arms tracking
as drivers of terrorist activity in Afghanistan. In
addition experts exchanged views on economic
development as a means to secure peace and
stability in the country.
Throughout the project, the Working Group
has stressed that terrorism remains a priority
issue for both the United States and Russia
and emphasized the importance of bilateral
cooperation to mitigate terrorist threats not
only for Afghanistan, but for the region and the
Report Overview
Fundamentally, this report aims to provide a
clear-eyed assessment of terrorism and armed
conflict in Afghanistan and related security
threats for the United States, Russia and key
stakeholder countries, approaching these
issues with a cooperative outlook. The
Threat Assessment
’s structure is as follows:
Chapter 1 examines the security situation
and peace process in Afghanistan,
considering the policies, priorities and
interests of the United States and Russia in
the war-torn country;
Chapter 2 surveys the militant
terrorist groups in, and connected to,
Afghanistan, specifically the nature and
extent of threats posed by the Islamic State
of Iraq and the Levant—Khorasan Province
(ISIL-K) and the Taliban; and
Chapter 3 explores the security interests
of regional stakeholders vis-à-vis
Reflecting the binational composition of the
Working Group, this report was authored
by Russian and American contributors,
encouraging further collaboration among
the experts as well as a balance of views. Key
observations and suggestions drawn from this
analysis and the Working Group’s deliberations
are aggregated in the Major Findings and
Conclusions. The report’s appendices also
address ancillary topics, such as border
management, arms tracking and terrorist
The fraught dynamics of the U.S.-Russian
bilateral relationship merit a report with a
multifaceted approach—all commonalities
and dierences must be considered clearly
and objectively as a helpful analytical tool for
policymakers and as a starting point for joint
action. As such, this report presents an even-
handed assessment of outcomes gathered
from the Working Group’s discussions, which
served as a foundational analytical framework.
The insights gathered from these discussions
reflect the Group’s collective expertise and
experience, highlighting areas of convergence
and divergence—not just between American
and Russian perspectives, but also among the
American and among Russian experts.
The EastWest Institute hopes that this
project—having started as a means to bridge
the cooperation gap at the Track 2 level—may
lead to enhanced Track 1 eorts, and that the
observations and suggestions put forth gain
traction within the relevant policymaking
The United States and Russia became
involved in the latest chapter of
the Afghan conflict as a result of
September 11, 2001, a threat to U.S. security
that was as clear as threats can be. The trail
of the 9/11 perpetrators led to Afghanistan,
but as the U.S. followed the evidence
back through the labyrinth that sheltered
“terrorism,” it found a twisted skein more
akin to a spider’s web than Ariadne’s
thread. President George W. Bush’s clarion
proclamation to the rescue workers amid
the ruins of the World Trade Center—“I
can hear you…the rest of the world hears
you…and the people who knocked these
buildings down will hear all of us soon”—was
translated into multiple taskings so that
friends, foes and spectators alike struggled
to relate to any coherent goal.3 By that time,
Russia had not only long retreated from
Afghanistan, but was also struggling to
retain its dominant influence in the Central
Asian republics and to establish defensive
borders in the post-Soviet space. For the
3 “Remarks to New York Rescue Workers” in
lected Speeches of President George W. Bush 2001-2008
The White House: President George W. Bush, hps://
pdf: 63.
U.S., Russia was, at best, a gatekeeper who
could open paths through Central Asia
for its mission “to rid this world of evil and
Against Terrorism
The Bush administration’s immediate
response to 9/11, as articulated by the
president in his address to a joint session
of Congress on September 20, 2001, was
that the Taliban had to hand over Osama bin
Laden or be subject to the same treatment
as Al-Qaeda.5 When the Taliban did not hand
over the leader of the organization that
carried out the attacks, the U.S. decided
both to destroy Al-Qaeda and likewise, to
destroy the Taliban regime and hunt down
the members of the Taliban leadership.
4 “President’s remarks on Veterans Day,
November 11, 2001, hp://
5 “Address to a Joint Session of Congress
and the American People,” The White House: Presi-
dent George W. Bush, September 20, 2001, hps://
Chapter I
Afghanistan’s Security Situation
and Peace Process: Comparing
U.S. and Russian Perspectives
Barnett R. Rubin
Terrorism in
Destroying the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate
and Al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan—as
well as hunting down the leadership of both
organizations—required real-time intelligence
on the ground to supplement satellite
imagery and technical collection (which was
of limited use in a country with hardly any
telecommunications) and a military presence
on the ground to take and hold territory after
U.S. air power had done its destructive work.
That led to military and intelligence support
for the militias of commanders aliated to
the United Islamic Front for the Salvation
of Afghanistan (UIFSA), also known as the
Northern Alliance, which had also been
receiving some external support from Iran
and Russia. Russia and Iran had worked
with the intelligence agencies of the newly
independent Central Asian states to support
the UIFSA’s main external base in Tajikistan,
from where the UIFSA transferred into
Afghanistan materiel transported from Iran
and Russia through Central Asia. Since 1998,
after Al-Qaeda’s attack on the U.S. embassies
in East Africa, the UIFSA’s logistics had
also involved intelligence cooperation with
Western agencies to facilitate the transfer of
materiel purchased in Ukraine and elsewhere.
Iranian-Russian cooperation in this operation
was partly motivated by the suspicion that,
following patterns and alliances formed
during the Cold War, the U.S. was working
through Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to use
the Taliban—who hosted anti-Shia Wahhabis
and some Chechen separatists, among
others—against the national interests of both
countries. The pipelines proposed by the
U.S. to transport Turkmen gas and oil south
through Afghanistan to Pakistan (which later
became the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-
Pakistan-India pipeline or TAPI project)
seemed to have the goal of marginalizing Iran
and Russia as transit routes for the export of
Central Asian energy supplies and delinking
the Central Asian states from the Soviet-era
commercial and transport networks that
bound them to Russia.
After the withdrawal of Soviet forces from
Afghanistan in 1989 and the collapse of
the Soviet Union, Russia did not seek to be
involved in this part of the Global South.
The Soviet experience in Afghanistan was
deemed negative, and Russia resolved
never again to start a military campaign in
While fighting against Chechen insurgents
in the Northern Caucasus in the 1990s,
however, Russia experienced firsthand the
interconnection between terrorist groups in
Afghanistan and the Chechen forces it was
combating. After Russian forces withdrew
from Chechnya in 1997, the republic declared
de facto independence as the Chechen
Republic of Ichkeria. No government
recognized that independence until January
2000, when Ichkerian Vice President
Zelimkhan Yandarbiyev visited Afghanistan
and established diplomatic relations with the
Taliban government. The two unrecognized
regimes exchanged fighters, and Chechen
forces started training in Afghan camps. For
instance, Ibn al-Khattab, a Saudi who had
fought in Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Bosnia,
became one of the most formidable Islamist
guerilla leaders in Chechnya and facilitated
the training of Chechen fighters in Taliban-
controlled Afghanistan.
By the end of the 1990s, Russian authorities
came to the conclusion that without
managing terrorism in Afghanistan and in
Central Asia, their domestic eorts would not
ultimately solve the Chechen problem. For
Russia, this was the turning point in policy
toward Afghanistan, as Moscow concluded
that stabilizing Afghanistan would be
essential for ending the war in Chechnya.
Although Russia never considered sending a
significant number of troops to Afghanistan,
it did not completely reject the use of
military means in Afghan policy. In 2000,
Sergey Yastrzhembsky, advisor to Russian
President Vladimir Putin, publicly stated that
Russia might need to launch strikes against
the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.6
Immediately after the attacks of September
11, 2001, as the U.S. decided to take on the
fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, Russia
hoped that the U.S. would be able to bring
peace and stability there. Furthermore,
the Northern Alliance, which had received
support from Iran, India, Russia, Turkey and
other regional countries, cooperated with the
U.S. to defeat the bulk of Taliban forces by the
end of 2001.
6 “Russia Threatens Afghanistan,”
CBS News
April 28, 2000, hps://
threatens-afghanistan/; and Андрей Логутков, “Россия
угрожает ударами по Афганистану,”
BBC Russian
, May
24, 2000, hps://
Russia counted on the U.S to defeat the
Taliban. American success in eradicating
terrorism from Afghanistan would take the
burden away from Russia and free resources
for other anti-terrorism priorities. Although
many Russian experts were skeptical that the
U.S. would succeed in Afghanistan where the
Soviet Union and British Empire had failed,
they still hoped for the U.S to succeed.
Both Russia and Iran supported the logistics
required by the U.S. Central Intelligence
Agency (CIA) and Special Operations Forces
to gain access to northern Afghanistan and
link up with the main UIFSA forces to advance
on Kabul. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard
Corps (IRGC) helped the CIA set up its first
bases in Panjshir and Bagram, while Putin
telephoned the presidents of several Central
Asian countries to assure them that Russia
supported their making bases and other
logistical assets available to the U.S. for its
war against the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.7
Divergence on Post-Conflict
Regime in Afghanistan
But if Russia had welcomed U.S. actions
aimed at destroying both the Taliban and
Al-Qaeda, it remained concerned about
what political and security arrangements
the U.S. would support in Afghan territory
cleared from the “terrorist” threat. It initially
opposed U.S. requests for military bases
in Central Asia, agreeing only to overflight
for humanitarian assistance. The U.S. was
looking for a way to introduce ground troops
to support the U.S. and Afghan UIFSA in
campaigns to take over the north and west of
Afghanistan and eventually enter Kabul from
the north, as Afghan politician and military
commander Ahmad Shah Massoud had
done in 1992 and Amir Habibullah II (Bacha-i
Saqao) had done in 1929.
For this, the U.S. needed bases in Central Asia
to transfer troops to northern Afghanistan;
however, it had diculty finding partners in
the predominantly Pashtun east and south,
where the Taliban were based and where
7 Fiona Hill, “Pun and Bush in Common Cause?
Russia’s View of the Terrorist Threat Aer September 11,”
The Brookings Instuon, June 1, 2002, hps://www.cles/pun-and-bush-in-common-
they received support from Pakistan. Control
of Kabul by Northern Alliance forces was
bound for contestation by other political
forces, which the U.S. hoped to avoid. The
U.S. needed allies to take control of the
Pashtun areas close to Pakistan, which were
also where the major terrorist bases were
present. Those bases depended on financing
from and logistic hubs in Pakistan and the
Arab States of the Persian Gulf. Pakistan
exploited that need by pressing for a broad-
based government to include “moderate”
Taliban, thus preserving Pakistani influence in
By October 12, 2001, Uzbekistan had
already agreed to give the U.S. access to
the Karshi-Khanabad air base, despite
Russian opposition. Without overflight rights
of Russian territory, however, the U.S. was
unable to make full use of it. According to
Sultan Akimbekov, “a compromise was
reached…at the end of October 2001 at
the APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Council)
summit in Shanghai, attended by U.S.
President George W. Bush Jr., Russian
President Vladimir Putin and President of
the People’s Republic of China Jiang Zemin.8
Immediately following the APEC meeting, on
October 22, Putin traveled from Shanghai
to Dushanbe, where he appeared with
President Burhanuddin Rabbani, whom he
called the legitimate leader of Afghanistan.9
Putin announced his support for the position
of Rabbani’s government “that the Taliban
has no place in the future Government.10
Prior to Dushanbe, Putin spoke with Bush
and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell,
noting “We set out our position very clearly
and succinctly. I got the impression that the
position was met with understanding on the
part of our American partners.11 The U.S.
had no objection to using an agreement
with Russia to limit Pakistani influence in
Afghanistan; indeed, the agreement perfectly
suited the emerging agenda of the “War
8 Sultan Akimbekov,
The History of Afghanistan
(Astana: Instute of World Economics and Polics of the
Foundaon of the First President of the Republic of Ka-
zakhstan, 2016): 680.
9 “Statement for the Press and Answers to Jour-
nalists’ Quesons Following the Meeng with President
Emomali Rakhmonov of Tajikistan and President Burhan-
uddin Rabbani of Afghanistan, President of Russia,
October 22, 2001, hp://
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
on Terror.” Soon after, the U.S. got what
it needed from Russia: military overflight
rights to supply its new bases in Central
Asia. On November 3, U.S. Secretary of
Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Tajik President
Emomali Rahmon signed an agreement to
“provide airspace for U.S. Air Force planes
participating in the Afghan operation.
According to Akimbekov, this made clear that
the U.S. had a “green light” for overflight of
Russia and Iran—and the United States,
operating out of its new bases in Central
Asia—provided logistical support to the
capture of Kabul by the UIFSA on November
13, and Rabbani returned to the capital as
president a few days later. Russia, which
had been printing Afghan banknotes since
the 1980s, rushed cash to Kabul to pay
government salaries and maintain Rabbani’s
armed forces.13
The Bush administration initially had no plans
for what to do with Afghanistan once it fell
into the hands of its temporary local allies.
The U.S., however, was more concerned than
Russia with the future of all of Afghanistan,
including the Pashtun belt. Controlling
the area where international terrorists
had their main bases and maintaining
counterterrorist cooperation with Pakistan—
where Al-Qaeda and Taliban leaders had
fled—were essential to U.S. policy, whereas
Russia and Iran were more concerned
about establishing northern and western
Afghanistan as secure buer zones. The U.S.
administration briefly entertained Pakistani
claims it could establish a broad-based
government including moderate Taliban,
but finally decided to turn to the United
Nations (UN) to sponsor the formation of
a post-conflict government and oversee
reconstruction without Taliban participation.
The decision to delegate authority to the UN
for establishing peace and stability signaled
that these were secondary concerns to the
main priority—the elimination of terrorists
in Afghanistan, for which the U.S. took direct
responsibility before turning its attention
to Iraq. The administration’s support for
what became the Bonn Conference and the
political process it launched was always
12 Akimbekov: 680-681.
13 Barne R. Rubin,
The Fragmentaon of Afghan-
istan: State Formaon and Collapse in the Internaonal
(New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2002):
conditional on the contribution that political
stabilization might make to counterterrorism
goals. The administration took care to assure
that the Bonn Agreement would not limit
U.S. freedom of action in Afghanistan or
include Taliban leaders whom the U.S. held
responsible for harboring bin Laden.
Emergence of a Deal:
The Bonn Agreement
The U.S. believed that Rabbani would not be
able to gain control of southern and eastern
Afghanistan and that Pakistani resistance
would then make counterterrorism
cooperation more dicult. The U.S. therefore
favored UN eorts at Bonn to form a new
government based on political initiatives to
bring together the UIFSA and the political
elites who had grouped themselves around
the former king Muhammad Zahir Shah, who
had been in exile in Rome since 1973. The
former king’s Rome group was to help bring
anti-Taliban Pashtuns into a coalition with the
predominantly non-Pashtun United Islamic
Rabbani initially opposed such a move. He
sent his delegation to Bonn with instructions
to listen and report, but not to agree to
anything. The conference was stymied for
several days as U.S. military and intelligence
ocers in Afghanistan pressed UIFSA military
commander Muhammad Qasim Fahim to
support the replacement of Rabbani by a new
government. After initial ambivalence about
the uncertain result of Bonn, Russia decided
to support the UN process and told Rabbani
that it would no longer support him if he
resisted the new government being formed at
Bonn. Under pressure from both the U.S. and
Russia, Rabbani agreed to “transfer power” to
an interim administration headed by Hamid
The U.S. excluded the Taliban from the
settlement mainly because that was the
administration’s own preference, rather
than as a result of Russian influence.
On December 6, 2001, however, Karzai
reached an agreement—via an intermediary
with Mullah Muhammad Omar—that the
Taliban would hand over the remaining four
provinces they controlled without a fight in
return for an amnesty and the guarantee
that Mullah Omar could live in Kandahar
with dignity.14 CIA agents on the ground were
preparing to help several Taliban leaders
establish movements or parties to participate
in the political process launched by the Bonn
Agreement. At a Pentagon briefing, however,
Rumsfeld announced that there would be no
negotiated settlement—the U.S. would hunt
down those who had harbored terrorists.15
U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the
CIA to detain the Taliban leaders with whom
they had been working.16
Fraying of the U.S.-Russia
The U.S.-Russia consensus eventually frayed
under the stress of both the development
of U.S. policy in Afghanistan and external
phenomena, including the following:
The rise of bilateral U.S.-Russia tensions
over the invasion of Iraq, Western
encroachment into Russia’s post-
Soviet neighbors through NATO and EU
expansion (Georgia and Ukraine) and
the attempt to oust President Bashar
al-Assad from Syria; and
The new terrorist threat represented by
the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and
the Levant (ISIL), also known as Daesh,
which developed out of Al-Qaeda in
Rumsfeld had initially turned down NATO’s
oer of Article 5 assistance in Afghanistan in
favor of the freedom of operation of unilateral
command, but the need for command
continuity over the multinational force, as
the U.S. became distracted by Iraq, led the
U.S. to reverse policy in 2003.17 To Russia,
NATO’s arrival in Afghanistan appeared as
part of a U.S. strategy to surround it with
14 “Kandahar surrender to begin Friday,”
December 6, 2001, hp://
15 “DoD News Brieng – Secretary Rumsfeld and
Gen. Pace,” U.S. Department of Defense Archive, Decem-
ber 6, 2001, hps://
16 See Steve Coll,
Directorate S: The C.I.A. and
America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan
York: Penguin Press, 2018).
17 “NATO remembers 9/11 terrorist aacks on
the United States,” North Atlanc Treaty Organizaon,
September 11, 2016, hps://
military allies and subvert Russia, and its
partners, via military “regime change” and
“democracy promotion.” NATO expansion
into Afghanistan coincided not only with the
war in Iraq, but also with the November 2003
“Rose Revolution” in Georgia.
