Afghanistan: Extremism & Terrorism

On October 15, 2021, a group of suicide bombers detonated explosives at the Imam Barga mosque in Kandahar during Friday prayers. The explosion, which targeted Kandahar’s largest Shiite mosque, killed 37 and wounded another 73. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack, after having carried out a similar attack a week earlier on October 8. The attack on the Shiite Sayed Abad mosque in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan killed 43 people and injured more than 140 others. The attack came days after another ISIS-K suicide bombing outside of the Eidgah mosque in Kabul on October 3. The blast, which killed at least five, targeted a funeral service that was held for the mother of Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. ISIS-K released a statement in a Telegram post that one of their fighters managed to evade security forces at the funeral and detonate his explosive belt. That evening, Taliban government forces launched an operation north of Kabul to target and neutralize an ISIS-K cell. The ISIS-K cell was neutralized after an explosives-packed car blew up and destroyed the building the militants were hiding in. (Sources: NPR, CNN, New York Times,  CNN, CBS, Reuters, CNN, Reuters, New York Times, New York Times)

On October 9 and 10, 2021, a U.S. delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. delegation focused on security, terrorism concerns, and the guarantee of human rights and meaningful participation of all Afghans in Afghan society. Additionally, the United States reiterated the concern for safe passage for U.S. citizens and Afghan partners still seeking to leave the country. Despite refusing to provide political recognition to the self-imposed government, the U.S. agreed to provide humanitarian aid that will go “directly to the Afghan people.” Although the talks were also meant to touch on containing extremist groups in Afghanistan—particularly ISIS’s Khorasan Province (ISIS-K)—Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Associated Press that, the Taliban is “able to tackle Daesh independently.” (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Guardian, Associated Press, Associated Press

On September 7, 2021, the Taliban officially announced the appointments within its caretaker government. At the helm of the movement is Haibatullah Akhundzada, who will serve as supreme leader. Mullah Muhammad Hassan was named the acting prime minister, with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi named deputy prime ministers. The top security post was given to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who will serve as acting minister of the interior, a role in which he will have extensive authority over policing and legal matters. Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, who is the oldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar, is named the acting defense minister. The government is exclusively male, with many positions filled with veterans from their hardline movement in the early nineties. (Sources: New York Times, Associated Press)

The appointments came a month after the Taliban began its offensive against major Afghan cities on August 6, 2021. By August 16, the Taliban laid siege to the presidential palace and took complete control of Kabul, declaring the war in Afghanistan had ended. The last U.S. troops flew out of Kabul on August 30, ending a 20-year war that took the lives of 2,500 American troops and 240,000 Afghans and cost about $2 trillion. By the evening of August 30, 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul. Before departing, U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft, dozens of armored vehicles, and disabled air defenses that were used to counteract jihadist attacks in the country. The final withdrawal of U.S. troops was not a celebration of a more secure Afghanistan, but marked the beginning of a new Taliban regime. (Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Reuters)

Following the takeover of Kabul, the Taliban claimed it would take on a more “moderate” approach in their ruling of the country, and that women would be allowed to have roles in public life in observance of “Islamic law.” Despite these claims, protests erupted throughout the country through September, with the Taliban allegedly hitting protesting women with electric tasers, rifle butts, metal clubs, and tools as well as detaining and beating several Afghan journalists who were covering the protests. (Sources: Reuters, Associated Press, New York Times, CNN, Reuters)

On August 22, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced that ISIS would likely exploit the security vacuum in Kabul and posed a significant threat to Americans in Afghanistan. A few days later, on August 26, ISIS-K carried out a suicide bombing and opened fire at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. As many as 170 people and 13 U.S. service members were killed, with an additional 200 wounded. In response to the Kabul airport attacks, on the evening of August 27, 2021, the U.S. military carried out a drone strike in Nangarhar, targeting and killing two “high profile” ISIS-K targets and wounding another. On August 29, U.S. forces conducted another airstrike against an ISIS-K target in Kabul. However, on September 17, the Pentagon acknowledged that the drone strike was a tragic mistake. The driver of the vehicle, Zemari Ahmadi, was a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group and had no connection to ISIS-K. Despite the airstrikes, ISIS-K continued their attacks, detonating a number of explosives over the weekend of September 18 and 19 in Jalalabad. According to on-the-ground sources, the six explosions killed at least three people and injured about 20 others. The attacks targeted Taliban members as ISIS-K opposes the Taliban as they consider the government to not be extreme enough. (Sources: Washington Post, Telegraph, CNN, CNN, NBC News, New York Times, Reuters, Washington Post)

