The Taliban’s Takeover in Afghanistan

KAS-CEP Report_The Taliban's Takeover in Afghanistan_Dec 2022_cover
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In August 2021, following nearly two decades of armed resistance, the Taliban movement forced their way to power in Afghanistan, coinciding with the withdrawal of international troops from the country. Following their return media attention and international policy discussions have, correctly, focused on the deteriorating economic situation, the looming humanitarian crisis, and the deteriorating human rights situation in the country and on questions such as in which form the Taliban can and should be engaged.See for example: Michael E. O’Hanlon, Rory Stewart, Obaid Younossi, It’s time for the West to engage with the Taliban, Brookings, 16 December 2021, Less attention has been paid to the security and terrorist threats that are likely to emerge from the new situation in Afghanistan. Therefore, a clear gap in perception among policymakers and the general public seems to exist in this regard.

Yet, the emerging threats are manifold. Internal factionalism and instability of the Taliban regimeLynne O’Donnell, Taliban Splintered by Internal Divisions, External Spoilers, Foreign Policy, 12 November 2021, is visible through the frequent change of Taliban provincial governors since August 2021. This situation has the potential not only to inhibit humanitarian operations in the country but also risks spillovers into the immediate region. The continuing symbiotic relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaeda, managed by the Haqqani Network,Jeff M. Smith, The Haqqani Network. The new Kingmakers in Kabul, War on the Rocks, 12 November 2021, the Taliban faction in East Afghanistan, offers al-Qaeda a safe space to reorganize, train and regroup in Afghanistan. Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) presents an ideological challenge to the Taliban regime.See for example: Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler, Joshua Fisher-Birch, Afghanistan Terrorism Report: July 2022, 15 August 2022, The relationship between ISPK and the Taliban is transforming into a complex rivalry,Sami Yousafzai, Tucker Reals, ISIS-K is trying to undermine Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, from inside and out. That’s America’s problem,too, CBS News, 8 October 2021, in which the Taliban are forced to take a more nuanced position to minimize internal dissent and defections.

In addition to clear risks of terrorism financing, the complete control of the production, transport, and sale of illegal drugs in Afghanistan, in particular opium, methamphetamine, and cannabis by the Taliban presents significant additional risks of money laundering operations regionally and internationally. Since the Taliban takeover, this illegal market has been growing rather than decreasing.United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Opium Cultivation in Afghanistan. Latest findings and emerging threats, November 2022, Furthermore, at the time of the Taliban takeover a significant number of foreign terrorist fightersEuropean Parliament, Security situation in Afghanistan Implications for Europe, Briefing, 2021, already operated in Afghanistan as part of a range of al-Qaeda affiliates located in the country. These and potential new fightersAaron Y. Zelin, Return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: The Jihadist State of Play, Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 18 August 2021, traveling to the country present a serious challenge, especially since the Taliban regime is now able to issue original Afghan identity documents via the Afghan ministry of the interior, controlled by the leader of the Haqqani Network.Bill Roggio, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s Ministry of Interior has begun issuing Afghan passports, Long War Journal, 5 October 2021, Therefore, not only can Afghanistan offer a safe training space for such fighters but also the possibility to switch identities before moving to other conflict zones or returning to their home countries.

On a strategic level, the takeover of power in Afghanistan by the Taliban was seen as a vindication of al-Qaeda’s long-term strategy by terrorist sympathizers around the globe. Since the al-Qaeda leadership has sworn personal loyaltyThomas Joscelyn, Ayman al Zawahiri swears allegiance to the Taliban’s new leader, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016, to each new leaders of the Taliban since Osama Bin Laden swore a pledge of allegiance (bayat) to Mullah Omar,Trica Bacon, Deadly cooperation. The shifting ties between al-Qaeda and the Taliban, War on the Rocks, 11 September 2018, any success of the Taliban is also perceived as a success of al-Qaeda by extremists in and outside the region.Warren P. Strobel, Dustin Volz, Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan Celebrated by Extremists on Social Media, Wall Street Journal, 17 August 2021, Externally, while both media outlets and policy discussions have focused on the relationships between the Taliban and Pakistan, China and Russia, much less attention is paid to the complex relationship of Iran with the Taliban. Regular visits of the Taliban leaders to Tehran following their assumption of power in Afghanistan seems to indicate a newly developing complex relationship between both regimes.See for example: Iran International, Taliban FM Describes Iran Visit As Positive, Reportedly Meets Opposition, 1 September 2022,

Finally, these complex challenges will likely have a direct impact on the security situation in the region and internationally. It is telling that Hayat Takhir al-Sham in Syria, the Houthis as well as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and the al-Qaeda affiliated al-Shabaab in Somalia,International Crisis Group, How Islamist Militants Elsewhere View the Taliban’s Victory in Afghanistan, 27 October 2021, congratulated the Taliban, even al-Qaeda’s new coalition in West Africa, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM) and Ansaru, an al-Qaeda linked group in Nigeria, released congratulatory statements.Caleb Weiss, Ansaru congratulates the Taliban in Afghanistan, promotes Al Qaeda ties, Long War Journal, 20 December 2021, Given this situation, German as well as European counterterrorism structures will need to adjust to the new situation and it seems necessary that the current European security and counterterrorism structure is analyzed and examined to ascertain which regulatory adjustment may be necessary and identify capacity or capability gaps to mitigate these emerging threats.Silvia D’Amato, Andrea Terlizzi, Strategic European counterterrorism? An empirical analysis, European Security, 31:4, 2022, DOI:10.1080/09662839.2022.2029847,