By 2005, not only was NATO expanding
in Afghanistan, but the U.S. gave no sign
of respecting the commitment reportedly
made by Bush to Putin that it would leave
troops in Afghanistan and, by extension, use
bases in Central Asia—such as the Manas
Transit Center in Kyrgyzstan—for no more
than a few years. Far from withdrawing, in
May 2005, the U.S. agreed with Afghanistan
on a Strategic Partnership Declaration that
provided for common security measures
and for cooperation in encouraging “the
advancement of freedom and democracy
in the wider region,” which to Russian ears,
sounded like enlisting Afghanistan as a
partner for pro-American regime change.18
In the building of a new Afghan military, the
U.S. had also set on a course of marginalizing
anti-Taliban “resistance” leaders who had
been aided by Russia in favor of a new ocer
corps, and of changing from Russian to
U.S. weapons systems, most prominently,
by replacing the AK-47 with the M-16 rifle.
These changes began the integration of the
Afghan security forces into U.S. military
supply networks, a radical break with the
pattern that had linked the Afghan forces to
the Soviet Union and then Russia since the
Furthermore, in 2005 U.S Secretary of
State Condoleeza Rice started to revive the
concept originally promoted by the Clinton
administration of “Greater Central Asia,” in
which Central Asia would connect to South
Asia through Afghanistan. Russia had serious
concerns about this shift. If the U.S. achieved
full success in Afghanistan, the latter would
serve as a base for a U.S presence that
Washington would use to impede Russian
economic and political influence in Central
Asia. Under the influence of this scenario,
Russian policy towards the U.S campaign
in Afghanistan began to swing between two
extremes. From the security perspective,
Russia did not want America to fail in
18 The White House Oce of the Press Secre-
tary, “Joint Declaraon of the United States-Afghanistan
Strategic Partnership,” U.S. Department of State Archive,
May 23, 2005, hps://
Afghanistan, which would risk the resurgence
of terrorist networks from Afghanistan
through Central Asia to Chechnya. At the
same time, Russia did not embrace the idea
of a fully secured Afghanistan that would
connect Central Asia and South Asia to the
detriment of Russia’s geostrategic stakes in
Central Asia.
In response, in July 2005, the heads of state
of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation
(SCO) meeting in Astana, Kazakhstan called
upon “the relevant participating states of
the antiterrorist coalition to set a deadline
for the temporary use of...infrastructure
and presence of their military contingents in
the territory of the SCO member states.19
The perception of the U.S. and NATO in
Afghanistan as a potential threat to Russia
started to gain traction.
During the following years, Russia’s stance
on the U.S. military and counterterrorism
presence in Afghanistan hardened. While
calling on the U.S. to persevere in the fight
against terrorism, even to the point of
criticizing plans for a NATO transition without
a clear victory at the end of December 2014,
Russia also articulated opposition to what it
perceived as U.S. plans to build permanent
military bases on Afghan soil. Construction of
bases and air fields accompanied the troop
surge that U.S. President Barack Obama
announced on December 1, 2009. Russian
ocials claimed that, even if the troops
were subsequently withdrawn, as Obama
promised, the bases could accommodate
a quick influx of up to 100,000 troops,
providing the U.S. with an unprecedented
platform for intervention in South and
Central Asia.20
Events elsewhere consolidated the negative
changes in U.S.-Russia relations. Russia
saw the February 2014 Euromaidan
Revolution in Ukraine as the result of the
United States’ policy of rolling back Russian
influence through covert action disguised as
“democracy promotion.” The West perceived
19 “Declaraon by the Heads of the Member
States of the Shanghai Cooperaon Organizaon (Astana,
July 5, 2005),” Shanghai Cooperaon Organizaon, July 5,
2005, hp:// 4.
20 Conversaons with Russian ocials during au-
thor’s tenure as senior advisor to the U.S. Special Repre-
sentave for Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Russia’s subsequent actions—the annexation
of Crimea to Russia and support to armed
separatist forces in predominantly Russian-
speaking eastern Ukraine—as aggressive and
The Syrian crisis had a similar eect. Russia
and Iran believed that the U.S. was, at best,
turning a blind eye to Saudi Arabian and
Qatari support for Salafi-jihadism (the
Nusra Front and ISIL) in the fight against
the Russian and Iranian-supported Assad
regime. U.S. insistence on Assad’s departure
as a precondition for political negotiations
recalled its stance over former Afghan
President Najibullah Ahmadzai in 1992
and seemed to indicate a continued U.S.
commitment to “regime change.” The threat
posed by the Syrian armed opposition to the
regime became serious enough to provoke
Russia to deploy troops to provide air
support and other assets to Damascus. The
rise of ISIL, which marginalized the original
democratic opposition to Assad, paralyzed
U.S. planning. Russia, however, thought it
detected actions on another front. Starting
in October 2015, Russian intelligence began
to observe what it claimed were unmarked
helicopters supplying a growing cadre
of fighters aliated to ISIL-K in northern
Rise of the Islamic State
of Iraq and the Levant—
Khorasan Province
The rise of the Islamic State (IS) added
a new dimension to the terrorist threat
in Afghanistan. Dissidents from both the
Pakistani and Afghan Taliban won recognition
from ISIL headquarters in January 2015 after
ISIL and ISIL-K exchanged visits. Benefiting
from a flow of funds from Raqqa, where ISIL
still had access to tax revenues and oil rents,
the group managed to gain control of several
21 “Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ
Министра иностранных дел России С.В. Лаврова
в ходе совместной пресс-конференции по итогам
переговоров с Министром иностранных дел
Республики Замбии Г. Калабой, Москва, 31 мая 2017
года, Министерство иностранных дел Российской
Федерации,” May 31, 2017, hp://
remote districts in Nangarhar province along
the Pakistan border. The group was mainly
comprised of former Pakistani Taliban,
with some former Afghan Taliban joined by
some foreign militants, mainly from Central
Asia. Initially, these foreign fighters mostly
consisted of members or aliates of the
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), as
well as some Uighurs from the East Turkestan
Islamic Movement (ETIM), who had been
expelled from Waziristan during the Pakistani
military’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb in the
summer of 2014.
Nangarhar was of particular importance to
the U.S. and Afghan government, because
their main ground lines of communication
ran from Karachi to Peshawar, through
Khyber Agency, to Nangarhar and then
onward to Kabul via Jalalabad. ISIL-K also
established an underground terrorist network
in Kabul, which carried out mass casualty
attacks on civilians, mainly Shia, in Kabul.
It is speculated that ISIL was attempting to
replicate the strategy used by its founder in
Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, of trying to set
o sectarian conflict to weaken the U.S.-
supported government.
Russia was concerned about the situation in
northern Afghanistan, where a small group
of former Taliban, former pro-government
militia fighters and Central Asians had
established a pocket of IS control in the
Darzab district of Jowzjan province, less
than 100 kilometers from the largely
undemarcated border with Turkmenistan—
the only Afghanistan-Central Asia border that
is not marked by a river. Russians (as well
as Iranians) claimed that former IS fighters
from Syria and Iraq were settling in north
Afghanistan, many with their families, and
establishing ties with local insurgents.22
For years, reports had circulated, and been
given credence by Karzai, that unmarked
helicopters were transporting Taliban fighters
from southern Afghanistan into the north
for unclear tactical purposes. The United
States’ supposed use of the Taliban to
destabilize parts of Afghanistan was cited
by some analysts (Americans would call
them “conspiracy theorists”) as evidence
22 Author ’s personal interviews with Russian
that the U.S. wanted to keep Afghanistan
unstable to justify an indefinite military
presence. Shortly after Russia sent troops
to Syria to shore up the Assad regime in
October 2015, Moscow claims to have
received reports that unmarked helicopters
were delivering supplies to IS fighters in
northern Afghanistan. After raising such
concerns privately in May 2017, Russia stated
publicly in the UN Security Council that
“unidentified” aircraft in Afghanistan were
providing “support to local ISIS [Islamic State
of Iraq and Syria] militants” in Afghanistan.23
Perhaps, Russia suspected, the U.S. had
responded to Russian actions in Syria by
reminding “Russia about its vulnerability
on the ‘southern flank’ and [diverting] its
attention from other security issues or
regions, where it is more active and has
higher leverage (such as Syria or Donbass).24
The Taliban denounced attempts by
outsiders to bring Afghanistan under
the authority of ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-
Baghdadi, rather than of the Taliban’s Islamic
Emirate, and began attacks against ISIL’s
pockets of territory in Nangarhar and a few
other places in the east. Meanwhile, the
Taliban’s approach to the U.S., first through
Saudi Arabia and then through Germany and
Qatar, had also developed into a diplomatic
oensive; the Taliban tried to convince the
U.S., Russia, China, Iran and others that
they had no political or military ambitions
beyond Afghanistan and could be relied
upon not to allow Afghanistan to be used
as a base for international terrorism. Their
reluctance to break publicly with their long-
time supporters in Al-Qaeda undermined this
message, but ISIL gave them a new talking
point to reinforce it: the Taliban could assist
in the international eort against ISIL in
23 “Выступление и ответы на вопросы СМИ
Министра иностранных дел России С.В. Лаврова
в ходе совместной пресс-конференции по итогам
переговоров с Министром иностранных дел
Республики Замбии Г. Калабой, Москва, 31 мая 2017
24 Ekaterina Stepanova,
Russia’s Afghan Policy
in the Regional and Russia-West Contexts
, Russie.Nei.Re-
ports, no. 23 (Paris: Instut français des relaons interna-
onales, May 2018), hps://
pdf: 26.
Changing Attitude Toward
Taliban and Political
In the U.S., the Obama administration
witnessed the clarification of lines of
argument about what U.S. security required
in Afghanistan. The military—under the
influence of United States Central Command
(CENTCOM) commander General David
Petraeus, and informed by the supposed
lessons of the War in Iraq—argued that
only the combination of a “fully resourced
counter-insurgency” and a long-term
counterterrorism presence would suce.25
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden argued
the contrary: that the social engineering
required by counterinsurgency (COIN) was a
dangerous overreach beyond the capability
and needs of the U.S., and that a purely
counterterrorism approach would meet the
country’s vital security needs.26
Supporting these two positions were
opposing analyses of the Taliban. The military
and intelligence community claimed that the
Taliban leadership was inseparable from Al-
Qaeda and that any political accommodation
with them would lead to the reestablishment
of Al-Qaeda safe havens. Biden and a few
others, including Obama, believed that the
Taliban were indigenous to Afghanistan
and therefore, resistant to elimination;
the U.S. would eventually have to live with
an Afghanistan that included the Taliban.
Biden thought that kinetic counterterrorism
operations could deal with terrorist threats.
The option of a political settlement was
not even considered during the Obama
administration policy review in the fall of
2009. In early 2010, however, a White House
working group authorized exploratory eorts,
which led to the first meeting between the
U.S. and an ocial Taliban representative
25 Interview with General David Petraeus in
Michael Gerson, “In Afghanistan, No Choice but to Try,
The Washington Post
, September 4, 2009, hps://www.
stan_no_choice_but_to_try.html. See Special Inspector
General for Afghanistan Reconstrucon (SIGAR),
zaon: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan
(Arlington: SIGAR, May 2018), hps://
lessonslearned/SIGAR-18-48-LL.pdf: 24.
Stabilizaon: Lessons from the U.S. Experience
in Afghanistan
: 26, 31.
in Munich on November 29, 2010.27 Eorts
continued throughout 2011 but continually
encountered opposition from the military,
which claimed, for instance, that releasing
Taliban detainees from Guantanamo as a
confidence-building measure (one of the
Taliban’s core demands) would endanger the
The core framework under U.S. and Taliban
exploration was opening a Taliban oce in
Qatar. To do so, the Taliban would have to
oer a statement distancing themselves
from international terrorism, a first step
toward the ultimate requirement of
renouncing their alliance with Al-Qaeda.
They would also have to commit themselves,
in principle, to a political settlement with
other Afghans. The process never advanced
far enough to force confrontation of the
ultimate security question for a political
settlement in Afghanistan: was the United
States willing to withdraw not only combat
forces but also counterterrorism forces
from Afghanistan as a condition for a peace
agreement? The military and intelligence
establishments took the position that
maintaining a counterterrorism presence was
a red line, but as no negotiations took place
on troop withdrawal, the issue was never
fully engaged. When Karzai raised obstacles
to the process at the end of 2011, the
administration made its priority negotiating a
security agreement with Kabul that provided
for a long-term troop presence, rather than a
political settlement.
The last few years of the Obama
administration saw little advancement
toward a political settlement. The May 2014
agreement to free five Taliban leaders from
Guantanamo in return for the release of
Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl had no link to any
ongoing peace process. The administration
did make political assessments aimed at
lowering the level of U.S. involvement in
combat, in particular by deciding that the
Taliban were no longer to be considered an
enemy of the U.S. The U.S. would no longer
27 Steven Lee Myers, Mahew Rosenberg and
Eric Schmi, “Against Odds, Path Opens Up for U.S.-Tali-
ban Talks,”
The New York Times
, January 11, 2012, hps://
28 See Massimo Calabresi, “White House
Overrode Internal Objecons to Taliban Prisoner Re-
, June 3, 2014, hps://
target the Taliban in Afghanistan except in
specific circumstances—in self-defense,
when they were co-located with Al-Qaeda or
other global terrorists, or when they posed a
strategic threat to the existence of the Afghan
government. But it did negotiate a bilateral
security agreement, which Afghanistan’s
President Ashraf Ghani ordered signed upon
his inauguration in September 2014.
The Bilateral Security
Karzai’s term came to an end in 2014. After
a contentious presidential election marred
by extensive fraud, U.S. Secretary of State
John Kerry mediated the formation of a
National Unity Government led by Ghani who,
until recently, was a long-term U.S. resident
and citizen and World Bank ocial. The
result had geopolitical implications: Karzai’s
relations with the U.S. had deteriorated
since 2009, when he observed U.S. Special
Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan
(SRAP) Richard Holbrooke using the
presidential elections to pressure him and
try to remove him from oce. After a failed
eort to start a peace process with the
Taliban ended in 2013, U.S. policy focused on
negotiating a bilateral security agreement
(BSA) with the Afghan government. The BSA
would provide the legal framework required
to keep U.S. troops and personnel, including
counterterrorism forces, stationed in
Afghanistan after the conclusion of the NATO
mission at the end of 2014. The U.S security
establishment regarded this agreement as
the most essential ingredient of long-term
success in Afghanistan, as it provided the
conditions for a long-term counterterrorism
presence, identified by most U.S. security
actors as the core U.S. goal in Afghanistan.
Despite the recommendation of a
consultative Loya Jirga, Karzai refused
to sign the agreement, staking out a
position for himself as a leader that did not
want Afghanistan to become unilaterally
dependent on the U.S. Ghani, however,
immediately ordered his National Security
Advisor Muhammad Hanif Atmar to sign the
agreement. Ghani repeatedly emphasized
that an alliance with the U.S. was the
cornerstone of Afghanistan’s foreign policy.
During an ocial visit to Washington and
New York in March 2015, he addressed a
joint session of the United States Congress
and thanked the U.S. for its generosity and
support at every turn. Ghani had also tangled
with Russia over the issue of Afghanistan’s
Russian debt when he was finance minister
from 2002 to 2004. While Russia was willing
to forgive an unprecedented 100 percent of
the debt, Ghani opposed public recognition
of the debt’s legitimacy, as much of it was
incurred in payment for the “assistance”
provided by the Soviet Union during the
1980s.29 Russia regarded Ghani as a pro-
American figure. Americans saw him as the
proponent of strong bilateral ties that would
assure American interests. Russia began
to reorient its regional policy to coordinate
with China, Iran and Pakistan well before
2014-2015 (among other things, they all
shared similar concerns about the potential
for a long-term U.S. military presence in
Trump, Russia and
Into this situation arrived Donald Trump,
who in the 2016 U.S. presidential election
defeated Hillary Clinton, a strong supporter
of NATO expansion and intervention against
Russian partners from Serbia and Iraq
to Ukraine, Syria and Libya. Trump had a
Twitter history of contempt for U.S. military
ventures to remake Muslim countries and
won the Republican nomination campaigning
against the wars supported by his traditional
Republican opponents.
His appointment of General H. R. McMaster
as national security advisor and General
James Mattis as secretary of defense initially
prevented him from asserting control over
Afghanistan policy. During the 2017 Afghanistan
policy review, Trump favored a proposal by Eric
Prince, founder of the private security company
formerly known as Blackwater, to turn support
of the Afghan forces over to private contractors
and virtually abandon any political objectives
except seizing control of Afghanistan’s
natural resources. In a temporary victory for
establishment national security conservatives in
the administration, rejection of the Prince plan
coincided with the dismissal of white nationalist
far-right chief strategist Steve Bannon.
29 “Russia To Forgive Afghanistan’s Soviet-Era
Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty
, January 30, 2006,
The strategy that Trump announced in a
speech on August 21, 2017, was a victory—
albeit a temporary one—for advocates
of a long-term U.S. military presence in
Afghanistan. The president said that the U.S.
decision on withdrawal would be based on
“conditions” rather than a “timetable.” The
U.S., he insisted, was not nation-building
but “killing terrorists”; however, his generals
made clear that buying time to strengthen
the Afghan security forces was the core of
the eort.30
In speeches, interviews and Congressional
testimony, military leaders elaborated on
the underlying analysis: the combination
of slightly more troops, relaxed rules of
engagement allowing for attacks on more
Taliban targets and higher risks of civilian
casualties, an augmented train and equip
mission and pressure on Pakistan would
weaken the Taliban to the point that the
government would control 80 percent of the
population, at least a 20 percent increase
over estimates at the time.31
Russian Response to
Trump’s Afghanistan
From the Russian point of view, this was
more of the same. What did conditions-
based mean if not that the U.S. would stay
until it achieved its objectives? During the
year after President Trump’s August 2017
speech, the U.S. military also escalated
charges that Iran and Russia were supplying
the Taliban with various forms of support.