Afghanistan—officially the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan—has a tumultuous history of uprisings against the government, guerilla warfare, and foreign occupation dating back to the 19th century. The country now faces violent insurgencies by the Taliban and ISIS. According to the United Nations, Afghanistan suffered a record number of casualties in 2015, with more than 3,500 civilians killed and almost 7,500 wounded. (Sources: CNN, New York Times)

The Soviet invasion and Afghan civil war in the 1980s and early 1990s brought thousands of Islamic fighters into the country, including al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden. Bin Laden used Afghanistan as a base of operations from which to build his al-Qaeda network. He built alliances between al-Qaeda and local militants, and later the Taliban, to provide al-Qaeda protection from Afghan authorities and other hostile forces. The Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, capitalizing on the country’s decentralized government control after the civil war. Al-Qaeda continued to use Afghanistan as a base until the United States dislodged the Taliban in 2001. Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters fought alongside each other against the U.S.-led coalition, leading then-British Prime Minister Tony Blair to declare in November 2001 that the groups had “virtually merged.” A leaked 2011 Joint Task Force Guantanamo report described a “unification” between al-Qaeda and the Taliban. (Sources: New York Times, Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, p. 22, 90, CNN, Weekly Standard)

After being driven from the government in 2001 before reclaiming control of Afghanistan in August 2021, Taliban insurgents claimed responsibility for deadly bombings and other terror attacks across the country targeting foreign embassies and NATO’s headquarters, as well as Afghan security forces. The Taliban also coordinated with the Haqqani network and al-Qaeda. In September 2015, the Taliban began capturing territory for the first time since it was removed from power. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Bloomberg News, New York Times)

ISIS has declared Afghanistan and Pakistan to be a singular region called the Khorasan Province. ISIS has initiated several suicide bombings and other attacks in the country, including a July 2016 double suicide bombing that killed more than 80 people. The majority of Afghan extremist groups have rejected ISIS, according to the U.S. State Department. The Taliban in particular have rejected ISIS’s encroachment into their territory, and the two groups have violently clashed. (Sources: NBC News, CNN, U.S. Department of State, Diplomat, Wall Street Journal)

Afghan security worked with international forces to build and maintain the country’s security infrastructure and combat extremist groups. NATO ended its 13-year combat mission in Afghanistan in December 2014, but continued to support Afghan security forces. Then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced in 2015 that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan at least through the end of his presidency in 2017 to assist Afghan security in combating the Taliban, ISIS, and other violent extremists. Former President Donald Trump set a deadline of May 1, 2021, to withdraw U.S. forces from the country. His successor, President Joe Biden, pledged to withdraw U.S. forces by September 11, 2021, but completed full military withdrawal by August 30, 2021. Despite Afghan successes against the insurgency, the Taliban continued their bloody rebellion, eventually retaking full control of Afghanistan by August 2021. (Sources: Guardian, New York Times, New York Times, Bloomberg News, CNBC, New York Times, Reuters)

Radicalization

Several extremist organizations operate in Afghanistan. A 2015 study by the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) found extensive activity by extremist and Islamist groups within the schools. According to AREU researcher Ali Mohammad Ali, Islamist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamiat-e-Islah, and Tehrik-e-Islami recruit teachers who then recruit students. The AREU study found that high school students are turning to radical groups out of frustration with unemployment, a slow economy, and the dysfunctional Afghan educational system. The AREU recommended lifting the government ban on political activism in high schools in order to allow in non-radical groups to act as a counter balance. (Sources: CTC Sentinel, Tolo News)