This report will focus on the threats emanating from this situation and consists of three parts. The first part will look at the internal situation in Afghanistan. Josef Mohr will analyze the current state of power play between the various Taliban factions and their modus of governance, arguing that the current regime may well be the most exclusive government in the country’s history. While the regime maintains the central administrative structure of the former republic, increasingly, decisions are not made by officials in Kabul but ultimately decided by the Taliban’s leader in Kandahar.

Rahmatulah Nabil analyzes what is arguably the most powerful individual faction within the Taliban regime, the Haqqani Network. He demonstrates that this faction is internationally linked to wide range of terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda as well as the main conduit to al-Qaeda. He argues that the Haqqani Network and its operations within the former government was one of the significant factors that led to the downfall of the former republic of Afghanistan. Finally, Khalilullah Safi focuses on the main internal terrorist rival of the Taliban regime, the Islamic State-Khorasan Province’s (ISKP). He argues that ISKP has been able to infiltrate the lower ranks of the Taliban and that its attacks in the country are aimed to demonstrate that the new regime has not established true Islamic governance. Given its regional and global ambitions, ISKP will remain a serious terrorism threat for Afghanistan and beyond.

The second part of the report will look at the external threats emanating from Afghanistan. First Dr. Hans-Jakob Schindler highlights the serious financial risks that the Taliban regime present to the regional and international community due to their continuing close connection to al-Qaeda and its affiliates operating in Afghanistan and due to the movement’s longstanding and deep entanglement with the illicit drug trade. Therefore, continuing inflows of humanitarian aid into the country are at risk of being diverted for terrorist financing or misused for money laundering by the Taliban. He argues that the multilateral sanctions system, which had introduced necessary and broad humanitarian exceptions at the end of 2021 and the beginning of 2022, would need a range of technical reforms to adequately mitigate these risks. Sofia Koller’s chapter will focus on the issue of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs). She demonstrates that although the takeover of power by the Taliban was met with enthusiasm by other terrorist groups, so far, not visible significant flows of new FTFs towards Afghanistan occurred. However, she argues that even the travel of a small number of terrorist operatives to Afghanistan will be of importance. Similar to the late 1990s al-Qaeda has been able to establish a new safe haven under the Taliban regime and the group’s ambitions to recruit and train a small number of terrorist operatives for attacks abroad remains alive. Therefore, governments should establish effective monitoring systems to ensure that this risk is appropriately mitigated.

Dr. Guido Steinberg looks at the status of al-Qaeda in three regions, Afghanistan, Syria, and West Africa. He demonstrates that, although the jihadist movement had problems conducting major terrorist attacks outside the Muslim world with the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan and the French forces from Mali, the jihadist movement scored two major victories since 2021. With al-Qaeda’s new coalition in West Africa, Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa-l-Muslimin (JNIM), the global network was able to transcend its traditionally Arab-based recruiting pool by integrating Turareg and African fighters effectively in its ranks. Therefore, if the current trajectory is not changed, West Africa as well as Afghanistan will potentially become a major concern as a center to establish new external attack capabilities for the network. Finally, Hessam Habibi Doroh analysis the approach that the Islamic Republic of Iran takes towards the Taliban regime. He demonstrates that on the one hand, the withdrawal of the international forces from Afghanistan provided potential opportunities for Iran. On the other hand, the Taliban’s hardline stance and its discrimination against the Shiite Hazara community in the country presents security risks for Teheran, including risks for its borders. He argues that Iran has not yet decided on a unified approach towards the new regime in Kabul and oscillates between engagement and securitization of its relationship with the Taliban. However, the long-term goal remains to build an alliance with the Taliban and to draw Afghanistan into Iran’s sphere of influence.

The report will conclude with an analysis of the current European counterterrorism architecture by Dr. Gerhard Conrad. He argues that, although not the only source of terrorism risks, Afghanistan presents a sustained security challenge for Europe. With its EU Afghanistan Counter Terrorism Action Plan from September 2021, the European Union has laid out significant elements on how to meet this challenge. However, this plan needs to be implemented by the member states of the Union. This will require promoting and prioritizing sustained preventive and firmly result oriented action in capability building within the counterterrorism structure in Europe. Dr. Conrad warns that procrastination can lead to serious challenges, as demonstrated by the ongoing war in Ukraine.

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On May 8, 2019, Taliban insurgents detonated an explosive-laden vehicle and then broke into American NGO Counterpart International’s offices in Kabul. At least seven people were killed and 24 were injured.

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