There is some evidence of Iranian support
for commanders in southwest Afghanistan
and along their borders, especially to limit
or eliminate U.S. military and intelligence
30 “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy
in Afghanistan and South Asia,” The White House, August
21, 2017, hps://ngs-state-
Quarterly Report to the United States
(Arlington: SIGAR, January 30, 2018), hps://
59. See also SIGAR,
Quarterly Report to the United States
(Arlington: SIGAR, January 30, 2019), hps://
assets stationed close to Iran.32 In response
to a March 2018 interview in which General
John W. Nicholson—then commander of U.S.
forces in Afghanistan—alleged that Russia
was providing material support to the Taliban,
Russian ocials and Taliban representatives
dismissed such claims, citing a lack of
One way Russia reacted to the U.S.
retrenchment as of the mid-2010s was by
re-evaluating its relations with the Taliban,
who shared Russia’s (and Iran’s) opposition
to both the U.S. military presence and the
Islamic State, as well as with Pakistan, the
Taliban’s main sponsor. In order to keep a
wary eye on the region, Russia had placed
the Afghan issue on the agenda of an SCO
meeting in Moscow in March 2009 where
all of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries,
except Turkmenistan, had a presence as
members or observers. Since 2009, Russia
has started talks on Afghanistan with all
regional countries, even with Pakistan, in a
reversal of the two countries’ history of cold
bilateral relations. Russia gradually regained
its expertise on Afghanistan by talking with
dierent stakeholders in the region and
reactivated its diplomatic contacts.
In October 2015, Russian Presidential
Special Envoy Zamir Kabulov obtained
authorization to open political contacts
with representatives of the Afghan Taliban
who, he claimed, had changed from when
he had tried to negotiate the release of
32 “Hearing to Receive Tesmony on the Situ-
aon in Afghanistan” [Transcript], United States Sen-
ate Commiee on Armed Services, February 9, 2017,
doc/17-08_02-09-17.pdf: 42; “Afghan Army Chief: Iran
supplies Taliban with military equipment,”
BBC News
September 6, 2017, hps://
ghanistan-41174669; and Sulaiman, “Iran supplies arms,
cash to Taliban, says splinter group,”
Salaam Times
, Octo-
ber 16, 2017, hps://
33 General Nicholson made a previous asseron
in 2016 that Russia was legimizing the Taliban. Since
then, views from both U.S. and Afghan ocials as to levels
of Russian support for the Taliban have varied, with some
in agreement and others calling for further evidence. Da-
wood Azami, “Is Russia arming the Afghan Taliban?,
, April 2, 2018, hps://
asia-41842285; and “Department of Defense Press Brief-
ing by General Nicholson in the Pentagon Brieng Room,”
U.S. Department of Defense Archive, December 2, 2016,
Russian commercial pilots in 1999. Iran and
the Taliban carried on a parallel dialogue,
with some Taliban leaders turning to Iran
when they experienced too much pressure
from Pakistan. As a result, Taliban attacks
on Iranian targets ceased, and both Russia
and Iran became proponents of a political
settlement with the Taliban that would
weaken the pro-American orientation of the
Afghan government and lead to complete
U.S. military withdrawal.
In 2016, for the first time since the Soviet
withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia
launched a major initiative on Afghanistan,
which eventually became known as the
“Moscow process.34 Defining the goal
as a political settlement leading to the
withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan
and the region, Kabulov set about building a
consensus among the region, starting with
the newly convergent policies of Russia,
China, Iran and Pakistan.35
According to Kabulov, peace would come
from the region, not from the U.S. The region
would make peace with the U.S. if it could,
but without the U.S., if it must.36 When
Russia finally invited the United States to
participate in the Moscow process, in April
2017, it declined the invitation. Ghani tried to
transform the Moscow process into a “Kabul
process” at a meeting in Kabul in June 2017.
The Moscow process, however, continued
to advance, as both the Taliban and most of
Afghanistan’s political opposition agreed to
Trump and the Afghan
Peace Process
The U.S. had long ocially supported an
“Afghan-led and Afghan-owned” peace process.
In practice, that meant that the U.S. would
not do anything to promote such a process.
In his August 2017 speech announcing his
Afghanistan policy, Trump paid lip service to the
possibility of a political settlement:
34 For an overview of the Moscow process, see
Russia’s Afghan Policy in the Regional and
Russia-West Contexts
: 13-7.
35 Ayaz Gul, “Russia to Host Wider Regional
Conference on Afghanistan,”
Voice of America
, February
7, 2017, hps://c/
36 Author’s personal interview with Kabulov in
Someday, after an eective military
eort, perhaps it will be possible to
have a political settlement that includes
elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan,
but nobody knows if or when that will
ever happen.37
America, he said, “will continue its support
for the Afghan government and the Afghan
military as they confront the Taliban in the
field” as long as “conditions” so dictated.38
It turned out that the “conditions” on
which Trump based the U.S. commitment
to Afghanistan were those in his own
perceptions. In August 2018, the National
Intelligence Council issued a new estimate
about Afghanistan. Like all previous National
Intelligence Estimates (NIEs) on Afghanistan,
it strongly implied that the U.S. eort was not
succeeding. While Trump ignored or opposed
the findings of his intelligence agencies when
they did not suit his interests, in this case,
the findings were consistent with his long-
established skepticism about the war. In his
August 2017 speech, Trump said “My original
instinct was to pull out—and, historically, I
like following my instincts.39 He had studied
the problem under the tutelage of his
generals, but their recommendations had not
produced results. He had fired McMaster as
national security advisor in March 2018, and
Mattis resigned in December.
Trump apparently wanted to go back to his
instincts. His remaining advisors agreed to
pursue a strategy of withdrawal through a
political settlement with the Taliban. The
administration never stated there was
a deadline, but Zalmay Khalilzad—the
Afghan-American former ambassador to
Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations,
whom Trump appointed as Special
Representative for Afghan Reconciliation
(SRAR)—let his team know that they had
only a few months before the White House
would lose patience and simply start an
American withdrawal. It was commonly said
that Khalilzad worked with the “Tweet of
Damocles” hanging over his head.
37 “Remarks by President Trump on the Strategy
in Afghanistan and South Asia.
38 Ibid.
39 Ibid.
Negotiations in Doha
Khalilzad set about negotiating directly
with the Taliban without the presence of
the Afghan government, as the former
had long demanded. The context for this
decision was not only the evident failure of
the generals’ COIN strategy, but also a shift
in strategic priorities. The National Security
Strategy (NSS) issued in December 2017
as McMaster’s last initiative undermined
the Afghanistan strategy of which the
National Security Agency (NSA) had been
the principal sponsor.40 The NSS said that
henceforward, the primary threat to the U.S.
was great power competition, specifically
with China and Russia, and, in a throwback
to the Bush administration, the secondary
threat was the old “Axis of Evil” without
Iraq—the “rogue states” of Iran and North
Korea. Terrorism was relegated to a tertiary
status. The strategy did, however, allow for
cooperation with China and Russia where the
U.S. had common interests with them.41
In line with its elevation of the importance of
great power competition, the U.S. had at first
tried to block the Moscow process. In August
2018, before the process led by Khalilzad
had truly gotten o the ground, Moscow
had convinced the Taliban to send an ocial
delegation to Moscow for the next meeting,
to which Russia also invited the Afghan
government. U.S. pressure to marginalize
Russia, however, led Ghani not to attend
ocially but instead to send members of the
High Peace Council.
As Khalilzad took over negotiations with
the Taliban, he also set the stage for the
alignment of Russian and U.S. policies
in support of a political settlement. In
September 2018, Khalilzad told the Russian
ambassador in Washington that the U.S.
would be open to participating in the Moscow
process. Kabulov regarded Khalilzad as
40 See
Naonal Security Strategy of the Unit-
ed States of America: December 2017
, The White
House, hps://
41 Ibid: 25.
one of the architects of the United States’
permanent presence in Afghanistan and
agreed to meet him in Moscow later in
September with the greatest skepticism,
but the two found common ground. Russia
and the United States agreed for the first
time that the goal of a peace process was to
produce an agreement that would stabilize
Afghanistan and lead to the departure of
U.S. military forces.42 The same ambiguity,
as always, remained around the question
of a residual counterterrorist force, but
this was now presented as a subject for
discussion rather than a red line. Khalilzad
authorized working-level U.S. participation
in the November 2018 session of the
Moscow process, which included Taliban
As Khalilzad’s negotiations with the Taliban
progressed, he also increasingly coordinated
with Kabulov. In February 2019, the U.S. and
Russia coordinated their response when an
association of Afghan expatriates in Russia
invited Taliban, along with representatives
of Afghanistan’s “constitutional coalition,
for discussions on a settlement. Rather
than back up the Ghani government’s
opposition to the meeting, the U.S. remained
silent. Russia did not force a U.S. response
by sending ocial representatives to the
meeting; Russian Foreign Minister Sergey
Lavrov declined an invitation to speak, and
it remained a purely Afghan meeting. The
Afghans who participated, as well as their
Russian hosts, spoke favorably of turning
the Moscow format into the framework for
the intra-Afghan talks or negotiations that
would result if the U.S.-Taliban talks in Doha
reached agreement on a timetable for troop
withdrawal and counterterrorist guarantees
by the Taliban.
42 “Special Representave for Afghanistan Rec-
onciliaon Ambassador Khalilzad meets with MFA coun-
terparts in Moscow,” U.S. Embassy and Consulates in
Russia, December 7, 2018, hps://
43 “Department Press Brieng - Novem-
ber 7, 2018, U.S. Department of State, Novem-
ber 7, 2018, hps://ngs/
Global Consensus
Khalilzad followed up on the February
meeting by trying to consolidate a global
consensus in support of the process. On
March 21, 2019, he invited to Washington
Russian, Chinese and the EU special envoys
to Afghanistan, despite the fact that Russia
objected to including the EU at this stage.
The meeting led to a joint U.S.-Russia-China
statement in support of the peace process
and a separate U.S.-EU declaration. Russia
agreed to try to use its convening capacity to
supplement the Doha process with intra-
Afghan dialogue. Lavrov visited Doha to oer
Russian support of the process.
The consensus on how a political settlement
would meet the common security needs of
both Russia and the U.S. was further laid
out in a joint statement issued by Russia,
China and the U.S. after a consultation
among their Afghanistan envoys in Moscow
in April 2019.44 The eight points presented
the new counterterrorism context of the
agreement and provided a political road map
more consistent with the Moscow format
than the Kabul process. In particular, it
distinguished an “Afghan-led, Afghan-owned
peace process” from one led by the Afghan
government, the role of which was more
circumscribed than in Ghani’s proposals.
The U.S. agreed to an unprecedented joint
statement with its two great-power rivals
on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from
Afghanistan. While the language did not call
for the withdrawal of “all” troops, it did not
explicitly exempt counterterrorism forces
from the withdrawal. Of particular relevance
are the following excerpts from the text45:
On the peace process:
The three sides encourage the Afghan
Taliban to participate in peace talks
with a broad, representative Afghan
delegation that
includes the government
[emphasis added] as soon as possible.
44 Joint Statement on Trilateral Meeng on Af-
ghan Peace Process,” U.S. Embassy in Afghanistan, April
27, 2019, hps://
45 Ibid.
On counter-terrorism:
The three sides support the Afghan
government eorts to combat
international terrorism and extremist
organizations in Afghanistan. They take
note of the Afghan Taliban’s commitment
to: fight ISIS and cut ties with Al-
Qaeda, ETIM, and other international
terrorist groups; ensure the areas they
control will not be used to threaten
any other country; and call on them to
prevent terrorist recruiting, training,
and fundraising, and expel any known
On troop withdrawal:
The three sides call for an orderly and
responsible withdrawal of foreign troops
from Afghanistan as part of the overall
peace process.
The next stage was an attempt to bring
regional players into the U.S.-Russia-China
process. To this end, when the three powers
met again in Beijing on July 11, 2019, they
invited Pakistan and Iran to join. Iran declined
to attend, citing both U.S.-Iran tensions
and its reluctance to join a process in which
the great powers arrogated authority to
themselves. Pakistan joined, however, and
the four powers issued a joint statement
calling on the “relevant parties to grasp the
opportunity for peace and immediately
start intra-Afghan negotiations between
the Taliban, Afghan government, and other soon as possible,” a phrase that
seemed to encourage the Afghans to reach
agreement before holding the presidential
elections scheduled for September 28.46
The negotiations seemed to be on track to
do just that. The U.S. and Taliban negotiators
initiated an agreed draft the first week
of September and prepared for a signing
ceremony the following week. The signing in
Doha would have occurred simultaneously
with a joint U.S.-Afghanistan statement
in Kabul rearming the U.S. recognition
of the government and a statement from
46 “Four-Party Joint Statement on Af-
ghan Peace Process, U.S. Department of
State, July 12, 2019, hps://
Norway inviting the Afghan parties to Oslo
for negotiations. The Taliban had agreed to
negotiate with the U.S. government once
the U.S. had committed itself to a troop
withdrawal, even while the troops were still in
Afghanistan. They had armed that all four
elements of the process—troop withdrawal,
counterterrorism guarantees, intra-
Afghan negotiations and a ceasefire—were
interdependent. On a U.S. counterterrorism
presence, the Taliban said that they could not
agree to it, but that the decision would be up
to a future Afghan government formed as an
outcome of the peace process.
Trump upended the process on September
7, 2019, when he tweeted that “Unbeknownst
to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders
and, separately, the President of Afghanistan,
were going to secretly meet with me at
Camp David” the next day. Trump, however,
“cancelled the meeting and called o peace
negotiations,” supposedly in response to
a Taliban attack in Kabul that killed twelve
people, including an American soldier. Trump
gave no indication of what future U.S. policy
toward Afghanistan would be other than an
intensified military eort. National Security
Advisor John Bolton, who had opposed the
agreement, resigned, primarily over Iran
policy, and Khalilzad stayed on. The Afghan
government proceeded with the presidential
elections, which Ghani was confident he
would win on the first round.
While Trump’s abrupt announcement on
October 6, 2019 of the departure of U.S.
troops from Syria upset his domestic
support and relations with allies, it reinforced
Russian confidence that his Afghanistan
policy would be aligned with Russian
interests. China announced that it would
support the eort to reconvene the talks by
convening an intra-Afghan dialogue in Beijing.
Originally scheduled for October 28-29,
China postponed the meeting in response to
objections from the Afghan government.47
U.S. and Russian policy on a political
settlement in Afghanistan remained aligned.
Towards a Peace Deal
Meanwhile, the fate of U.S.-Taliban
negotiations was undecided. Some in the U.S.
government advocated for, as had Bolton,
proceeding with a troop withdrawal in accord
with the president’s intention, but without
an agreement with the Taliban that would
elevate their stature. This also seemed to be
the preference of the Afghan government.
By mid-October, however, Washington was
looking for a way to resume the process.
Khalilzad had consulted with Kabulov in
New York during the UN General Assembly
in September. Rather than return to a
separate Moscow process, Kabulov opted
for supporting the revival of the existing
process. The two met with Chinese and
Pakistani representatives during a second
round of four-party consultations, which took
place in Moscow on October 25, 2019, and
called for all parties to return to the table
and reduce violence.48 Khalilzad traveled to
Kabul and Islamabad, seeking to orchestrate
the release of American hostages held by
the Taliban and Taliban detainees, including
a member of the Haqqani family, in Afghan
government custody.49 The announcement of
47 Kathy Gannon, “US meets China, Rus-
sia and Pakistan to talk Afghan peace,”
ated Press
, October 26, 2019, hps://
48 “U.S., Russia, China and Pakistan Joint State-
ment on Peace in Afghanistan,” U.S. Department of State,
October 28, 2019, hps://
49 Susannah George and Sharif Hassan, “U.S.
envoy in Afghanistan seeking prisoner exchange to free
two hostages held by Taliban, Afghan ocials say,”
Washington Post
, November 1, 2019, hps://www.wash-
the exchange on November 19 seems to have
provided Trump with an occasion to resume
the process as Europeans, Russians, Chinese
and Pakistanis had urged him to do. Khalilzad
traveled to Kabul and then to Doha for the
tenth round of talks with the Taliban.
Progress towards a lasting peace deal
regained momentum when U.S. and Taliban
negotiators on February 14, 2020 agreed to
a seven-day reduction of violence, a truce
which largely held and paved the way for an
ocial agreement. On February 29, Taliban
representatives and senior U.S. ocials—led
by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Khalilzad
respectively—gathered in Doha to sign
the historic deal, which was witnessed by
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. With
the aim of ending the 18-year conflict, the
agreement formalized U.S. commitments
to withdraw its troops within 14 months,
facilitate an exchange of prisoners between
the Taliban and Afghan government and
remove U.S. sanctions on Taliban members.
In turn, the Taliban committed to preventing
the use of Afghan soil as a terrorist safe
haven, in addition to starting intra-Afghan
Coinciding with these developments was the
resolution of the Afghan presidential election.
Nearly five months after voting took place,
on February 18 Ghani was finally declared the
winner over Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah
Abdullah, who contested the outcome and
took steps to establish a parallel government.
The resulting divisions and tensions delayed
the start of negotiations between the Afghan
government and Taliban leaders, initially
scheduled for March 10. On May 17, Ghani and
Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghani-
stan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which
is not recognized by the United States as a state and is
known as the Taliban and the United States of America
February 29, 2020, hps://
Abdullah signed a power-sharing agreement,
thereby ending the political stalemate.
The process of U.S.-Russia bilateral policy
coordination and even cooperation on
Afghanistan is much more developed than
at any time since 2001. As evidenced by
their joint statement on the signing of the
U.S.-Taliban agreement, Russia and the
U.S. seem fully aligned behind the peace
deal. Russia is less likely than the U.S. to
emphasize the importance of maintaining the
political and social gains of Afghanistan as
part of a peace process, but both countries
agree that any reversion to the system of the
Taliban’s Islamic Emirate would cross a red
line. Additionally, both have underscored the
necessity of an inclusive negotiated peace
settlement among Afghans, emphasizing
a ceasefire as an essential precondition
to intra-Afghan dialogue.51 If and when
intra-Afghan negotiations begin, it will be
important to repeat that message, while
coordinating international support for
realistic compromises on future governance
arrangements. Coordination among all global
and regional stakeholders will be important
to assuring that the intra-Afghan negotiations
reach a sustainable solution.
51 “Joint Statement on the Signing of the U.S.-
Taliban Agreement,” U.S. Department of State Oce of
the Spokesperson, March 6, 2020, hps://www.state.