Afghan authorities have cited the proliferation of unregistered mosques and madrassas (Islamic religious schools) as a cause of radicalization in the country. The Afghan government requires mosques to register with the Ministry of Hajj and Religious Affairs and the Ministry of Education. Nonetheless, only 50,000 of the country’s estimated 160,000 mosques are registered. Almost two-thirds of Afghanistan’s 1,500 madrassas are also not registered, according to government officials. Afghan officials have further pointed to unregistered madrassas in neighboring Pakistan as a source of militancy in Afghanistan. More than 5,000 Afghans study in the Balochistan region of Pakistan alone, and Afghan and U.S. intelligence assert that the Afghan Taliban has exerted control over unregistered madrassas in Pakistan. The U.S. State Department has identified “lack of oversight over religious activities at mosques” as a source of concern. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Voice of America, Rawa News)

Former Afghan President Hamid Karzai has criticized Pakistan for not confronting radicalization within its borders, and accused Pakistani radicals of being responsible for the flow of foreign fighters into Afghanistan. According to Karzai, the 1980s war to drive out Soviet forces from Afghanistan allowed religious radicalization to flourish in Afghanistan. Islamic fighters equated “jihad” with Afghan liberation, he said. “Extremism and terrorism was one of the most important tools” used to undermine Afghan society after the Soviet withdrawal, according to Karzai. The former president has called for “sincere cooperation” between the United States, Russia, China, India, and Iran as the only way to stop the spread of extremism. (Sources: Afghanistan Times, Afghanistan Times)

Soviet-Afghan War and Afghan Civil War

The Soviet-Afghan war began in December 1979 and lasted until February 1989. The communist People’s Democratic Party took control of the Afghan government during an April 1978 coup and renamed the country the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan. That December, the communist government signed a treaty with the Soviet Union, which led the Soviet Union to provide large amounts of military aid to Afghanistan the following year. Multiple Islamic resistance groups—calling themselves mujahideen, warriors—began to fight against the Soviet-backed government. Pakistan-based fighters fought to capture territory in Afghanistan and encouraged Afghan soldiers to defect. In September 1979, the Soviet-backed Afghan government requested Soviet troops to help combat the growing Islamic insurgency. That December, Soviet forces arrived in Afghanistan to bolster Afghan forces. (Sources: BBC News, New York Times)

In the first half of 1980, the Soviet Union moved 80,000 troops into Afghanistan to fight the mujahideen, which were then receiving military and financial aid from the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan. In 1982, the U.N. General Assembly called for the USSR to withdraw from Afghanistan. The United States also increased its arms supply to the mujahideen to fight the U.S. Cold War enemy. For example, in 1986, the United States provided the insurgents with Stinger missiles with which to shoot down Soviet helicopters. (Source: BBC News)

The Afghan conflict attracted Islamic fighters from around the world. Among them was Osama bin Laden, who arrived in Afghanistan in the early 1980s to finance and support the mujahideen—as well as directly participate in the fighting—against the Soviets. In 1984, bin Laden and Abdullah Azzam set up guesthouses in Pakistan to host incoming foreign fighters on their way to Afghanistan. Bin Laden also reportedly financed training camps in northern Pakistan near the Afghan border for Islamic foreign fighters going to Afghanistan. As many as 20,000 foreign fighters passed through bin Laden’s network, according to media estimates. Bin Laden reportedly spent $25,000 a month to subsidize the fighters. Bin Laden reportedly described Afghanistan as where he “set up my first camp where these volunteers were trained by Pakistani and American officers.” (Sources: PBS, Washington Post, New York Times, CNN)

By 1985, more than 5 million Afghans had been displaced, and many sought refuge in Iran and Pakistan. That year, the various mujahideen factions assembled in Pakistan to form an alliance against Soviet forces. (Sources: BBC News, BBC News)

The Soviet Union began withdrawing troops in 1988 after signing a peace accord with the United States, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Soviet forces completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in February 1989. More than one million Afghans and 13,000 Soviet troops died during the 10-year war. The Afghan civil war, however, continued until the 1992 overthrow of formerly Soviet-backed Afghan President Mohammed Najibullah. Control of Afghanistan was divided between the mujahideen forces. (Sources: BBC News, PBS, PBS, Council on Foreign Relations)

