Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Major Challenges Ahead as Violence Returns to Afghanistan

In a recent investigative report, the US Defense Department’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) concluded that “the single most important factor” behind the Taliban’s swift takeover in August 2021 was “the US decision to withdraw military forces and contractors from Afghanistan.” Days later, the UK Foreign Affairs Committee issued a report labeling the withdrawal from Afghanistan a “disaster,” a “betrayal,” and the result of “systemic failures” to plan ahead and prevent a Taliban victory.

These reports have given renewed attention and context to those paying attention to the deteriorating situation inside Afghanistan, nine months after the Taliban’s assumption of power. With the war in Ukraine and damaging knock-on effects hitting the global economy and food market, attention has drifted away from Afghanistan’s worsening humanitarian crisis.

Since the Taliban’s takeover, millions of Afghans have become unemployed and half the population – roughly 20 million people – are living with acute hunger, according to the United Nations. Many government employees have not been paid for months, and desperate middle class families are trying to sell their children to aid workers in an attempt to secure money or food. Without a concerted international surge in aid provision, this humanitarian crisis looks set only to worsen in the coming months, placing Afghanistan on the precipice of a catastrophe.

It remains a basic fact that humanitarian suffering and crippling poverty is the number one driver of instability, violence and extremism – and in a country like Afghanistan, today’s prevailing realities should be of deep concern. With Spring in bloom, the Taliban’s government is facing intense security challenges from all directions in a clear sign that the “stability” claimed by some over the winter was premature.

In recent weeks, Ahmed Massoud’s National Resistance Front launched a determined offensive against the Taliban in its historical Panjshir stronghold. While the Taliban appear to have quelled much of the NRF’s attack, they served to underline the extent to which the Taliban remains far from unchallenged by domestic rivals. Meanwhile, rumors continue to swirl that some of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords, particularly Abdul Rashid Dostum, may have spent the winter prepping resistance forces of their own to challenge the Taliban at an opportune time.

Of much more significance to the Taliban and prospects for further destabilizing of Afghanistan is the recent escalation of attacks by the Islamic State-Khorasan Province. Since April, ISKP has launched a brutal campaign of attacks targeting Shiite Hazara community, the Taliban itself, and Afghanistan’s critical infrastructure, particularly the electricity grid. In northern and eastern Afghanistan, as well as in the capital Kabul, ISKP’s determination to spark sectarian conflict, undermine Taliban rule and worsen humanitarian suffering has been on clear display – and for now at least, the Taliban appears to have no meaningful response.

What we have witnessed from ISKP in recent weeks is unfortunately likely to be just the start of a gradually escalating campaign. To make matters worse, the Taliban’s only response to ISKP until now has been to launch a brutal crackdown against conservative Salafist communities it accuses of harboring ISKP operatives. But for now, that appears only to catalyzed a surge in localized ISKP recruitment.

Beyond domestic security implications, another element of recent instability in Afghanistan has come in the form of cross-border attacks by groups based on Afghan soil. Since April, two attacks have targeted Tajikistan, at least has struck Uzbekistan and nearly a dozen have hit targets in Pakistan. Clashes have also erupted along the Iranian border. So far, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan and Iran have only deployed troop reinforcements to areas along the border, but Pakistan has hit back, launching several deadly waves of airstrikes inside Afghanistan that have killed dozens of civilians.

Instability inside Afghanistan is a source of significant concern, but the prospect of that then becoming regionally destabilizing should be of acute worry. One of the most sensitive clauses of the US deal with the Taliban was for the Taliban to guarantee that Afghanistan would not become a launching pad for attacks abroad. That we have witnessed cross-border attacks into three countries within nine months of the Taliban taking power is a damning indictment of Taliban capabilities and intent and a very bad sign of things to come.

Even without the war in Ukraine, it is unlikely that the US and Europe would be heavily engaged in resolving these troubling issues. Even from a counterterrorism perspective, the US emphasis on utilizing “over the horizon” capabilities to monitor, detect and neutralize threats appears to have been little more than a slogan. The US SIGAR report mentioned above made clear that the US military was “limited” in its ability to do anything, and the new commander of US Central Command, Lieutenant General Michael Kurilla, told Congress in February that conducting over the horizon in Afghanistan was “extremely difficult.”

It is therefore unavoidable that the onus of responsibility for stabilizing (at best) or containing (at least) Afghanistan is likely to fall upon countries of the immediate region. The challenges ahead will be significant.