Since the early 21st century, Afghanistan
has been one of the world’s top three
terrorism-aected states. Over that
period, South Asia remained second only to
the Middle East in terms of the scale and level
of terrorist activity. In 2016-2018, South Asia
became the world’s worst terrorism-aected
region, with over 90 percent of terrorist
attacks in the region having taken place in
Afghanistan and Pakistan.52
While Afghanistan is seen as a major source
of terrorist threats, the country has also been
a major victim of terrorism. In fact, in the
early 21st century through 2019, terrorism
has aected the country more heavily than
any other nation, with the exception of Iraq.
Since 2010, Afghanistan experienced a 2.7-
fold increase in terrorist attacks and, since
2000, a 103-fold increase (see Fig. 1).53 In
2001-2017, it endured an estimated 32,000
fatalities from terrorism, with a 70-percent
52 Global Terrorism Database (GTD), Naonal
Consorum for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to
Terrorism (START), University of Maryland, Version 2019,
53 Ibid.
increase in deaths in 2012-2017 alone.54 In
2017, Afghanistan for the first time in this
century surpassed Iraq in terms of terrorism
fatalities, accounting for 4,653 deaths,
or a quarter of all deaths from terrorism
worldwide and, in 2018, its terrorism death
toll increased further to 7,379.55 Terrorism
has also exacted a heavy economic toll on
the country. In 2017, for instance, Afghanistan
overtook Iraq as the most aected country
in terms of economic impact of terrorism, at
12.8 percent of the gross domestic product
The situation in Afghanistan, however, is even
more alarming. High rates of terrorism pale
compared to the dominant form of violence:
protracted armed conflict that involves large
numbers of combat deaths. Battle-related
Global Terrorism Index 2018 (GTI-2018): Mea-
suring the Impact of Terrorism
(Sydney: Instute for Eco-
nomics and Peace, 2018), hp://visiono
pdf: 13, 18, 20.
55 Ibid: 4; Fig. 1 on 25, Fig. 2 on 34;
Global Terror-
ism Index 2019 (GTI-2019): Measuring the Impact of Ter-
(Sydney: Instute for Economics and Peace, 2019),
2019web.pdf: 2.
: 29.
Terrorism in
Chapter II
Militant Terrorist Groups in,
and Connected to, Afghanistan
Ekaterina Stepanova and Javid Ahmad
deaths, including civilian casualties, prevail
in Afghanistan, significantly outmatching
fatalities from terrorism. According to
the United Nations Assistance Mission in
Afghanistan (UNAMA), up to 90 percent
of total civilian deaths have resulted from
battle-related violence, while only 10 percent
have been caused by deliberate terrorist
attacks against civilians by anti-government
elements.57 At the same time, as in many of
the world’s other conflict-ridden hotspots—
such as Iraq, Nigeria, Libya, Somalia or
Syria—the overall dynamics of armed conflict
and battle-related deaths in Afghanistan
have been consistent and developed in
tandem with the intensity of terrorism.
This underscores the heavy dependence
of terrorist activity perpetrated by violent
actors on the escalation of the Afghan
conflict and highlights the role of terrorism
as an important tactic in a broader armed
conflict. It also suggests that any attempts
57 UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan
(UNAMA) and UN Oce for High Commissioner on Hu-
man Rights (UN OHCHR),
Afghanistan: Protecon of Ci-
vilians in Armed Conict. Annual Report 2017
UNAMA and UN OHCHR, 2018) [hereaer
nual Report 2017
], hps://
al_report_2017_nal_6_march.pdf: 33-34.
to address terrorism in Afghanistan are likely
to remain elusive without resolving the more
fundamental issue of an armed conflict.
Although there are several militant terrorist
groups currently active in Afghanistan, there
are two main actors that stand out:
a. The Taliban – This armed group remains
the country’s largest and longest
insurgent movement, which has been
fighting since 2001 against the foreign
military presence in Afghanistan, as well
as for the reinstatement of Islamic rule
in line with the group’s fundamentalist
version of Hanafi Islam.
b. The Islamic State of Iraq and the
Levant—Khorasan Province – This
group emerged in Afghanistan at the
end of 2014 and is the Afghan aliate of
the so-called Islamic State, also known
as Daesh. ISIL formally recognized
ISIL-K in 2015. The group promotes
Salafi-jihadism, encouraging ideological
extremism and radical governance, and
pursues a broader expansionist agenda
in the region through its sprawling
campaign of violence.
Figure 1.
Terrorist attacks
in Afghanistan,
Source: Global
Database 2019.
This chapter will examine these armed
groups on the following two criteria, in line
with the overall focus of the report:
The role of terrorism and, more broadly,
all violence against civilians/non-
combatants in these groups’ activity
vis-à-vis their combat operations (i.e.,
whether and how much they prioritize
terrorist activity over attacks against
military and security targets);
The degree of terrorist and violent
extremist threat they pose beyond
Afghanistan—both for, and as
perceived by, regional powers, including
Afghanistan’s neighbors, and in the
broader international context, for Russia
and the United States.
In line with this logic, the chapter starts with
ISIL-K as a group with transnational focus
linked to ISIL, its parent organization. ISIL-K
is inspired by a severe, uncompromising
ideology with global ambitions and has
prioritized targeted and indiscriminate
attacks against civilians over direct combat
operations (section 1). Since the mid-2010s,
ISIL-K, with its goals extending beyond
Afghanistan to other states in the region, has
also become a matter of major concern for
regional and international powers as a source
of transnational terrorist threats. The chapter
then examines a conglomerate of armed non-
state actors in one of Afghanistan’s regions—
the country’s “greater north” that borders
the Central Asian states (section 2). The
plethora of small, militant terrorist groups
that operate in northern parts of Afghanistan
cannot compete with either the Taliban or
ISIL-K in scale, size, strength or significance.
However, due to the sizeable presence of
militants of Central Asian origin in the Taliban
and ISIL-K ranks, coupled with their shifting
and opportunistic alliances (often struck
with or against the Taliban), as well as their
alarming links and/or pledges of allegiance
to ISIL-K or directly to the ISIL core, these
northern groups pose a major concern in
the cross-border Eurasian context. This is
especially true for the Central Asian states,
including Russia’s Collective Security Treaty
Organization (CSTO) allies.
An analysis of the scale and nature of the
ISIL-K threat in and around Afghanistan, and
concerns about violent extremism in the
Afghanistan-Central Asia context, is followed
by a close examination of the Taliban as the
largest and most potent armed opposition
movement in Afghanistan (section 3). On the
one hand, while the Taliban insurgency has
continuously prioritized and intensified its
combat operations, especially against the
Afghan National Defense and Security Forces
(ANDSF), the group has also combined
them with attacks against civilians, mostly
intended to undermine the government’s
legitimacy and stir political chaos in the
capital, Kabul. The Taliban also enjoyed
financial, material and logistical support from
abroad, including from regional players. On
the other hand, in recent years, the group
limited its ties to transnational terrorist
networks, increasingly shifted its focus to
Afghanistan and has not pursued violent
goals beyond Afghanistan. At the same time,
having been stuck in a mutually debilitating
military stalemate with the Afghan
government and its U.S. and NATO allies, the
Taliban has been engaged in direct talks with
the United States in Doha, Qatar, since 2018.
In parallel, however, the group continued and
even increased its militant activity, mainly
against the Afghan government forces.
1. Islamic State—
Khorasan Province
While the influence and territorial control of
the self-proclaimed Islamic State has been
in decline in the Middle East since 2016, its
Afghan branch, known as ISIL-K, has become
one of the deadliest terrorist groups. In 2018,
this relatively recent group already became
the fourth deadliest terrorist group in the
world, following the Taliban, ISIL and Boko
In absolute numbers, ISIL-K has remained
Afghanistan’s second most active
: 2.
militant terrorist group next to the Taliban.59
Terrorism, however, has become ISIL-K’s
dominant violent tactic and has been on the
rise on several counts:
ISIL-K has emerged as a primarily
terrorist rather than militant group, as
the targeting of civilians increasingly
dominated its violent activities.
According to UNAMA, the group
targeted civilians in 74 out of 100 attacks
recorded in 2017. In recent years, ISIL-K
also showed the largest increase in its
targeting of civilians. The number of
total civilian casualties caused by ISIL-K
raised sharply and steadily in recent
years: by 11 percent in 2017 (when it
reached over 1,000 civilian casualties)
and by 118 percent in 2018 (when it
reached 2,181 deaths and injuries).60
ISIL-K mounts fewer, but more deadly,
terrorist attacks than the Taliban, with a
higher average lethality per attack.
ISIL-K terrorist activity has been
dominated increasingly by suicide and
complex attacks, accounting for an
estimated 83 percent of all attacks in
2017 and 87 percent of attacks in 2018.61
Terrorist activity perpetrated by ISIL-K
displays the most explicit sectarian
element, in line with the group’s core,
extremist Salafist-jihadist ideology.
One-third of all ISIL-K attacks targeted
59 Esmates of a share of terrorist acvity in Af-
ghanistan accounted for by ISIL-K vary signicantly in in-
ternaonal sources, depending on the methodology and
denion of terrorism. According to GTD, in 2017, ISIL-K
was responsible was about 15 percent of all terrorism
deaths in Afghanistan. According to UNAMA, ISIL-K was
responsible for over 51 percent of all fatalies from delib-
erate terrorist aacks against civilians (333 out of 650) in
2017 and for a least 30 percent (566 out of 1,404 deaths)
in 2018. See
UNAMA Annual Report 2017
: 33-34; UNAMA
Afghanistan: Protecon of Civilians in
Armed Conict. Annual Report 2018
(Kabul: UNAMA and
UN OHCHR, 2019), hps://
port_2018_-_23_feb_2019_-_english.pdf: 25-6.
UNAMA Annual Report 2018
: 20-21;
Annual Report 2017
: 27.
UNAMA Annual Report 2018
: 21;
nual Report 2017
: 27, 39.
Shia Muslims—in fact, nearly all attacks
against Afghan Shias in recent years
have been attributed to ISIL-K.62
In contrast to ISIL-K combat operations,
limited mainly to some districts in the
eastern and, to an extent, northern parts
of Afghanistan, its terrorist activity has
been less localized and appears to be
aimed at a grander, nationwide level.
It has also had the strongest regional
resonance: the two deadliest terrorist
attacks in South Asia in 2017 were both
committed by ISIL-K, in Afghanistan
and Pakistan.63 In 2018, 75 percent of
deaths attributed to ISIL-K occurred in
Afghanistan, 22.7 percent in Pakistan
and 0.5 percent in India.64
It is dicult to assess accurately the
overall strength of the ISIL-K presence in
Afghanistan, especially in its dynamics.
This is partially a result of conflicting threat
assessments made by dierent actors,
including the Afghan government, regional
powers, the United States and Russia.
Objectively, it is also hard to determine
whether a given group in Afghanistan truly
subscribes to ideologies promoted by the
Islamic State, including supporting the
caliphate project and upholding a radical
Salafist interpretation of Islam, or whether
local militant groups merely adopt the Islamic
State-style trappings and pledge loyalty to
Islamic State in an attempt to elevate their
importance. Due to a variety of reasons,
including insucient surveillance and
monitoring of militant terrorist activity, in-
depth analysis and field work—all demanding
tasks to conduct in Afghanistan—much of
the information and many figures circulating
in open sources are either unreliable or hard
to verify.
ISIL first appeared in Afghanistan’s
Nangarhar province in mid-to-late 2014 when
a mix of militants, including some who had
already pledged loyalty to or were inspired by
the Islamic State, spilled over to Afghanistan
UNAMA Annual Report 2017
: 41-42.
63 These aacks killed 93 and 91 people, respec-
vely. See
: 36.
: 17.
from Pakistan. The spillover resulted from
the Pakistan Army’s Operation Zarb-e-Azb
in North Waziristan’s tribal areas. In parallel,
in late 2014, the first reports about the death
of the Taliban’s founding leader Mullah
Mohammad Omar were leaked. Mullah
Omar’s death triggered an internal power
struggle within the Taliban leadership and a
split of some factions and oshoot groups
from the movement. Some renegade and
disgruntled Taliban members, who disagreed
with the direction taken by the new Taliban
leadership succeeding Mullah Omar,65 turned
to support ISIL instead.66 In many ways,
ISIL-K’s emergence represented a rebranding
of a mix of disaected ex-Taliban, militants
originating from several other Islamist
groups, new recruits from the local youth and
some Central Asian and Arab militants.
Since then, ISIL-K followers gradually carved
out a presence in Afghanistan, under the
name of “Vilayat Khorasan,” or Islamic State–
Khorasan Province. The group formed its
initial, core area of territorial control in two of
Afghanistan’s eastern provinces: Nangarhar
and Kunar. According to independent
observers, ISIL-K’s numbers in that area
could have reached up to 2,000 militants
by 2017.67 At one point, ISIL-K operated
a radio station (“Voice of the Caliphate”)
to disseminate its propaganda in a daily
90-minute broadcast. The group also clashed
with the Taliban, its main competitor, and
engaged in turf battles for territory and
influence. However, there has been little
information about where ISIL-K got its
material and financial resources from, from
which local militant groups it drew support
and how much command and control ISILs
core leadership in Iraq and Syria exercised
over the group.
In 2016, the United States designated ISIL-K
as a foreign terrorist organization. Under
65 The Taliban legendary founder and long-me
leader Mullah Omar died in April 2013, but his death was
only conrmed in July 2015.
66 ISIL-K’s rst leader was the former commander
of Pakistani Taliban, Haz Sayeed Khan. He was killed in a
U.S. drone aack in 2016.
67 Borhan Osman of the Afghan Analysts Net-
work quoted in “ISIS in Afghanistan: ‘ Their peak is over,
but they are not nished,’”
The Guardian
, November 18,
2016, hps://
pressure from Afghan security forces, U.S.
air strikes and rival militants (primarily
Taliban forces), ISIL-K suered loss of
territorial control in eastern Afghanistan,
manpower and resources.68 By 2018, ISIL-K
numbers in the east were down to between
700 (according to the U.S. military) and
1,500 militants (according to the Afghan
As the ISIL-K presence in eastern Afghanistan
has been contained, its influence and
presence has spread to other parts of the
country,70 forming a deadly combination of
local and foreign fighters, including Afghans,
Uzbeks, Pakistanis and Central Asians, who
have been active in several northern and
central Afghan provinces, including Jawzjan,
Faryab and Ghazni.
On one hand, in addition to growing tensions
with the Taliban, a major barrier to the spread
of extreme Salafi-jihadism promoted by
ISIL-K has been the fact that most Afghan
Sunnis adhere to the Hanafi school of Islam.
Although this form of Islam includes the
Deobandi revivalist religious movement as its
own fundamentalist form (practiced by the
Taliban), this school is ideologically dierent
from Salafism and contests the orthodoxy of
the latter. Cultural and language dierences
between Afghanistan and the Arab Middle
East also pose limits to the spread of a
variation of Salafi-jihadism centered in
the Near East. In this sense, ISIL-K could
hardly compete with the indigenous Taliban
movement that grew out of the local Afghan-
Pakistani context, mainly out of Afghan
refugee camps in Pakistan during the
1980s-1990s, and has since enjoyed varying
degrees of grassroots support among the
local population.
On the other hand, the growing use of
terrorism by ISIL-K underpins the group’s
more radical profile, as compared to the
Taliban. ISIL-K also has a broader, inherently
68 Parcularly aer its second leader Sheikh Abu
Hasib, a mastermind of a deadly aack on a Kabul hospital
on March 8, 2017, was killed in May 2017 in a drone at-
tack in Nangarhar.
69 Reuters, “2 U.S. Soldiers Killed While Fighng
ISIS Militants in Afghanistan,”
, April 27, 2017, hps://
70 E.g., in 2017, ISIL-K commied its rst terrorist
aack in Herat in western Afghanistan.
transnational agenda, oriented towards
establishing a “regional caliphate,” which
appeals to other Islamist militant groups
across the region, especially ones with a
radical Salafist leaning. In recent years, ISIL-
K’s destabilizing impact has developed in four
main directions:
First, of all Islamic State aliates,
ISIL-K carried a special ideological and
religious importance for the Islamic
State’s leadership in Iraq and Syria who,
in early 2015, formally declared ISIL-K to
be its first regional branch outside the
Arab world.71 According to the Islamic
State’s apocalyptic ideology, it is from
“Khorasan”—the Islamic name for a
region that encompasses Afghanistan,
Pakistan, Iran and parts of Central Asia—
that the anti-Messiah would emerge at
the time of the last “caliph” for the final
battle between good and evil.
Second, the demise of the Islamic State’s
physical core in Syria and Iraq, a result of
military operations conducted by U.S.-
led and Russia-led coalitions, dismantled
the group’s territorial military control
and quasi-governance in lands central
to its ambitions of creating a “global
caliphate.” The Islamic State adapted to
this trend; instead of inviting fighters to
join its ranks in “the caliphate, it called
upon foreign militants and sympathizers
including those from Asia and Eurasia to
stay and act in their home countries. In
other words, regional franchises such as
ISIL-K have become the new centers of
gravity for transnational Salafi-jihadist
Third, the impact ISIL-K has had in and
around Afghanistan extended beyond
its disturbing ideological connection
to the ISIL core in the Middle East.
The Islamic State’s aggressive violent
methods, coupled with its use of new
media technologies and propaganda
campaigns, set new standards for violent
71 Audio Statement by the Islamic State Spokes-
man Abu Muhammad al-Adnani as-Shami, “Say, ‘Die
in your rage,’”
, January 26, 2015, hps://
Islamism in the region, forcing other
Islamist militant actors to evolve. Initially,
even the Taliban was caught somewhat
o base by ISIL-K’s sudden growth and
had to adjust its own propaganda and
tactics to outbid ISIL-K as a competing,
violent Islamist group.