Bin Laden and other Arab and Muslim fighters from the Afghan war returned to their home countries emboldened by their perceived triumph over the Soviet forces. The “myth of the superpower was destroyed,” Bin Laden reportedly said. Bin Laden believed that the support network he had built to funnel fighters into the Afghan jihad could serve another purpose. The network reportedly kept a database of foreign fighters coming to Afghanistan in order to alert their families in case of their death. That database became an early recruitment tool for al-Qaeda. In August 1988, bin Laden and eight others met in Peshawar, Pakistan, to create al-Qaeda’s advisory council, membership requirements, and pledge of allegiance. In a 1995 interview with a French journalist, bin Laden said, “I discovered that it was not enough to fight in Afghanistan, but that we had to fight on all fronts against Communism or Western oppression. The urgent thing was Communism, but the next target was America.” (Sources: New York Times, Intelwire)

Taliban

The Taliban (Pashto for “students”) are the jihadist insurgent group operating in Afghanistan against the current Western-backed government. The Taliban are the predominant umbrella group for the Afghan insurgency, including the semi-autonomous Haqqani network. (The Taliban’s offspring across the border, the Pakistani Taliban, share the ideology and objectives of its namesake but operate independently and focus on overthrowing the Pakistani government.) January 2018 estimates by Afghan and U.S. officials gauged that the Taliban included at least 60,000 fighters. These forces have allowed the Taliban to remain a credible fighting force with the ability to win and hold territory. (Sources: NBC News, Voice of America, CNBC)

The Taliban were founded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1994 by Mullah Mohammed Omar. The group soon absorbed more than 15,000 students and clerics from western Pakistan and began implementing sharia in Afghan territory. By the end of 1994, the Taliban had complete control over Kandahar and Helmand province, the center of opium cultivation. During this time, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency secretly funneled money to the Taliban in Afghanistan. (Sources: New Yorker, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright, p. 259, Council on Foreign Relations)

Between 1995 and 1996, the Taliban gained public support in Kandahar and expand into other regions of Afghanistan. On April 4, 1996, Omar declared himself emir ul-momineen, “commander of the faithful”—the legitimate spiritual leader of Muslims in Afghanistan. After seizing the Afghan capital of Kabul in September 1996 and cementing their control of Afghanistan’s government, the Taliban announced their aims to impose order, disarm the Afghan population (especially rival ethnic groups), enforce sharia, and defend the Islamic character of the “Emirate of Afghanistan.” The Taliban banned most sporting events and forms of entertainment, from poetry and music to kites. They closed all girls’ schools and prohibited women from appearing in public except under strict supervision by a male relative. Even when women were in their respective homes, the windows were painted black to prevent passersby from glimpsing women in their private quarters. (Sources: The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright, p. 259, SF Gate, BBC News, Council on Foreign Relations, Taliban, Ahmed Rashid, p. 22, 90)

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, U.S. President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban turn over all al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan; release all imprisoned foreign nationals; protect foreign journalists, diplomats and aid workers; immediately close every terrorist training camp, and hand over every terrorist and their supporters; and give the United States full access to terrorist training camps for inspection. After the Taliban refused U.S. demands, the United States and United Kingdom launched airstrikes to dislodge the Taliban from power. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the Taliban and al-Qaeda had “effectively merged.” (Sources: Telegraph, CNN, Telegraph, Washington Post, CNN, Weekly Standard, Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Department of Defense)

The U.S.-led coalition forced the Taliban to relinquish its control on Afghan territory and the government. Between late 2001 and early 2002, approximately 30,000 Taliban fighters were killed. U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld declared the end of “major combat activity” in Afghanistan in May 2003. Afghanistan held its first democratic presidential elections after the fall of the Taliban in October 2004, electing the U.S.-backed Hamid Karzai, who had been Afghanistan’s transitional leader since December 2001. (Sources: Telegraph, CNN, Telegraph, Washington Post, CNN, Council on Foreign Relations, U.S. Department of Defense, Guardian, New York Times)

