Last month, I raised the alarm about the planning for the next September 11th already being in motion. Signs this week continue to point towards worsening news for counterterrorism planners and operators. Some sources now place the leader of ISIS and his base of global operations in Afghanistan. For those keeping track, this takes a page out of Osama Bin Laden’s playbook in the 1990s when he shifted from Sudan to Afghanistan.
The ISIS organization is believed to have moved from Syria/Iraq to Turkey, and from Turkey via Iran into Afghanistan. The leader of ISIS is said to be physically located in a Northeastern province in Afghanistan.
Why Afghanistan Appeals to Global Terrorists
First, the instability in governance, and the humanitarian and economic disasters in Afghanistan are distracting the West away from the growing security threats. Most diplomats are focused on human rights issues and the growing food and heating fuel scarcity as the winter approaches. Terrorists are able to conduct their operations and movement of personnel with ease across the country because no one is looking for them vigorously.
Second, the struggle for power inside the current regime and among their fellow Islamist terrorists makes Afghanistan a pomegranate ripe for picking. Syria and Iraq are no longer attractive locations for ISIS, and Turkey and Iran are very good for transit. In Afghanistan ISIS can see that the Kandahari Taliban and the Haqqanis are locked in mortal combat. Some believe that Siraj Haqqani will likely meet an untimely death and be replaced if he does not change his ways quickly. The IS-K branch and AQ and other regional terror groups are also at odds with the current Taliban-Haqqani regime. The global leadership of ISIS likely thinks they can woo fighters from each of these groups and take over the nation when they are ready to.
Third, it seems that once again Pakistan has convinced the gullible world leaders that Pakistani security services can handle counterterrorism in South Asia, and keep it under control—even though they are the primary sustainers of it. With the NATO collation looking for a way out of the security promises they made to the Afghan people, hollow Pakistani promises were too appealing in 2020 and 2021. It is clear now, based on the uptick in terrorist activity in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the promises made to NATO nations will not come to fruition.
Options for the West
There are options for those worried about this gathering of terrorists in an ungoverned space, and those who remember the road to September 11. One obvious task is to conduct more vigorous counterterrorism operations in the country and in nations supporting terrorism. This may have just gotten harder to do, as the U.S. government has just pulled more authorities for using key CT tools like drones into the White House. At a moment that SOF forces need more flexibility to strike terrorists in Afghanistan, they are losing that ability. Operators and commanders need to find a way.
Short of direct U.S. efforts to strike terrorists in South Asia, the U.S. can focus on aiding Afghan CT forces before they are hired away by ISIS or other groups. The Afghans we trained and worked with closely are best positioned to take out ISIS and their allies on the ground. But the former ANDSF folks need to eat and be secure in their homes. Without external (and very minimal) financial support, those two issues might drive many to join ISIS as a way of attacking the Taliban-Haqqani regime. Everyone needs to eat and sleep safely somewhere.
On the diplomatic front, the key to allowing Afghans and other partners to find and hunt terrorists is a weak Taliban-Haqqani regime. If nations start to recognize the Taliban-Haqqani regime as a government, the will to fight will shift to the terrorists in Afghanistan. We cannot expect the Afghans to unite and fight terrorists for us if we are strengthening the terror regime that is hunting our Afghan CT experts.
Diplomats can also give some morale to the Afghans that can fight terrorists by helping Afghans to build an Afghan government-in-exile. Afghans need to spend time now figuring out what kind of government they want when the terrorists implode or are forced out of Kabul again.
Nations and NGOs should continue humanitarian aid efforts and increase them quickly before the winter hits. They must especially target the Northern and Western areas that will be starved of resources this winter as Taliban-Haqqani fighters divert aid from anyone they think are enemies. Working around the terror regime is the key here.
Diplomats must continue to place more pressure on the regime, not less. The Taliban-Haqqani network is splintering and is not interested in forming an inclusive government with anyone else. Don’t given them an inch of relief until they make large changes in their behavior. Don’t foolishly give up any more leverage.
Another way to contain terrorism, and better control an Afghan CT force, is to convince a neighboring nation to give physical space to the Afghan government in exile so that they can safely organize and operate. Uzbekistan might be a perfect home for the large number of Afghans in exile that want to be involved in the creation of the next national government after the current regime is finished. They need safety and support—using the same model that Pakistan used to support the Taliban-Haqqani terrorists is not a wild idea.