Fourth, the spread of ISIL-K beyond
eastern Afghanistan has aected the
northern provinces particularly. In
northern Afghanistan, Salafist groups,
including a fragmented milieu of exiled
foreign militants from Central Asian
republics and other states of the region,
already had an established presence
for decades; they now looked to the
Islamic State and ISIL-K for a label,
ideology and propaganda. In 2018,
according to ocial Russian sources,
out of ISIL-K’s 4,000-10,000 estimated
militants in Afghanistan, roughly half
were already based in the northern parts
of the country.72 This problem has been
aggravated by reported relocation of
an undefined number of Islamic State-
linked foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs),
especially of Central Asian origin, from
their lost bases in Syria and Iraq to
northern Afghanistan (see next section).
In sum, despite ISIL-K’s limited territorial
control and secondary militant role, its
growing terrorist activity and penchant
for deadly attacks against civilians has
been reinforced by the group’s inherently
transnational, region-centered goals and its
radical Salafi-jihadist ideology. While ISIL-K
objectives and ideology do not seem to have
a constituency in Afghanistan and are hardly
acceptable to most ordinary Afghans, they
are non-negotiable and hardly amenable to
moderation. This has made ISIL-K a problem
of concern not only for Afghanistan, but
also in particular to Central Asian states
and Russia, especially in view of the group’s
spread to northern Afghanistan, including to
border areas.
72 According to Russia’s Deputy Foreign Min-
ister on anterrorism, Oleg Syromolotov, quoted in
“Afghanistan’s North becomes a mainstay for terror-
ism, MFA claims,”
RIA Novos
, May 4, 2018, hps://ria.
2. Militant Terrorist Actors
in Northern Afghanistan
Mosaic of Violent Actors in
Afghanistan’s North
The terrorism challenge posed by ISIL-K
in Afghanistan, including its spread to and
activity in the country’s north, should not
obscure, nor has it radically altered, the
overall pattern of militancy/terrorism and
the complex mosaic of violent actors in that
part of the country. Throughout the early 21st
century, militancy in Afghanistan’s “greater
north” displayed one of the highest degrees
of fragmentation of violence perpetrated by
a plethora of variously sized armed non-state
actors. These groups, comprised of both
local actors and exiled militants from Central
Asia and beyond, overlapped, emerged and
dissipated as part of an endless cycle, often
engaging in violent competition among
Since the late 2000s, the Taliban, who
maintained the country’s south and
southeast as its stronghold, started
to extend its influence in the northern
provinces. However, only some of the smaller,
fragmented militant groups in the north
formed alliances with the Taliban, leaving
others at odds with the movement. As of the
mid-2010s, a range of violent actors in the
north included, among others, some militants
of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan—an
older armed group generating from Central
Asia and active in Afghanistan’s north
before its surviving fighters were forced to
relocate to Pakistan’s Tribal Areas, following
the 2001 U.S.-led intervention.73 Some IMU
members, including both older and second-
generation fighters, now relocated back to
northern Afghanistan from Pakistan. Other
groups included the younger reincarnation
of the Islamic Party of Turkistan, the Islamic
Jihad Union, “Hetob” and “Tas” groups at
the Turkmen border, the so-called Central
Asian Taliban and the mujahideen of Central
Asia, the Uighur group “Helafat,” the Kazakh
group “Fatha” in Kunduz and the Kyrgyz
73 For more detail, see Stepanova, “Islamist ter-
rorism in the Caucasus and Central Asia,” in
Aer the
War on Terror: Regional and Mullateral Perspecves on
Counterterrorism Strategy
, ed. Alex Schmid and Garry
Hindle, (London: RUSI Books, 2009): 104-124.
“Kalkaly” in Badakhshan.74 It is hard to track
the dynamics of these northern groups—
even those who are active in more than just
one or two districts (including a few larger
movements such as the Taliban, ISIL-K or
the IMU)—due to the high fluidity, changing
names and shifting loyalties and locations of
their segments. Any snapshot of the complex
mosaic encompassing the militant/terrorist
scene in Afghanistan’s north may become
outdated at any point in time.
ISIL-K, Other Islamic
State-linked Groups and
Relocation of Foreign Fighters
The scale of ISIL-K outreach or relocation
to the north of Afghanistan, outside ISIL-
K’s initial areas of infiltration in the east,
remains a speculative subject. As of the late
2010s, there were three established basic
parameters of the Islamic State factor in the
The main areas of activity of ISIL-linked
elements included the four provinces
of Faryab, Jawzjan, Sar-e Pol and
The presence of many exiled militants
from Central Asia in the ranks of groups
that operated under the Islamic State
The overall strength of Islamic State-
inspired/-aliated militants in the north,
estimated to fall somewhere between
2,000 and 5,000 fighters, in 2018.76
Other factors related to the Islamic State
contingency in northern Afghanistan,
including the scale of threat ISIL-K has
posed to internal, regional and broader
transnational security, require closer
examination and calibration.
74 For more detail, see Antonio Giustozzi and
Christopher Reuter,
The Insurgents of the Afghan North
(Kabul: Afghan Analysts Network, 2011); Stepanova,
ISIS Factor in Afghanistan: How Much of a Challenge for
(, Saltzman Instute of War and Peace
Studies and OSCE Academy in Bishkek, Bishkek Proj-
ect Memo: March 2017), hps://
75 “Experts note growing numbers of IS mili-
tants from Central Asia in Afghanistan,
Sputnik Ta-
, February 13, 2018, hps://
76 See footnote 72.
Only a portion of the Islamic State presence
in Afghanistan’s north appears to have
resulted from the relocation of a limited
number of ISIL-K militants from the country’s
east, as the group was under growing
security pressure there and also suered
from some internal tensions.77 The limited
relocation of ISIL-K fighters from eastern
provinces, however, hardly amounted to ISIL-
K’s direct replication in the north, and ISIL-K
presence was no match for the Taliban’s
more established presence in northern
At the same time, Afghanistan’s north has
become an arena for two other Islamic State-
linked phenomena:
1. The proliferation of Islamic State-type
groups that are not part of ISIL-K,
especially in Ghor, Jawzjan and Sar-e
Pol, as described by UNAMA as “self-
identified Daesh fighters”;
2. The issue of foreign terrorist fighters
returning and relocating to the region
from ISIL’s core areas in Syria and Iraq.
One example of the first challenge—and
a case in point that may be indicative of a
real Islamic State threat in the north—was a
mini-territorial enclave, led by Qari Hekmat
in Jawzjan. Hekmat led the enclave for two
years and extended it to Faryab province,
before he was killed in a U.S. air strike in April
2018. For the first time, a “self-identified”
Islamic State-aliated, inter-ethnic enclave
had under its control two provincial districts
and several hundred militants and survived
several Taliban oensives.
On one hand, this “ISIL island” seemed to
amount to something more serious than
a typical opportunistic Islamic State-style
group, as its activities extended beyond
ISIL symbols and trappings. They included,
among others:
77 For instance, aer the death of ISIL-K leader
Abu Hasib in 2017, Central Asian ghters within the group
reportedly refused to accept a Pakistani to succeed as a
leader, cing his alleged connecons to Pakistan’s intel-
ligence services. See Obaid Ali, “Precarious Consolida-
on: Qari Hekmat’s IS-aliated ‘Island’ Survives Another
Taleban Onslaught,” Afghan Analysts Network, March 4,
2018, hps://
another-taleban-onslaught/: footnote 1.
a. A nascent shadow administrative system
with Arabicized names for its units;
b. The adoption of some particularly brutal
tactics employed by ISIL-Central such as
beheadings and setting shrines on fire;
c. The use of the enclave by some radical
militants from other areas as a safe
haven; a limited presence in the group’s
ranks of some foreign militants, mostly
Central Asian exiles with interest in
the main Islamic State caliphate, not
its Khorasan chapter. Among those
militants were members of Jundullah,
an IMU splinter group previously
defeated by the Taliban.78
On the other hand, even this ISIL-style mini-
enclave in Jawzjan has a) been confined
to remote areas; b) did not have any clear
connections to ISIL-K’s eastern core and
did not even come close to anything like
the “Nangarhar chapter;” c) owed its
emergence and persistence to the Taliban’s
fragmentation and lack of coordination in
the area, luring several local commanders to
join opportunistically Hekmat’s forces; and
d) remained too weak to challenge Afghan
government forces in district capitals and,
therefore, had no eect on strategic balance
in the north.
The second issue—the relocation of
FTFs from the Middle East to northern
Afghanistan—deserves special attention.
With the demise of the ISIL core in Syria
and Iraq, the relocation of FTFs has
become a major source of manpower and
a generational lifeline to sustain jihadist
terrorism not only across the Middle East,
but also in Europe, Eurasia and Asia. These
fleeing fighters do not necessarily return to
their home countries.
Eurasia is one of the two main external
regions of origin of foreign fighters in Syria
and Iraq beyond the Middle East (the other
being Europe). As of early 2017, the overall
number of FTFs from post-Soviet Eurasia
reached 8,500-9,000 fighters.79 According
to the head of Russia’s Federal Security
Service, Alexander Bortnikov, as of October
2019, FTFs from Russia alone reached
78 Ibid.
79 “Vladimir Pun: There are up to 9000 of mili-
tants from the former USSR in Syria,
, Febru-
ary 23, 2017, hps://
approximately 5,500.80 Due to fears of
detection, harsh prosecution and tougher
law enforcement at home, FTF return rates to
both Russia (337, or six percent as of October
2019)81 and Central Asia (5.6 percent as of
mid-2018) have been much lower than the
global average82 (for instance, more than 10
times lower than the FTF return rate to the
United Kingdom [UK]).
This means that the majority of surviving
Russian-speaking and other FTFs from
Eurasia are unlikely to return home in the
foreseeable future and are mostly located
in, or are relocating to, third countries.
While many of these floating FTFs move
to other parts of the Middle East and, to
an extent, Europe, one of the most likely
Asian destinations for relocation of some
FTFs, especially Central Asians, is northern
Afghanistan. The area appeals to them for
several reasons: proximity to their home
region; ethnic aliation to Tajik, Uzbek and
Turkmen populations; and the spread of low-
scale militancy and weak state control over
Central Asian borders.
The relocation of FTFs of Central Asian origin
from Syria and Iraq to the Afghan north
should not be confused in numbers with the
pre-existing ISIL-K presence in Afghanistan.
It is a daunting task to accurately estimate
either the total number of relocated
FTFs from Syria and Iraq, or assess their
proportion to local Islamic State militants,
or their numbers in northern Afghanistan.
In any case, however, Central Asians have
dominated such relocations, while only a
few relocating FTFs from other regions have
surfaced in the area since late 2017. Even if
Central Asian jihadists relocating from Syria
and Iraq to northern Afghanistan number
in the low hundreds, they still pose a threat
to both Afghanistan and the Central Asian
states. More broadly, they pose concern for
Russia and regional security institutions such
80 “FSB: 5,500 Russian cizens, who went abroad
to ght in terrorist ranks, idened,”
RIA Novos
, October
16, 2019, hps://
81 Ibid.
82 According to the Internaonal Centre for the
Study of Radicalizaon and Polical Violence (ICSR), as of
June 2018, out of the total of 41,490 FTFs who had le
to Syria and Iraq since April 2013, 7,366 have returned
to their home countries. Of the total of 5,954 FTFs from
Central Asia, no more than 338 returned. See Joanna
Cook and Gina Vale,
From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the
Women and Minors of the Islamic State
(London: ISCR,
2018): 4, 14-15.
as the CSTO and SCO, where Russia and
Central Asian republics are members.
Implications for Central Asia
and Russia
The potential spillover of transnational
violent extremism from northern Afghanistan
concerns Central Asian states more directly
than Russia. More broadly, however, this
threat also aects Russia, a macro-regional
Eurasian power with a vested interest in
the stability of Central Asia. Russia is the
main politico-military ally of three out of five
Central Asian states and has some direct
security presence in the region.
The risk of direct spread of instability and
violent extremism from northern Afghanistan
to Central Asia and beyond should not be
overestimated. In the early 21st century,
Central Asian states underwent their
own dramatic experiences of interethnic
and communal violence, as well as socio-
economic protests. At the same time,
however, these countries displayed low levels
of terrorism. In the late 2010s, terrorism
in the region continued to decline. While
Tajikistan has been the most aected of all
Central Asian states, it only ranked 50th on
the 2019 Global Terrorism Index scale of
states most aected by terrorism, compared
to Russia, listed at number 37, and the United
States, ranked at number 22.83
Direct cross-border spillover of Islamist
militancy, from Afghanistan to Central Asia
and vice versa, posed a larger threat in the
1990s–early 2000s. While more recently,
cross-border threats have remained an issue,
they have mostly been related to criminal
tracking. The scale of a risk of spillover of
militancy and terrorism from Afghanistan
varies significantly for the Central Asian
states. While Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan
have faced limited exposure to such spillover
in recent years, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan
are confronted with more tangible security
The risk of cross-border raids by some
extremist elements into Tajikistan, especially
: 8.
84 See also Chapter 3 of this report and Stepa-
nova, “Russia’s Policy on Afghanistan” in
The Central Asia
– Afghanistan Relaonship: From Soviet Intervenon to
the Silk Road Iniaves
, ed. Marlene Laruelle (New York:
Lexington Books/Rowman & Lileeld, 2017): 89-114.
the Central Asian exiles based in Kunduz,
Takhar and Baghlan provinces in northern
Afghanistan, cannot be totally discounted.
On one hand, relatively larger militant
actors in Afghanistan’s north oppose one
another, leaving little manpower for a major
breakthrough into Tajik territory. On the other
hand, this does not prevent sporadic back-
and-forth movement of small militant groups
and border clashes with armed smugglers.
Any troubles in Badakhshan, on either side
of the mountainous part of the Afghan-Tajik
border, may also have cross-border eects.
These threats, however, must be seen in
the context of Russia’s military presence in
Tajikistan and Tajikistan’s CSTO membership.
Since the mid-2010s, Turkmenistan—
which shares a long, porous border with
Afghanistan—has also faced significant risks
posed by a growing militant presence in
Jawzjan. Despite limited security resources,
Ashgabat, however, retains its neutrality
and has managed to maintain working
relationships with both Kabul and the Taliban
for years.
More broadly, Eurasia’s geographical
proximity to Afghanistan exposes the
region to armed conflict and terrorism and
remains an important risk factor. This risk
is compounded by cross-border movement
within much of Eurasia, due to Russia’s
visa-free regimes with the Central Asian
states and Afghanistan’s porous borders. In
addition, even after the demise of the Islamic
State’s core base in Syria and Iraq, the ISIL-
style ideology and propaganda of “global
jihad” remains a serious challenge.
Besides the challenge of radicalization of
autonomous cells through online and oine
propaganda, two other Islamic State-related
challenges for Central Asia and Russia involve
a limited return of foreign fighters of Eurasian
origin and potential direct spillover of violent
extremists from abroad, notably from
Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fragmented
militant milieu in northern Afghanistan
that includes cross-border exiled Islamist
extremists from Central Asia has also been
compounded by the relocation of some
FTFs of Central Asian origin into that region.
Taken separately, these security threats may
appear limited, but the interface and overlap
of these threats pose a serious security
challenge to Central Asia and Russia.
3. The Taliban
Nearly 19 years since the U.S.-led
intervention toppled the Taliban’s regime
in Afghanistan—following the September
11, 2001 terrorist attacks by Al-Qaeda—the
Taliban remained Afghanistan’s main and
largest insurgent movement. The Taliban
was responsible for the killing of Afghan
government forces at record levels. The
group has steadily gained military strength
over the years, expanding its influence and
control across the country. Under its new
leader since 2016, Mawlawi Haibatullah
Akhunzada, the movement recovered from
a brief period of transition and internal
tensions after the death of its founding leader
Mullah Mohammad Omar. While the rise of
ISIL-K since late 2014 revived international
attention to terrorism emanating from
Afghanistan, it also led to a certain
reassessment by external stakeholders of the
role of the Taliban as the principal violence
entrepreneurs and a main competitor to all
militant terrorist groups, including ISIL-K.
This has allowed the Taliban to capitalize on
their tensions with ISIL-K, enabling the group
to be seen as a more indigenous and less
radical force with no regional expansionist
The Evolution of the Taliban
as a Combat Actor
Throughout the 2010s, the Taliban remained
the primary fighting force in the Afghan
war. In 2002-2018, the total battle-related
death toll of the armed conflict between the
U.S.-NATO-backed Afghan government and
the Taliban exceeded 140,000 (see Fig. 2).85
The Taliban gradually intensified its combat
operations across the country and expanded
its presence and control. Estimates show
that, by 2018, the Taliban either contested or
maintained some military presence in nearly
70 percent of Afghan provinces.86
While there is no verifiable data about the
exact size of the Taliban fighting force,
average estimates run at around 40,000 full-
85 Uppsala Conict Data Program (UCDP)/Peace
Research Instute, Oslo (PRIO) Armed Conict Dataset
Version 19.1., hps://
86 Shoaib Shari and Louise Adamou, “Taliban
threaten 70% of Afghanistan, BBC nds,”
BBC World
Kabul, January 31, 2018, hps://
time and part-time militants.87
In recent years, the Taliban transitioned
from a hit-and-run movement to a more
conventional and more active combat force.
Several other trends in the evolution of the
insurgent movement include:
A generational shift towards younger
fighters and commanders on the ground.
The Taliban lost many of their older
leaders through systematic internal
marginalization, assassinations, detention
or natural death. This also applies to
many local commanders; once killed or
captured, they are increasingly replaced
by other fighters, sometimes from the
same families and often more active and
uncompromising. As a result, frontline
Taliban commanders increasingly
include young Taliban fighters fresh out
of madrassas in Pakistan, with little or no
memory of the Taliban regime of the 1990s
and with no access to the group’s current
leadership. These local commanders are
87 As of September 2018, the U.S. Department of
Defense esmated Taliban manpower at a maximum of
40,000 ghters, including 5,000 of the Haqqani Network
militants. See U.S. Department of Defense Oce of the
Inspector General (OIG),
Operaon Freedom’s Sennel:
Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Con-
gress, July 1, 2018-September 30, 2018
(Alexandria, VA:
Oce of Inspector General, November 19, 2018), hps://
FY2018_LIG_OCO_OFS%20SEPT2018.PDF: 22.
hungry for power and exercise greater
autonomy in the battlefield.