The Taliban have since operated as an insurgent force in both Afghanistan and Pakistan, attempting to expel NATO forces from Afghanistan and defeat the democratically-elected Afghan government. Attacks on Afghanistan’s security forces have increased as Western forces have begun to withdraw from the country in recent years. As government authority has weakened, Taliban forces have sought to fill the vacuum. The Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz in September 2015. It was the first major city to fall into Taliban hands since the United States deposed the Taliban government in 2001. By December 2015, vast swathes of Helmand Province had fallen back under Taliban control. U.S. Special Operations forces responded by covertly committing additional ground troops and air support to halt this advance. Helmand politician and television commentator Toofan Waziri told the New York Times that the U.S. presence has helped rally Afghan forces against the Taliban. Nonetheless, the Taliban remain in control of parts of Helmand Province and maintained a shadow government there. As of August 2016, the Taliban controlled four of Helmand’s 14 districts, while the Afghan government reportedly believed that only two of Helmand’s districts were securely under its control. (Sources: New York Times, BBC News, New York Times, Long War Journal, Bloomberg News, CBS News)

In January 2018, the BBC estimated that the Taliban threatened 70 percent of Afghanistan and fully controlled 14 Afghan districts, or 4 percent of the country. The BBC further estimated that the Taliban “have an active and open physical presence” in an additional 263 districts, or 66 percent of Afghanistan. That same month, Bill Roggio of the Long War Journal estimated that the group controlled 45 percent of Afghanistan. In October 2017, the U.S.-led coalition estimated that the Taliban controlled 44 percent of Afghanistan. All of the estimates represented a significant increase from September 2016 when the group reportedly controlled just 10 percent of the country. On May 1, 2019, U.S. military command in Afghanistan reported that they would discontinue monitoring how many people and districts the government and insurgents controlled as the assessments “limited decision-making value” for commanders. (Sources: BBC News, NBC News, Reuters, Reuters, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, New York Times)

January 2018 estimates by Afghan and U.S. officials gauged that the Taliban included at least 60,000 fighters, up from 2014 U.S. estimates of 20,000 fighters. The quality of these new recruits, however, may not be of the same caliber as the Taliban’s older fighters. The Taliban has even allegedly resorted to luring children into their ranks with sweets and then training them to become suicide bombers. The U.S. government does not release official numbers of the Taliban’s ranks. (Sources: NBC News, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, YNet News)

The United States remains entrenched in the fight against Taliban forces, which, as of August 2021, has cost the United States more than $2 trillion since 2001. In July 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that more than 8,000 U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan through the end of his term in 2017. The president cited Afghanistan’s “precarious” security situation as necessitating continued U.S. involvement. Obama had also recently adjusted the U.S. rules of engagement to allow troops to directly confront the Taliban, in addition to training Afghan forces. President Donald Trump raised U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan to 14,000 by the end of 2017. The Taliban has demanded direct negotiations with the United States on ending the conflict in Afghanistan and the Taliban’s future role. In January 2018, Trump rejected future peace talks with the Taliban. That July, however, the Trump administration ordered U.S. diplomats to pursue direct negotiations with the Taliban. That month, U.S. and Taliban officials met to begin discussions on peace talks to end the war in Afghanistan with the understanding that the Taliban and Afghan government should lead the process. The Qatari government agreed to mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan government. On July 8 and 9, 2019, Qatar and Germany sponsored a two-day intra-Afghan meeting in Doha where Afghan leaders and Taliban representatives could have an informal forum to discuss Afghanistan’s future. The “ice-breaker” talks proved promising, with representatives from both sides calling for a “roadmap for peace” to reduce civilian casualties to zero. By August 2019, the United States and Taliban had reached a framework agreement that included a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and intra-Afghan negotiations from the Taliban. (Sources: Forbes, Reuters, Military Times, Bloomberg News, New York Times, New York Times, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera)

According to a 2012 leaked NATO report, Pakistan’s ISI provided funding and training to the Taliban both in their takeover of Afghanistan in the 1990s and after the 2001 U.S. invasion. The report—based on 27,000 interrogations of 4,000 captured Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other foreign fighters—alleged that senior Taliban officials maintain homes in Pakistan close to ISI headquarters, and “Pakistan’s manipulation of the Taliban senior leadership continues unabatedly.” Admiral Mike Mullen, former chair of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, credited Pakistan’s support of the Taliban to the infiltration of the religious right in the Pakistani army and Pakistan’s desire to expand its regional influence through “proxies.” In response to the NATO report, Pakistan denied interference in Afghanistan. (Sources: Time, Brookings Institution)

Since the rise of ISIS, the Taliban have emphasized preserving pan-Islamic unity. Following al-Qaeda’s example, the Taliban have advised ISIS to “avoid extremism” that risks splintering the violent Islamist movement across the broader Middle East. Deceased Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in particular reaffirmed the Taliban’s priority of establishing a unified Islamist movement to expel the “far enemy” (the Western powers). Omar referred to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi as a “fake caliph” who “just wanted to dominate what has so far been achieved by the real jihadists of Islam after three decades of jihad. A pledge of allegiance to him is ‘haram.’” Despite these warnings, hundreds of Taliban members have purportedly joined ISIS’s Pakistani branch. (Sources: National Review, Rudaw, NBC News)

In April 2017, U.S. General John Nicholson, who commands U.S. forces in Afghanistan, said the U.S. military had received reports that Russia is arming the Taliban. Other U.S. military officials corroborated the reports and said that Russia had increased its supply of small arms to the Taliban in the past 18 months. Russia denied the allegations. A Taliban video released in late July 2017 claimed that the Russian government has provided the terrorist group with snipers, heavy machine guns, and other weapons. Nicholson has previously criticized Russia for providing “legitimacy” to the Taliban. (Sources: Washington Post, Daily Mail, CNN, Reuters)

Afghan security officials have claimed to possess evidence that both Russia and Iran are providing financial, military, and material support to the Taliban. According to Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai, chief of Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security, Iran and Russia have both increased their ties to the Taliban under the guise of fighting ISIS. Iran has supported the Taliban since 2006, according to the U.S. State Department. A 2012 U.S. Department of Defense report to Congress stated that Iran’s support was part of a “grand strategy” to challenge U.S. influence. A May 2016 U.S. drone strike killed Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour in Pakistan shortly after he crossed the border from Iran. Mansour had made multiple trips to Iran because of “ongoing battle obligations, according to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid. In July 2018, the Afghan government reported that Taliban forces have admitted to receiving training in Iran. According to Taliban sources, Iran provided the training on the condition that the Taliban increase its attacks on American and NATO forces. (Sources: Times, U.S. Department of State, Long War Journal, Federation of American Scientists, Pakistan Forward)

The Taliban have also targeted Afghanistan’s healthcare workers, particularly those distributing vaccines. The United Nations and other international aid groups have launched multiple vaccination drives in Afghanistan against polio, COVID-19, and other diseases, but healthcare workers have come under attack by militants, spurred by the Taliban’s anti-vaccine propaganda. In June 2020, The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) warned health workers were increasingly at risk of attack. UNAMA recorded 12 acts of violence against health workers between March 11 and May 23, 2020, eight of which were attributed to the Taliban. The Taliban have condemned vaccination campaigns as Western conspiracies to both sterilize Muslim children and spy on militants. As such, the Taliban have banned door-to-door vaccination campaigns in areas under their control. The Taliban point to a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign the CIA used to track al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. In Afghanistan in June 2021, gunmen killed five vaccination workers in one day in a series of coordinated attacks. The Taliban denied responsibility but continue to promote propaganda that encourages future attacks. (Sources: Deutsche Welle, Associated Press)

U.S.-Taliban February 2020 Peace Agreement and U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