In recent years, and especially since
the public announcement of the
death of Mullah Omar, the Taliban has
become more decentralized. While the
degree of this decentralization remains
disputed, the movement appears more
divided now between hardliners and
moderates.88 It is also less ethnically and
regionally homogeneous, now including
Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Arabs,
Central Asians and others. Of particular
concern are the more extreme factions,
such as the notorious Haqqani network
that may control up to 15 percent of the
manpower attributed to or aliated with
the Taliban. The Haqqanis may exercise
more influence on Pakistan’s side of the
border and over some smaller Taliban
fronts in Afghanistan, which they support
in various ways.
Unlike in the past, the new Taliban
leverage a variety of more advanced
88 There are dierent views within the Joint U.S.-
Russia Working Group on Counterterrorism in Afghani-
stan, including between the two authors of this chapter
and among the U.S. members of the group, on the de-
gree of unity/division within the Taliban. For instance, the
three-day ceasere declared by the Taliban in June 2018
was strictly observed by the group’s local commanders
and rank-and-le, suggesng an impressive level of con-
trol by the group’s central leadership over its members.
Figure 2.
deaths in
conflict between
the Afghan
(backed by the
U.S. and NATO)
and the Taliban,
Source: UCDP/
PRIO Armed Conflict
Dataset Version 19.1.
weapons and military equipment. In fact,
some Taliban units are better equipped
than most Afghan police units. The
Taliban operate mobile special forces
units, including the lethal “Red Unit.
They use headgears, sniper rifles, laser-
guided M-4 rifles, night vision goggles,
small surveillance drones, foreign-
made telescopic sights, sophisticated
communication equipment and armored
army Humvees employed as Trojan
horses to access bases they plan to
attack. Most of this equipment is either
acquired in neighboring countries or
captured from Afghan forces. The Taliban
have also adopted proper deployment
rotation cycles—they first train, then
deploy to fight, before retreating to safer
areas in Pakistan.89
The Taliban have also strengthened
their information, propaganda and
psychological operations capacities,
as well as intelligence-gathering
capabilities, especially human
intelligence and informant networks.
The group actively uses open-source
intelligence—often public reports
produced by the U.S. government, other
agencies and think tanks—and engages
in robust information and propaganda
campaigns on social media, including
Operationally, the group have adopted
an increasingly resource-ecient
operational strategy meant not only
to fragment Afghan forces but also to
capture more territory. This strategy has
enabled the group to determine where
and when to fight, in which they skillfully
avoid the strongest elements of Afghan
forces and instead target where they are
weakest. The group frequently employs
similar tactics in their operations such
as ambushes, traps, surprise and
simultaneous coordinated attacks and,
increasingly, the use of snipers.
By any measure, the Taliban is a broad, active
and potent rural insurgency, not only because
of its nationwide presence, but also in view
of its growing combat operations against the
Afghan government and U.S./NATO forces.
Combat operations dominated the Taliban’s
89 See also Appendix B of this report for further
activity and progressively intensified. In
2013-2018, battle-related deaths resulting
from Afghanistan’s main conflict dyad,
involving the Taliban and its Afghan and
foreign protagonists on the government side,
showed an almost three-fold increase, with
the highest combat death rate (over 22,800)
recorded for 2018 (see Fig. 2).90
The Taliban and Attacks
Against Civilians
The Taliban continues to be the primary
militant/terrorist actor in Afghanistan.91 This
is demonstrated by two main dimensions
of its violent activity beyond attacks against
military/security targets:
a. Total civilian casualties, including both
collateral civilian damage from combat
operations and casualties inflicted in
terrorist attacks;
b. Patterns of intentional targeting of
civilians in terrorist attacks, as well as
the Taliban’s overall share of terrorist
attacks compared to its own combat
operations and to terrorism committed
by ISIL-K.
Total civilian casualties. According to
UNAMA data, the Taliban continues to
account for more civilian casualties than
any other militant group in Afghanistan.
In 2018, the Taliban killed 1,348 civilians,
leaving another 2,724 injured. This amounted
to 37 percent of total civilian casualties
compared to 20 percent caused by ISIL-K.92
As a standard practice, the Taliban claimed
several times fewer civilian deaths.93 The
Taliban also inflicted 1.6 times more civilian
casualties in 2018 compared to government
actors, including Afghan forces, foreign
troops and pro-government armed groups,
who caused nearly a quarter of all civilian
casualties. At the same time, however, civilian
casualties caused by Taliban attacks declined
marginally in recent years: by five percent
as a proportion of total civilian deaths and
by seven percent, in absolute terms. Only
half of all civilian deaths caused by the
Taliban resulted from terrorist operations,
90 UCDP/PRIO Armed Conict Dataset Version
91 In fact, with decline of terrorist acvity by ISIL
following its demise in Syria and Iraq, Taliban overtook ISIL
as the world’s deadliest terrorist group.
: 2.
UNAMA Annual Report 2018
: 18.
93 Ibid.
i.e., from direct and intentional targeting
of non-combatants, while the remainder
represented collateral damage from combat
Terrorism. Inside Afghanistan, the Taliban
has continued to account for the majority
of terrorist attacks and fatalities by known
armed groups. Estimates of terrorist
activity by the Taliban provided by dierent
international sources vary significantly. In
2017, for instance, UNAMA counted 535
civilian fatalities directly and intentionally
caused by the Taliban; the Global Terrorism
Index estimate of terrorism fatalities for the
same year is 6.7-times higher, but includes
not only civilian deaths, but also deaths
among police and security personnel.95
Although the Global Terrorism Dataset
records an average decline of 23 percent in
terrorist attacks by the Taliban in 2016-2018,
compared to the peak year of 2015,96 this
does not yet appear to be matched by any
sustained decline in fatalities.97
Nonetheless, most reliable international
sources agree on the following trends:
Terrorist attacks and fatalities from
terrorism constitute only a small
fraction of the Taliban’s overall combat
operations and battle-related deaths
caused by the group.
Most recently, the Taliban have been
changing their violent tactics to focus
more on Afghan police and military
personnel and less on civilians.98
94 Ibid: 18-26.
95 Ibid: 26;
: 16.
96 GTD, accessed October 31, 2019.
97 UNAMA data even showed a 20 percent in-
crease in terrorist fatalies by the Taliban: from 535
deaths in 2017 to 667 in 2018.
UNAMA Annual Report
: 26, footnote 84. Global Terrorism Index records a
39 percent rise in aacks and 71 percent rise in deaths
by Taliban in 2018, but the majority of them (53 percent
of those aacks and 59 percent of deaths) were directed
against military and other security personnel, i.e. do not
strictly qualify as terrorism against non-combatants.
: 15.
98 In 2017, the Taliban launched 55 percent fewer
aacks on civilians and property but caused 34 percent
more deaths against police personnel compared to 2016.
: 20.
The wide gap that once existed between
the Taliban and ISIL-K, a more recent and
comparatively smaller terrorist actor,
has narrowed significantly. According
to UNAMA, as of 2018, the Taliban
killed almost 1.2 times more civilians
intentionally99 compared to the more
radical and transnational ISIL-K.
Unlike ISIL-K, the Afghan Taliban is
operationally active only in Afghanistan.
All Taliban-inflicted terrorist attacks and
deaths in recent years occurred within
Afghanistan,100 mostly in the southern
provinces of Helmand, Kandahar and
In sum, while the Taliban insurgency
continues to employ terrorism as one
of its main tactics inside Afghanistan, it
relies primarily on combat operations in its
confrontation with Afghan security forces,
limiting its activities to Afghanistan. More
broadly, the correlation between insurgent
combat operations and terrorist activity
in Afghanistan—one of the highest in the
world—suggests that the solution to ending
terrorism will remain elusive unless the
armed confrontation between the Afghan
government and the Taliban is resolved.
Interplay of Violence and Talks:
Approaches of, and Implications
for, the United States and Russia
The Afghan conflict came to a stalemate,
politically and militarily. The country reached
an inflection point where an outright military
solution is nowhere in sight for the Afghan
government or the Taliban.
A mere combination of U.S.-NATO-backed
military pressure on the Taliban, with
other Western support for the Afghan
government, did not achieve stabilization or
peace for almost two decades. The security
situation continued to deteriorate even
before the United States, under the Obama
administration, and NATO ended their
UNAMA Annual Report 2018
: 26, footnote 84.
: 16.
: 20.
combat mission in 2014 and completed the
drawdown of the majority of their combat
forces. On the ground, a stalemate between
the Afghan government and the Taliban
has continued indefinitely. As noted by the
U.S. Defense Department, while Afghan
government forces remained in control of
the most populated centers and all provincial
capitals, the Taliban controlled large portions
of Afghanistan’s rural areas and attacked
many district centers.102 A residual post-
2014 U.S. and allied military presence,
modestly built-up in the first years of the
Trump administration but slightly reduced
again in 2019,103 has contributed to that
stalemate. One sign of this stalemate was the
first ceasefire in Afghanistan since 2001—
the brief cessation of hostilities declared
separately, but nearly simultaneously, by
both sides during the Eid holidays in June
2018 and broadly welcomed by the Afghan
people across the country.
Since 2011, under the Obama administration,
Washington established on-and-o
negotiating channels with the Taliban. Prior
to that, in 2010, the U.S. State Department
removed the Taliban from its list of foreign
terrorist organization. It was only in 2018,
a year after the announcement of the
United States’ new South Asia strategy,
that the Trump administration shifted its
focus to searching for a negotiated solution
to the Afghan problem and engaged with
the Taliban. This policy shift resulted in
direct U.S.-Taliban talks, with the first nine
rounds of negotiations held since mid-July
2018 through August 2019. There have
been four key parts to the discussions: 1)
negotiating an agreement on a timeline and
mechanism for the withdrawal of U.S. troops,
102 SIGAR,
Quarterly Report to the United States
(Arlington: SIGAR, January 30, 2019, hps://
40, 65.
103 According to U.S. Lieutenant General Ausn
Sco Miller, commander of the U.S./NATO forces in Af-
ghanistan, in 2019 the numbers of the U.S. military de-
creased by 2,000, down to approximately 12,000. “US is
quietly reducing its troop force in Afghanistan,”
The New
York Times
, October 21, 2019, hps://www.nymes.
2) counterterrorism assurances from the
Taliban that the Afghan territory would not
be used by terrorist groups, 3) a reduction
in violence leading to a comprehensive
ceasefire and 4) an inclusive intra-Afghan
dialogue that leads to an intra-Afghan
political settlement.
In August 2019 in Doha, the two sides
finalized a draft deal on the timetable for
the withdrawal of U.S. forces, in addition to
counterterrorism and ceasefire provisions.
At the same time, a year of negotiations did
not yet change the Taliban’s refusal to talk
directly to the Afghan government, nor has
the violence by parties to the conflict de-
escalated. In fact, the Taliban even stepped
up its combat eorts in 2018, resulting in
record numbers of Afghan military casualties.
U.S. airstrikes and special operations, along
with military operations by the Afghan
government, have also persisted and even
On September 8, 2019, President Trump
cancelled his secretly planned Camp David
meeting with Afghan President Ghani’s
team and the Taliban, under the pretext of
an earlier terrorist attack in Kabul that killed
a U.S. soldier. Trump’s decision provided a
go-ahead to the Afghan presidential elections
held on September 28, 2019. While this was a
boost to Kabul, and specifically to incumbent
Ghani, the ensuing election results were
disputed and stalled for nearly five months.
Periodic break-downs in negotiations did not
come without political and security costs. On
the political side, the absence of a ceasefire
deal in 2019 led to halting or postponing
several options or projects linked to
negotiations with the Taliban (postponement
of presidential elections, forming an interim
government with the Taliban’s participation
before elections, perhaps even making some
changes to the Afghan constitution). On
the security side, any impasse or pause in
negotiations was accompanied by escalation
of violence on the ground. However,
protracted interplay of talks and fighting
employed by conflict parties is unavoidable
during most transitions from war to peace.
The September 2019 halt in talks was
only temporary. The U.S. negotiating team
resumed regional peace consultations,
including within a U.S.-Russia-China-Pakistan
format, as well as informal talks with the
parties in less than a month and restarted
dialogue with the Taliban in December 2019.
Peace negotiations showed signs of progress
when U.S. and Taliban representatives in
mid-February 2020 agreed to a week-long
reduction in violence between American,
Taliban and Afghan forces. The successful
implementation of this truce opened the
way for the signing of a formal agreement
between the United States and Taliban
on February 29,104 laying forth inter alia
the Taliban’s commitments towards
counterterrorism and intra-Afghan dialogue
in exchange for the United States’ scheduled
withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan.
Amid these developments, Ghani secured his
second term as Afghan president on February
18—a result contested by his election rival
Abdullah, who also declared himself the
country’s president. While the political
impasse delayed the start of intra-Afghan
negotiations originally slated for March 10, a
power-sharing agreement signed by Ghani
and Abdullah on May 17 has designated
Abdullah to lead peace negotiations with the
Taliban. Meanwhile, the Taliban has since
accused the U.S. and Afghan government
of not abiding by commitments set forth in
the February 29 agreement. The U.S.-Taliban
deal notwithstanding, intra-Afghan talks
may take long and get repeatedly stuck. The
negotiating process on Afghanistan would
still require a lot of time and patience from
Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan
between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not
recognized by the United States as a state and is known as
the Taliban and the United States of America
all stakeholders to lead to a comprehensive
peace settlement.
In addition to year-long demands for the
Taliban to sever ties to transnational terrorist
organizations, terrorism features at the
heart of the interplay of force and talks for at
least two other reasons. First, the Taliban’s
role in terrorist attacks in Afghanistan has
remained a major impediment to the peace
process. This issue is likely to become even
more salient once the talks proceed to the
intra-Afghan level. For the Taliban to advance
as a legitimate national political force able to
negotiate with the Afghan government and
other Kabul-based political forces, they must
not only renounce, but also stop, terrorist
attacks against civilians. This has not been an
easy choice for the Taliban leaders to make,
as it may aect the insurgency’s internal
dynamics, further radicalizing the group’s
hardliners. Another risk typical for the initial
stages of a peace negotiation process—when
progress towards a political settlement is
still fragile, slow or limited—is the use of
terrorism as a “spoiler” tactic. The use of
high-profile and mass-casualty terrorist
attacks, both by hardline elements of the
insurgency that are part of negotiations
(“internal spoilers”) and especially by
irreconcilable armed actors (“external
spoilers,” notably ISIL-K), meant to disrupt
and undermine the peace process, becomes
more likely.
Second, on the brighter side, the Taliban itself
has actively contributed to and has a role
to play in countering national and regional
terrorist threats through ongoing anti-ISIL-K
activities. As noted in Section 1, from the
outset, the Taliban have fallen out with ISIL-K
as its new and more radical rival. The Taliban
have also been heavily attacked by ISIL-K
leaders on ideological grounds, including in
the Islamic State’s mainstream publications
where the insurgency was called a
“nationalist” Afghan group.105 In recent years,
the Taliban have extended their anti-ISIL-K
operations from eastern Afghanistan to the
north, especially to Jawzjan province, where
they engaged in violent clashes with the
ISIL-K enclave, including in August 2018.106
American commanders have also repeatedly
confirmed that “the Taliban is fighting ISIS
and we encourage that because ISIS needs to
be destroyed.107
The advance of the Islamic State’s Afghan
branch and the Taliban’s role in anti-ISIL-K
eorts was one of the main reasons behind
Russia’s decision to establish limited
communication channels with the Taliban
movement in late 2015. In parallel, Russian
foreign and security policymakers came to
realize that none of Moscow’s Afghanistan-
related security concerns in the post-
2014 context—the spill-over of instability
and violence into Central Asia and drug
tracking—could be mitigated as long as the
105 For more detail, see Thomas Joscelyn, “The
Islamic State’s obsession with al Qaeda and the Taliban,
The Long War Journal
, January 20, 2016, hps://www.
106 However, claims made by the Taliban that
ISIL-K “has been wiped out of the north” do not hold. Na-
jim Rahim and Rod Nordland, “ Taliban surge routes ISIS
in Northern Afghanistan,
The New York Times
, August
1, 2018, hps://www.ny
107 U.S. Army General John Nicholson, former
commander of the U.S. Resolute Support operaon in Af-
ghanistan, quoted in “Resolute Support Press Brieng by
U.S. Central Command and Gen. John Nicholson From Ka-
bul,” Resolute Support Afghanistan, July 24, 2018, hps://
Afghan conflict continues in full force. Against
this backdrop, Russia, as a Eurasian power
with vested interests in Central Asia and with
a limited influence inside Afghanistan, began
to push for stabilization through a regionally
inclusive peace process. This required
establishing closer contacts with all major
stakeholders and conflict parties, including
the Taliban.108
In line with this policy, Moscow launched its
own track of regional peace consultations
on Afghanistan in late 2016. In February and
May 2019, it also hosted an intra-Afghan
dialogue between the Taliban and some
key Afghan political figures outside the
government, including leaders of the former
Northern Alliance.109 At the November
2018 round of the Moscow regional peace
consultations, the Taliban, for the first time,
publicly pledged to Russia, Central Asian
states and other regional countries not to
allow any armed actor to use the Afghan
territory to create security problems for the
neighboring states and the region.110 This
pledge came before the Taliban negotiators
made a similar promise to the United States
during the U.S.-Taliban talks, vowing to keep
terrorists who could threaten the West away
108 For more detail, see Stepanova,
Russia’s Af-
ghan Policy in the Regional and Russia-West Contexts
109 Stepanova,
Russia and the Afghan Peace
, Policy Memo no. 618 (Washington, D.C.: Pro-
gram on New Approaches to Research and Security in
Eurasia (PONARS Eurasia), October 2019), hp://www.les/policy-memos-pdf/
110 Taliban chief negoator Sher Moham-
mad Abbas Stanikzai quoted in Ахмад Вахид Можда,
“Московский формат консультаций по Афганистану
– площадка для демонстрации позиции ‘Талибана,’”
, November 15, 2018, hp://afghanistan.
from the Afghan soil.111 Russia, however,
took such pledges seriously, but cautiously,
and continued to use any available leverage
to pressure the Taliban to move away from
At a national level, Russia, in contrast to the
United States, has kept the Taliban on its
ocial list of terrorist groups since 2006
and considers this as additional leverage.112
At the intra-Afghan level, Russia’s unique
input seems to be in pursuing and backing
northern Afghan factions to support a
national deal with the Taliban, while perhaps
also oering them informal guarantees
of support in case such a deal fails. At the
regional level, Russia has tried to use its
recently-formed closer ties with Pakistan and
its long-time cooperative relations with Iran
to induce both regional powers to contribute
to a negotiated solution in Afghanistan.