On February 29, 2020, following an agreed seven-day reduction in violence, U.S. and Taliban representatives met in Doha, Qatar, where they signed an agreement necessitating the eventual full withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The United States agreed to draw its forces down from 13,000 to 8,600 in the next three to four months, with the remaining U.S. forces withdrawing in 14 months. In exchange, the Taliban agreed to renounce al-Qaeda and prevent al-Qaeda and other groups from using Afghanistan as a base for terrorism against the United States. The Taliban also agreed to negotiate a permanent ceasefire with other Afghan militants and the Afghan government. The U.S. troop drawdown is dependent on the Taliban maintaining its commitments. The agreement also called for permanent ceasefire and power-sharing talks that March between Afghan militant groups as well as between the Taliban and the Afghan government. After Afghan forces killed a senior al-Qaeda leader in Afghanistan’s Ghazni province in October 2020 and a senior regional leader in Farah province the following November, Afghan officials accused the Taliban of continuing to harbor al-Qaeda. (Sources: Associated Press, Voice of America, Al Jazeera, U.S. Department of State, Reuters)

Given the Taliban-U.S. agreement, there were reports on June 9, 2020, that a group of Taliban militants broke off from the mainstream Taliban to form the Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami (Party of Islamic Guardianship) in defiance of the peace negotiations. According to an Afghan intelligence official, the group has yet to be “officially announced,” but it is alleged that the group has close ties to Iran—a country which the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency reported in November 2019 as having provided financial, political, training, and military support to the Taliban. Members of the splinter group include radical Taliban commanders and members of other Taliban factions. Despite the formation of Hezb-e Walayat-e Islami, the Taliban has begun to put together an agenda for negotiations with the Afghan government. Sediq Sediqi, a spokesman for President Ashraf Ghani, claims the president would like for the talks to commence in July 2020. (Sources: Radio Free Europe, Military Times)

The Taliban and the Afghan government conducted limited negotiations via video conferencing in March 2020. On March 25, the Taliban announced the Afghan government had agreed to an initial prisoner release, while Afghanistan’s National Security Council said face-to-face discussions would soon begin. The Afghan government announced the formation of a negotiating team for talks with the Taliban the following day. On March 30, the government canceled the release of 100 Taliban prisoners scheduled for the following day after the deaths of at least 28 Afghan security personnel in multiple attacks over the preceding two days. The government blamed the Taliban for the attacks, though the group did not immediately claim responsibility. By early May, the Afghan government had released 933 Taliban prisoners in exchange for dozens of captive Afghan security personnel. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Agence France-Presse, Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Reuters, Agence France-Presse)

Because of ongoing negotiations between the Taliban and the United States, NATO’s Resolute Support mission stopped releasing data on the number of Taliban attacks. According to a Resolute Support assessment, the Taliban refrained from attacking coalition forces in March 2020 but increased attacks on Afghan forces. On April 30, 2020, the U.S. Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a quarterly assessment that called Taliban attacks in March “above seasonal norms.” The Afghan National Security Council found that the Taliban had carried out an average of 55 attacks per day since March 1. According to the council, the Taliban has continued its “campaign of terror against Afghans” and done nothing for peace. U.S. military leaders called on the Taliban to reduce attacks or face a response. In late April 2020, the Taliban rejected calls from the Afghan government for a ceasefire during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. However, on May 23, 2020, the Taliban announced a three day Eid ceasefire to which the Afghan government reciprocated. In the SIGAR quarterly report released on July 30, 2021, it was reported that the Taliban controlled more than 210 districts by July 21, 2021. (Sources: NBC News, Washington Post, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, SIGAR)

The global pandemic caused by COVID-19 has also affected Afghan-Taliban relations. Afghanistan had recorded more than 4,400 cases of the virus by the beginning of May 2020. On May 1, the Taliban accused the Afghan government of intentionally spreading the coronavirus in the country’s prisons in order to pressure the militant group in negotiations. In early May, the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission accused the Taliban of hijacking five truckloads of food aid sent by Turkmenistan amid the pandemic. (Sources: Anadolu Agency, NPR)