At the multilateral level, while Moscow
supports the loosening of the UN sanctions
on some Taliban leaders to facilitate peace
negotiations, it has also stood against any full
or unconditional lifting of the sanctions.113
Russia’s mediation on Afghanistan
also helped revive its dialogue with the
United States, especially after the Trump
administration revised its South Asian
strategy to prioritize a phased exit strategy
and progress towards a negotiated solution.
Washington stopped ignoring the Moscow
regional peace consultations format, while
111 Zalmay Khalilzad quoted in Mujib Mashal,
“U.S. and Taliban agree in principle to peace frame-
work, envoy says,”
The New York Times
, January 28,
2019; “Round of U.S.-Taliban talks ends with progress
on dra peace deal: Taliban ocials,” Reuters, January
26, 2019, hps://cle/amp/
112 “Единый федеральный список
организаций, в том числе иностранных и
международных организаций, признанных в
соответствии с законодательством Российской
Федерации террористическими [Federal list of organi-
zaons, including foreign and internaonal, recognized
as terrorist organizaons by the Russian Federaon],”
Федеральная Служба Безопасности Российской
Федерации [Federal Security Service], hp://www.fsb.
113 “Zamir Kabulov: the U.S. is ready to cooper-
ate with Russia on the Afghan selement,”
, February 26, 2019, hp://
Russia backed the U.S.-Taliban bilateral
talks. The U.S. and Russian special envoys
on Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad and Zamir
Kabulov, not only started to meet regularly,
but also quickly expanded the dialogue to
a trialogue involving China. The trialogue
further developed into a four-party format
(China-Pakistan-Russia-U.S.) that first met
in Beijing in July 2019 and next in Moscow
in October 2019. This left the question of
engaging Iran, which Russia—in view of major
U.S.-Iranian tensions—may help address
both through its regional initiatives and
perhaps by trying to bridge the U.S.-Iranian
divide vis-à-vis Afghanistan. On February 28,
2020, a day before the U.S.-Taliban deal and
parallel U.S.-Afghan government declaration
were signed, Russia and the United States
agreed on a joint statement on the matter.114
Kabulov also linked the deal directly to
Russia’s national security interests and
stressed that Russia saw “the end of war,
formation of inclusive Afghan government,
and support from the international
community” as key conditions for eective
antiterrorism in Afghanistan.115
Ultimately, the main way to reduce terrorism
in and from Afghanistan is by achieving
substantive progress at peace process and,
more specifically, by tying the withdrawal
timeline of foreign troops to a comprehensive
and lasting ceasefire between the Afghan
government and the Taliban. At the same
time, it is critical for the United States and
Russia to both acknowledge the Taliban’s
role in fighting ISIL-K in Afghanistan and
to sustain coordinated pressure on the
insurgency not only to renounce and cut
its connections to transnational terrorist
groups, but also to stop using terrorist tactics
inside Afghanistan. Finally, the United States,
in its outreach to Pakistan, and Russia,
including through its cooperation with Iran,
should persuade these Afghan neighbors
to leverage the Taliban and other militant
actors in Afghanistan to adopt a more active
antiterrorism stance.
114 “Joint Statement on the Signing of the U.S.-
Taliban Agreement.”
115 “Peace deal signed by US and Taliban has di-
rect signicance for Russia, diplomat says”,
, February
29, 2020, hps://cs/1125147.
As it has for centuries, Afghanistan,
based on its location, sits at the
intersection of many competing
regional and international security
agendas. In the 18th and 19th centuries,
the geostrategic security interplay between
the British and Russian Empires provided
the backdrop against which regional and
international states and entities competed
for Afghan land and favor. During the latter
half of the 20th century, Afghanistan found
itself in the middle of one of the many
actively competitive regions in the Cold
War rivalry between the United States and
the Soviet Union. Since 2001, Afghanistan
has again been center stage for a global
security competition dominated by the
need to combat the scourge of international
terrorism linked to the numerous Muslim
Salafi-jihadist groups and actors found
within Afghanistan and throughout the
wider region.
In 2020, the imperative of counterterrorism
activities in Afghanistan remains the
dominant security theme. But it is not
the only one. Each of the major states in
the region—and many from outside the
region—pursue multiple security objectives,
including those directly linked to countering
terrorist groups and actors emanating from
within and nearby Afghanistan.
Regional stakeholder security interests in
Afghanistan fit into three major categories.
First, regional, extra-regional and great
powers assess their vulnerability to cross-
border instability stemming from terrorist
actors and groups active inside Afghanistan.
This instability may come from cross-border
violence, smuggling and/or refugee flows
generated or inspired by terrorist actors in
There are three varying levels of terrorist
threat emanating from the Afghan territory:
Very significant direct threat. There
exists the possibility of a direct invasion
by terrorist groups from Afghanistan
into bordering states. This invasion
could result in state failure. Many
Russian and Central Asian experts
are concerned that the complete
withdrawal of American troops from
Afghanistan could result in state
failure, having a potential domino
eect on neighboring countries,
specifically Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and
Kyrgyzstan. The best example of this
scenario is the 1999 Batken conflict, in
which Russian and Central Asian armies
intervened in Kyrgyzstan to prevent
state failure.
Chapter III
Afghanistan in the Regional
Security Interplay Context
Andrey Kazantsev and Thomas F. Lynch III
Terrorism in
Medium direct threat. There exists
the potential of a transborder invasion
by terrorist groups, particularly in the
case of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Iran
and Pakistan. A strong military, however,
would be able to defend its country’s
Indirect threat. Afghanistan serves as
a safe haven for terrorist groups from
other countries or the broader region
(for example, post-Soviet Eurasia) and/
or terrorists that can organize terrorist
acts from their respective countries.
Terrorist threats inside Afghanistan can
also negatively impact the security (in
particular, the eects of drug tracking
and uncontrolled migration flows), as
well as the geopolitical, normative or
economic interests of other states,
including Russia, China and even EU
member states.
Second, states in the region and beyond
evaluate the interplay of terrorist groups in
Afghanistan and the Afghan government in
terms of how it empowers their main security
rivals. Based on their own particular concerns
vis-à-vis interstate rivals, states may assess
the role and activities of terrorist actors in
Afghanistan but opt for counterterrorism
activities that least empower rivals. States
may also pursue counterterrorism strategies
that reduce the chances that each might
be encircled by a major security rival or a
combination of security rivals in the region.
Finally, states in the region and beyond
make counterterrorism assessments
about Afghanistan based on how they view
Afghanistan’s role in ongoing and future
regional economic integration. Some regional
states and partners value Afghanistan’s
potential as an open trade crossroads,
while others view a more open, peaceful
Afghanistan as a competitor to current trade
and commerce arrangements.
Analysis in this chapter starts with regional
security interests of the United States
and Russia, in line with the basic bilateral
inspiration of the report, immediately
followed by a section on China, another great
power with strong regional involvement and
policy influence. Sections on Iran, Pakistan
and India describe security concerns of
the neighbors of Afghanistan being at the
same time significantly exposed to the
terrorist threat and playing critical roles
in developing regional security solutions.
Sections devoted to the former Soviet states
of Central Asia present a variety of direct and
indirect grades of exposure to cross-border
terrorism requiring international assistance
in countering it. The chapter concludes with
overviews of the interests and roles of more
remote regional stakeholders in Afghanistan
security: Turkey, the Gulf states of the Middle
East and the European Union.
United States’ Regional
Security Interests
and Activities
The United States has four major national
security interests in South Asia, and—by
extension—for Afghanistan. Three of these
are vital U.S. security interests with more
than a decade of history behind them.
The fourth is relatively new, but rising in
First, the U.S. retains its post-2001 vital
national U.S. counterterrorism interest of
preventing any return to the region being
a terrorist group safe haven, especially Al-
Qaeda. Second, the U.S. has an increasingly
dicult challenge of trying to reduce the
risks from nuclear weapons proliferation
within the region and the potential loss
of nuclear weapons material to known or
potential adversaries, including terrorist
groups. Third, the U.S. aims to diuse
tensions that might trigger any major war
between Pakistan and India—a war that could
unleash catastrophic nuclear weapons use.
Mitigating the risks to these three vital U.S.
national security interests requires a proper
and balanced U.S. military and intelligence
presence in Afghanistan along with a
sustained U.S. counterterrorism partnership
with NATO allies, and, to a lesser degree,
counterterrorism cooperation with Pakistan
focused on verifiable transactional outcomes
at limited financial costs.116
The fourth U.S. regional security interest is
that of actively encouraging India’s rise as a
stable liberal democracy and an international
security stakeholder. India’s emerging
military strength and diplomatic confidence
best assists America’s wider national interest
of constraining China’s use of military
might in any manner that would threaten
the territorial integrity or sovereignty of its
neighbors or that would hamper free trade,
liberal commerce, human rights or the
peaceful resolution of grievances in the Indo-
Pacific region.117
The U.S. has conducted almost 19 years of
counterterrorism eorts in Afghanistan at
a high-operational tempo, as well as cross-
border counterterrorism activities into
Pakistan in a more covert manner. These
counterterrorism eorts have prevented
any catastrophic terror attack on the U.S.
homeland emanating from the region since
September 11, 2001. The U.S. continues
to assess Afghanistan and Pakistan to
be an area where as many as 20 terrorist
organizations intermix and are operational,
creating, “…the largest concentration of
terrorist and extremist organizations in
the world.118 Thus, a U.S. counterterrorism
presence and pressure remains a dominant
American strategic objective, where ongoing
partnership with Afghanistan, with NATO
countries involved in Resolute Support
Mission (RSM), and via transactional
counterterrorism eorts with Pakistan, must
116 These three U.S. regional security aims are
detailed in
Naonal Security Strategy of the United States
of America
: 50. See Thomas F. Lynch III, “South Asia,” in
Charng a Course: Strategic Choices for a New Adminis-
, ed. R.D. Hooker, Jr. (Washington, D.C.: Naonal
Defense University (NDU) Press, 2016), hps://ndupress.ons/Books/charng-a-course/Ar-
cle/1026990/chapter-13-south-asia/: Chapter 13, 267-69.
117 For development of this fourth U.S. regional
security interest, see
Naonal Security Strategy of the
United States of America
: 45-46. See also Lynch, “South
Statement for the Record by General John
W. Nicholson, Commander, US-Forces Afghanistan Before
the Senate Armed Services Commiee on the Situaon in
, February 9, 2017, hps://www.armed-ser-
pdf: 1.
be pursued in a manner to prevent violent
extremist organizations like Al-Qaeda or
ISIL-K from using Afghanistan as a base
from which to plan terror attacks on the
United States, its partners or its overseas
The U.S. assesses that Al-Qaeda and its
aliates remain in moderate but important
numbers across Afghanistan and Pakistan;
and, that without sustained counterterrorism
pressure, it would reconstitute in short
order as an international threat.120 The
U.S. attempted a gradual transition out of
Afghanistan in 2014-15 but hit a major speed
bump in mid-2015. Then, Afghan National
Security Forces struggled to hold territory
against invigorated Taliban operations, and
the U.S. discovered a disturbingly large
Al-Qaeda training camp amid the Taliban-
controlled Shorabak district to the west of
Kandahar. It took a 200-man combined U.S.
and Afghan Special Forces operation in the
fall of 2015 to destroy this rapidly generated
Al-Qaeda site.121 It remains to be seen if the
U.S.-Taliban February 2020 agreement for
119 The primary U.S. counterterrorism objecve
in Afghanistan, and an increasingly limited, transaconal
relaonship with Pakistan to aain that objecve, laid
out in President Trump’s August 2017 South Asia Strategy
speech at Fort Myer, Virginia. See “Remarks by President
Trump on the Strategy in Afghanistan and South Asia,
This American counter-terrorism objecve remains vis-
ible in the U.S.-Taliban peace accord signed on February
29, 2020. See, “Part II,”
Agreement for Bringing Peace to
Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan
which is not recognized by the United States as a state and
is known as the Taliban and the United States of America
120 U.S. Department of Defense OIG,
Freedom’s Sennel: Lead Inspector General Report to the
United States Congress
, October 1, 2018-December 31,
2018, hps://les/fy2019_lig_
ocoreport_2.pdf: 17.
121 Dan Lamothe, “‘Probably the largest’ al-
Qaeda training camp ever destroyed in Afghanistan,”
Washington Post
, October 30, 2015, hps://www.wash-
in-afghanistan/; and Bill Roggio and Caleb Weiss, “Taliban
promotes 4 previously unidened training camps in Af-
The Long War Journal
, June 26, 2017, hps://
bringing peace to Afghanistan will fare any
better in achieving U.S. counterterrorism
aims. That deal has gotten o to a rocky
The U.S. and NATO’s RSM assesses that
ISIL-K is a small, resilient group with
terrorism capabilities in Afghanistan and
Pakistan, but is not now a major extra-
regional or international threat. The U.S.
and NATO remain concerned about ISIL-K’s
capabilities and trajectory, arguing that
the group must remain under sustained
counterterrorism duress to prevent its
growth into the kind of international threat
against the United States and its allies that
ISIL-K aspires to become.123 Once estimated
to have some 3,000-4,000 Afghan-based
fighters during early 2016, the U.S. and
NATO estimated ISIL-K had fewer than 2,000
militants by the fall of 2018.124
U.S. and NATO ocials describe the core of
ISIL-K to be splinter groups fragmented from
the Pakistani Taliban during the 2015-2017
power struggles and pushed from Pakistan
into Afghanistan during Pakistan’s border
counterterrorism operations that culminated
in late 2017.125 During 2017-2018, ISIL-K was
estimated to have executed 84 attacks in
Afghanistan and a dozen in Pakistan. In
2019 and 2020, ISIL-K continued to focus its
122 Afghanistan peace deal: Taliban walk out of
‘fruitless’ talks,”
BBC News
, April 7, 2020, hps://www.; John R. Allen, “The
US-Taliban peace deal: A road to nowhere,” The Brook-
ings Instuon, March 5, 2020, hps://www.brookings.
ban-peace-deal-a-road-to-nowhere/; and Stefanie Glin-
ski, “U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal Under Fire,”
Foreign Policy
March 4, 2020, hps://
123 Je Seldin, “Islamic State in Afghanistan
Growing Bigger, More Dangerous,
VOA News
, May 21,
2019, hps://
Operaon Freedom’s Sennel: Lead Inspec-
tor General Report to the United States Congress, October
1, 2018-December 31, 2018
: 16-17; and Seldin, “Islamic
State ‘Not Growing’ in Afghanistan, Nicholson Says,”
, September 1, 2018, hps://
125 Seldin, “Islamic State ‘Not Growing’ in Af-
ghanistan, Nicholson Says”; and Lynch, III, “The Decades-
Long ‘Double-Double Game’: Pakistan, the United States
and the Taliban,
Military Review
, July-August 2018: 72.
attacks on government, sectarian and foreign
sectors in Afghanistan and Pakistan and,
to promulgate its violent ideology globally,
primarily through frequent unverified claims
of inspiration for international attackers and
operations.126 U.S. and RSM leaders condemn
ISIL-K’s increasingly bloody and tactically
capable sectarian attacks across Afghanistan
that took place in early 2019, but still do not
view the group as a credible threat beyond
Afghanistan and Pakistan.127
U.S. and RSM ocials dispute the mid-2019
reports by some sources—including Russian
ocials—that ISIL-K numbers about 5,000,128
instead estimating the group to be making
worrisome capability gains during 2019, but
without numbers approaching those once
seen in 2016.129 The U.S., its NATO allies and
Afghanistan continue to decry unwarranted
Russian inflation of the ISIL-K threat, direct
assistance to the Afghan Taliban to combat
ISIL-K and Moscow’s refusal to engage in
counterterrorism and peace negotiations
organized by the U.S. Afghanistan Coalition
as a concerted eort to destabilize
126 “Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K), Terrorism
Backgrounder,” Center for Strategic and Internaonal
Studies, April 30, 2019, hps://
islamic-state-khorasan-k; and Seldin, “Islamic State in Af-
ghanistan Growing Bigger, More Dangerous.
127 Seldin, “Islamic State in Afghanistan Growing
Bigger, More Dangerous”; and Seldin, “IS in Afghanistan
Just Won’t Go Away, US Ocials Say,”
VOA News
, August
7, 2019, hps://
128 Russian ocials have provided varied es-
mates about ISIL-K numbers in past years, ranging be-
tween 4,000 and 10,000 militants in May 2018 (see p.
29, footnote 72) to 5,000 in May 2019 (Андрей Серенко,
“Москву и Вашингтон подозревают в совместной
игре против талибов,”
Независимая газета
, May 28,
2019, hp://
gan0528.html) to at least 4,000 in August 2019
(“Российский дипломат назвал число боевиков ИГ* в
РИА Новости
, August 27, 2019, hps://
129 Seldin, “Islamic State in Afghanistan Growing
Bigger, More Dangerous.” And, some of ISIL-K’s disputed
2019 numbers seem likely to have been generated by in-
appropriately aggregang into the ISIL-K count numbers
of jihadist groups with loose aliaons and temporary
alliances that ISIL-K oen claims as part of its own when
they conduct terror strikes in Afghanistan or Pakistan. See
Amira Jadoon,
Allied & Lethal: Islamic State Khorasan’s
Network and Organizaonal Capacity in Afghanistan and
(West Point, New York: Combang Terrorism
Center, December 2018): 31-61.
Afghanistan and undermine prospects for
Russia’s Regional Security
Interests and Activities
Russia’s interests in Afghan counterterrorism
reflect the country’s wider interests in
Central Asia and include the following:
1. Three Central Asian states—Kazakhstan,
Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan—are members
of the CSTO. As a CSTO ally, Russia
guarantees the security of and maintains
military bases in these three states. A
potential incursion of terrorist groups
from across the Afghan border is
considered a key threat within CSTO’s
2. Two Central Asian states—Kazakhstan
and Kyrgyzstan—are members of
the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU),
along with Russia. Since EEU member
states have open borders enabling
the movement of goods and people,
any destabilization in Central Asian
nations stemming from the situation
in Afghanistan could result in waves
of refugees and other serious issues
for Russia’s territory. Likewise,
destabilization in Afghanistan, as well
as the activities of dierent post-Soviet
terrorist organizations based in northern
Afghanistan and the recruitment
and radicalization of Central Asian
labor migrants in Russia, can further
deteriorate the situation.
3. From 2017-2019, there was an influx
of Russian-speaking Central Asian
fighters who moved from Syria and
Iraq to northern Afghanistan. Terrorist
groups from the northern Caucasus
have also entered into northern
Afghanistan. The potential connection
between the activities of post-Soviet
terrorist organizations based in northern
Afghanistan and the drug trade along the
northern route also poses a concern.
130 Seldin, “US General: Russia Trying to ‘Un-
dercut’ Progress in Afghanistan,
VOA News
, September
1, 2018, hps://
China’s Regional Security
Interests and Activities
China’s primary interest in counterterrorism
in Afghanistan is controlling the security
threat posed by militant fighters,
predominantly Uighurs, in the Xinjiang
region. Xinjiang has a 5,600 kilometer border
along Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan,
Kazakhstan, Mongolia and India. Since
2016, Chinese authorities have significantly
strengthened the defense of the national
border in Xinjiang, and the implementation
of a new antiterrorist policy in the region has
also included many restrictive measures
directed against Uighurs,131 who are
associated with terrorist groups such as
the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP) or East
Turkestan Islamic Movement.
TIP became active in Afghanistan in 1998.
After the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, TIP
clashed with American and Pakistani armies,
eventually moving a portion of their activities
to Pakistan and allying themselves with
Pakistani Taliban, IMU and Al-Qaeda. Uighur
terrorists also played a significant role in the
civil war in the Federally Administered Tribal
Areas of Pakistan. Uighur terrorists later
returned to northern Afghanistan, and under
Taliban banners, participated in the Battle
of Kunduz in 2015 alongside other ethnic
groups (e.g., Chechens, Kyrgyz, Tajiks and
Uzbeks). In the Syrian war, the “Turkistan
Brigade,” also known as the Turkistan Islamic
Party in Syria, fought with Al-Qaeda-aliated
forces, Chechens from Russia and Uzbeks.
Uighur terrorists have once again turned
their focus to Central Asia and northern
China is paying a great deal of attention
to the Afghan province of Badakhshan,
which is situated close to Xinjiang. Chinese
military forces have assisted the Afghan
government in destroying TIP bases in the
area, and in 2017, China pledged to spend
131 Chris Buckley, “China Passes Anterror-
ism Law That Crics Fear May Overreach,”
The New
York Times
, December 27, 2015, hps://www.nymes.
132 Владимир Скосырев, “Китай укрепляется
в Афганистане,”
, January 1, 2018, hp://
more than 90 million USD on economic
assistance to Badakhshan.133 Reportedly,
China is also planning to build and supply
its first military base in this region, which
would ocially belong to the Afghan army
and accommodate 500 troops to carry out
counterterrorism training missions.134
Tajikistan is interested in a Chinese military
presence in Badakhshan to help control the
activity of terrorist fighters on the Tajik-
Afghan border, and Chinese troops will likely
use the Tajik territory to supply this potential
military base in Badakhshan.135 To this end,
in fall 2016, China signed an agreement with
Tajikistan to assist in fortifying the Tajik-
Afghan border. In summer 2016, in Urumqi,
there was a meeting of the heads of general
stas of the armies of China, Tajikistan
and Afghanistan and the commander of
Pakistani ground forces. Together, they have
formed a quadrilateral mechanism to assist
their common fight against terrorism and
Within the regional context, China also has
an interest in advancing its Belt and Road
Initiative (BRI). China is concerned that
terrorist violence in Afghanistan will spill
over not only into Xinjiang, but also into
either Pakistan or Central Asia. This would
endanger the China-Pakistan Economic
Corridor (CPEC)—in which China is investing
more than 62 billion USD into Pakistani
infrastructure137—and multiple Chinese
transportation and energy projects across
Central Asia. Guaranteeing stability in
133 Александр Шпунт, “Китай пришёл в
Афганистан. Одна дорога на Кабул — 76 км между
, February 21, 2019, hps://regnum.
134 This would be China’s second foreign
military base aer the one it opened in Djibou.
See Ben Farmer, “China ‘building military base in Af-
ghanistan’ as increasingly acve army grows in inu-
ence abroad,”
The Telegraph UK
, August 29, 2018,
135 Александр Хроленко, “Зачем Китай
строит военную базу в Афганистане и причем тут
, January 15, 2018, hps://
136 Ibid.
137 Anan Aamir, “China’s eorts to speed up Belt
and Road in Pakistan falters,
Nikkei Asian Review
, Sep-
tember 16, 2019, hps://
Afghanistan also corresponds to Chinese
commercial interests. Chinese investment
projects in the country include a copper
deposit in Mes Aynak and oil extraction in the
Amu-Darya basin. Under BRI, China has also
established railroad and air connections with
Iran’s Regional Security
Interests and Activities
Iran professes a commitment to a negotiated
settlement for Afghanistan while at the
same time oering measured support to the
Afghan Taliban.138 This dual track policy is
not new; in the 1990s, Tehran simultaneously
supported the Rabbani government in Kabul
and several mujahideen factions fighting
it. Currently, Iran expresses a “readiness to
assist [the] Afghan government’s march
along the peace process,” but also has
blamed “foreign troops” for continued
hostilities.139 Iran’s concerns over the latter
are likely to increase as a result of the U.S.
withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive
Plan of Action (JCPOA). Iran’s aims are in
partial alignment with U.S./Resolute Support
Mission Coalition’s mission, but diverge
on the important question of residual U.S.
military force posture in Afghanistan.
Iran has extensive historical and material ties
to elements within the Afghan government,
while maintaining a limited, transactional
amount of military-intelligence leverage
with the Taliban. After the fall of Kabul to the
Taliban in 1996, Iran extended its support to
the Northern Alliance, alongside India and
Russia. After the Taliban’s fall from power in
late 2001, Iran’s cultural and religious anity
with the Shia Northern Alliance aorded it
a unique level of influence during the late
2001 Bonn negotiations, playing a pivotal
role in convincing Northern Alliance elites to
support Hamid Karzai’s interim post-Taliban
government. Iran also has pledged roughly
700 million USD of bilateral assistance to
138 “Iranian Support of Afghan Taliban targeted
by new US Sancons,
Deutsche Welle
, October 25, 2018,
139 “Exit of foreign troops, prelude to Af-
ghanistan peace: Iran,
Islamic Republic News Agency
March 28, 2018, hps://
Afghanistan.140 In 2017, Iran had well over
a billion dollars in trade with the country141
and invested in a railway network linking
Herat with Khaf, Iran.142 Iran has also
reportedly funneled cash directly to Afghan
politicians, and parliamentary ocials have
maintained ties to the Islamic Republic.143
Tehran’s leverage with the Taliban is much
more modest in comparison, but Iran can
alternatively increase or decrease military
pressure on the group.
Iran’s interests in a negotiated settlement
to the conflict span domestic, international
and regional levels of analysis. Tehran’s
concerns about cross-border instability see it
favor the cessation of hostilities and Afghan
renunciation of terrorism. The ongoing war
has led to nearly a million registered refugees
to take up residence in encampments in
Iran, with perhaps as many as another
million Afghans remaining unregistered.144
The conflict has also led to an increase in
the flow of narcotics into and through Iran.
Approximately one-third of Afghan narcotics
made their way across Iranian borders, likely
stretching the country’s security forces and
leading to a two-fold increase in domestic
drug use.145 Although not directly tied to the
140 Mohsen M. Milani, “Tehran’s Take: Un-
derstanding Iran’s U.S. Policy,
Foreign Aairs
, July/
August 2009, hps://www.foreignacles/
141 “Iran-Afghanistan Economic Trade, 2017,”
The Observatory of Economic Complexity, hps://atlas.le/country/afg/.
142 “Afghanistan approves fourth secon of
Khaf-Herat Railway,”
Railway Gazee
, February 21, 2019,
143 Dexter Filkins, “Iran Is Said to Give Top Karzai
Aide Cash by the Bagful,”
The New York Times
, October
23, 2010, hps://www.ny
144 Frud Bezhan and Nusrat Parza, “Things are so
Bad in Iran that Afghan Migrants are Going Home,”
Free Europe/Radio Liberty
, August 1, 2018, hps://www.
145 Vanda Felbab-Brown and Bradley S. Porter,
“Out with the old, in with the old: Iran’s revoluon, drug
policies, and global drug markets,” The Brookings Ins-
tuon, January 24, 2019, hps://
drug-markets/; and Bethan McKernan, “Number of drug
addicts in Iran ‘doubles’ in six years,”
, June
26, 2017, hps://
conflict in Afghanistan, Iran’s own domestic
Sunni jihadist threat motivates Tehran to
seek stability and peaceful relations with
Iranian concerns over how a negotiated
settlement might empower its interstate
rivals are just as, if not more, pressing and
make it resistant to supporting a residual
U.S./RSM presence. A U.S.-leaning regime
in Kabul or an indefinite U.S. presence
in the country would naturally lead to an
increase in Tehran’s insecurity, as would the
empowerment of a Taliban-influenced Afghan
government that leaned towards Saudi
Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival. Although
the relationship between Iran and Pakistan is
generally cordial, a conflict outcome favoring
Islamabad also could trigger Iran’s concerns
over the oppression of Afghan’s Shia
Muslims. In addition, Kabul and Tehran have
ongoing water rights disputes. The Indian-
funded Salma Dam, for example, threatens
water access for 3.4 million Iranians.146
Afghanistan’s potential to integrate the
Iranian economy with markets in South Asia
is considerable. Iran has been supportive of
an Iran-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline that
would allow its oil to reach energy markets in
South Asia. Tehran therefore views TAPI as a
competitor oil infrastructure project. At the
same time, Iran has cooperated with India
to develop the Charbahar port. Charbahar
demonstrates promise to position Iran as a
conduit for Indian-Afghan trade. However, the
mid-2018 U.S. resumption of harsh economic
sanctions against Iran threatens the viability
of the Charbahar project and seems destined
to hinder aspirations for better regional
economic integration of Afghanistan through
Iranian aims are only in partial alignment with
U.S./RSM Afghan peace and reconciliation
objectives. Iran’s concerns over cross-
border instability render it amenable to
the cessation of hostilities and terrorism
emanating from Afghanistan’s borders.
146 Sudha Ramachandran, “Afghanistan risks wa-
ter conict with Iran,”
The Central Asia-Caucasus Analyst,
July 30, 2016, hp://ons/
147 Ramachandran, “India Doubles
down on Chabahar Gambit,
The Diplomat
, Janu-
ary 14, 2019, hps://
Although Tehran’s view on Taliban inclusion
in a future government may be softening, it
still is likely to view a Sunni fundamentalist
regime on its eastern border to be a serious
concern. Most importantly, existing and
escalating animus between Iran and the U.S.
render the former even more resistant to the
presence of foreign troops in the country in
the aftermath of an Afghan peace accord.
Pakistan’s Regional Security
Interests and Activities
Pakistan retains the highest amount of
material and social leverage over the Afghan
Taliban, as well as the most pronounced
interests in the nature and scope of a
long-term settlement for Afghanistan. Yet,
Pakistani counterterrorism interests and
its interests in any mediated settlement
for Afghanistan push it in contradictory
directions. Despite an often-tense
relationship with several factions in the
Afghan Taliban, Pakistan’s military and
intelligence services continue to view
management of an Afghan Taliban insurgency
and the milieu of Salafi-jihadist terrorist
actors who interact in the fight there as
preferable to an Afghan government closely
aligned with India, or a return to prominence
of critical anti-Pakistan terrorist groups in
Pakistan. Since 2015, the Taliban’s control
over portions of Afghan territory and
the growing specter of state collapse in
Afghanistan may have created a window
of opportunity for Islamabad to enable a
peace deal. If the Taliban are given a de
facto level of territorial control in south and
east Afghanistan, Pakistan may now view a
political agreement the Afghan Taliban finds
acceptable to be one that also will secure
Pakistan’s baseline security interests in
Since 2009, Pakistan’s military has been
continuously fighting select Islamist militant
outfits who practice jihad against the
Pakistan state, including: the Tehrik-e-Taliban
Pakistan (TTP), the Pakistani Taliban, the
(TNSM), among others. Pakistan also has
undertaken selective military action against
foreign elements who are either enabling
anti-Pakistan indigenous jihadists, or who
severely aggravate Pakistan’s international
allies (e.g., China or the Central Asian states).
Groups in this category include the IMU, ETM,
ISIL-K or isolated members of Al-Qaeda.
From 2010 to 2017, Pakistan committed an
average of about 140,000 of its 644,000
regular duty army forces to counterinsurgent
and counterterrorism operations in its
western provinces—almost 25 percent of a
force that army leaders would prefer to have
arrayed against India.148
Pakistan also has variously collaborated with
or attacked Islamist factions that vacillate in
their allegiance to the Pakistani state. These
groups—which some scholars have labeled
“frenemies”149—have included Lashkar-e-
Jhangvi (LeJ), Pakistani Tailiban factions
led by Maulvi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur,
and breakaway leaders from the Lashkar-
e-Tayyibah (LeT) like Ilyas Kashmiri.150 This
approach allows Pakistan’s Inter-Services
Intelligence (ISI) to play o Islamist factions
against one another and to leverage
dierentiated groups to specific advantage
in varying types of external and domestic
security conflicts.
Finally, Pakistan closely manages and often
enables groups like LeT, Sipha-e-Sahaba
Pakistan (SSP), the Afghan Taliban and
the Haqqani network. These groups have
direct security utility in sub-conventional
operations against India, Indian interests
in Jammu-Kashmir and in Afghanistan and
do not launch attacks against the Pakistani
state. The Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani
network are strongly ensconced in this
security asset cluster.
Pakistan’s military leadership repeatedly
claims that it is the major victim of the
counterterrorism campaign “forced upon it”
by the U.S. and other Western states since
2001.151 Pakistan contends that it lost over
4,100 soldiers killed and another 13,500
wounded between the period of September
148 Notes by Lynch, III from Pakistani military
brieng on connuing military operaons against an-
state militants in western regions, Naonal Defense Uni-
versity, Washington, D.C., April 27, 2015.
149 Stephen Tankel, “Beyond the Double Game:
Lessons from Pakistan’s Approach to Islamist Militancy,”
Journal of Strategic Studies
(June 16, 2016): 18.
150 Tankel, “Beyond the Double Game”: 19-23.
151 Notes by Lynch, III from Pakistani military
brieng on connuing military operaons against an-
state militants in western regions, Naonal Defense Uni-
versity, Washington, D.C., April 27, 2015.
11, 2001 and early 2015;152 and, that the
nation has suered more than 80,000 civilian
deaths and the loss of over 120 billion USD
over that period.153 In stating these costs and
other losses, Pakistan’s military leadership
draws attention to the fact that its “martyred”
soldiers far exceed the 2,353 American
military deaths reported in Afghanistan from
2001 to 2014.154
Pakistan’s unhappiness with the wider global
war on terrorism notwithstanding, its fight
against anti-Pakistan militants intensified
in 2014 with the long-awaited, and long-
telegraphed, counter-insurgent Operation
Zarb-e-Azb into North Waziristan, which
concluded in late 2017. From the beginning
of Zarb-e-Azb, Pakistan’s civilian and military
leaders claimed that they are fighting
terrorists in Pakistan without discrimination
among groups.155 But Pakistan’s policy of
dierentiated treatment toward Islamist
152 Numbers derived from notes by Lynch, III at
senior Pakistan military ocer briengs at Naonal De-
fense University, Washington, D.C. in April 27, 2014 and
April 19, 2015. See also Yaroslav Tromov, “In Its Own
War on Terror, Pakistan Piles Up Heavy Losses,”
The Wall
Street Journal
, March 10, 2014, hps://
153 Anwar Iqbal, “Pakistan losses in war on ter-
ror fail to impact U.S. discourse,”
Dawn (Pakistan)
, Janu-
ary 9, 2018, hps://; and
“80,000 Pakistanis killed in US ‘War on Terror’: Report,”
The Express Tribune (Pakistan)
, March 29, 2015, hps://
in-us-war-on-terror-report/. See also “Pakistan suered
$107b loss due to terror war,”
The Naon (Pakistan)
, June
5, 2015, hp://na
pakistan-suered-107b-loss-due-to-terror-war; “50,000
killed, $80 billion loss incurred in war on terror, NA told,”
The Express Tribune (Pakistan)
, December 5, 2014; and
“Fatalies in Terrorist Violence in Pakistan, 2003-2015,
South Asian Terrorism Portal (SATP), hp://www.satp.
154 Sara Tannhauser and Christo Leuhrs, “The
Human and Financial Costs of Operaons in Afghanistan
and Iraq,” in
Lessons Encountered: Learning from the
Long War
, ed. Richard D. Hooker, Jr. and Joseph C. Collins
(Washington, D.C.: NDU Press, 2015): 430.
155 Tim Craig and Carol Morello, “Aer years
of delays, Pakistan cracks down on violent Islamists,”
The Washington Post