Despite initiatives by both the Afghan government and the Taliban to commence conditional peace negotiations, on June 22, 2020, the National Security Council reported that the Taliban killed at least 291 Afghan security personnel and wounded 550 others in the previous week—the “deadliest” week of the entire Afghan war. Despite the increase in violence, Ghani claimed he would continue with a Taliban prisoner release—about an additional 2,000 Taliban inmates on top of the already freed 3,000—a condition the Afghan government had to satisfy in order to begin peace negotiations with the Taliban. (Source: Gandhara)

On July 8, 2020, Afghan authorities reported that they would not follow through with the release of over 600 Taliban prisoners deemed “too dangerous.” However, under the conditions of the February 2020 U.S.-Taliban peace deal, Kabul pledged to release over 5,000 Taliban prisoners in exchange for 1,000 Afghan security force captives. According to Javid Faisal, the spokesman for the National Security Council, the prisoners the Taliban asked to be released still had “serious criminal cases” against them. Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, claimed the criminal cases against the specific prisoners were fabricated, but Faisal stated that the Afghan government will continue with the release of other Taliban prisoners, but only those considered not as significant of a threat. (Source: Military.com)

On January 15, 2021, the United States drew down its forces to approximately 2,500, a 19-year low. A series of attacks struck Afghanistan that month as the United States and NATO reviewed plans to withdraw their forces from the country by May. On January 31, the European Union, NATO, and several Western embassies accused the Taliban for the majority of recent violence. According to Afghan security officials that month, hundreds of Taliban fighters released in 2020 under the U.S. agreement have since been re-arrested. In early February 2021, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh accused the Taliban of failing to uphold its commitments under its agreement with the United States. Later in the month, U.S. officials accused the Taliban of responsibility for the majority of recent violence in Afghanistan. A February 2021 U.S. Department of Defense report also found the Taliban were maintaining their links to al-Qaeda. Russia’s presidential envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, instead blamed the United States for perpetuating the violence by breaching its deal with the Taliban. According to Kabulov, the Taliban were “flawlessly” adhering to the 2020 agreement with the United States. That same month, the Taliban reportedly ordered followers not to provide shelter to or include foreign nationals in their ranks. (Sources: Reuters, Al Jazeera, Reuters, Stars and Stripes, France 24, Agence France-Presse, U.S. Department of Defense, Voice of America, Voice of America)

Between March 16 and March 17, 2021, the United States carried out 48 hours of airstrikes against Taliban targets after the Taliban were “actively attacking and maneuvering on” Afghan troops, according to the U.S. military. The Taliban condemned the strikes as a violation of the Doha agreement and denied the Taliban members targeted in the strikes were involved in fighting. That same week, representatives of the Afghan government, Taliban, United States, Pakistan, China, and Russia met in Moscow to discuss a reduction in violence. After the meeting, the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan issued a joint call for a reduction in violence and for the Taliban to forgo its spring offensive. The following day, the Taliban warned of a “reaction” if the United States did not adhere to its May 1 deadline to withdraw from Afghanistan. The Taliban refused to commit to refraining from a spring offensive. On March 19, the Taliban and the Afghan government agreed to accelerate peace talks. The Taliban claimed they, not the United States, proposed a three-month reduction in violence earlier in the month to “create a conducive atmosphere” for negotiations. According to the U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s annual threat assessment, released April 9, 2021, the Taliban are “likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.” (Sources: Stars and Stripes, Reuters, Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, Voice of America, U.S. Director of National Intelligence)

On April 14, U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed he would not meet the May 1 deadline set by his predecessor. Instead, Biden said the United States would begin to drawdown its troops on May 1 and complete the withdrawal by September 11, 2021. The Taliban responded that the United States must hold to the May 1 deadline or “problems will certainly be compounded and those whom failed to comply with the agreement will be held liable.” The Taliban also announced they would not attend a planned peace conference in Turkey that week. On May 1, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid posted to Twitter that “this violation in principle has opened the way” for the Taliban “to take every counter-action it deems appropriate against the occupying forces.” In the first week of May, the Taliban launched multiple attacks against Afghan forces, killing dozens. On May 9, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. (Sources: Associated Press, Washington Post, New York Times, New York Times, CNN)

The United States began withdrawing its remaining forces from Afghanistan on May 1. As of April 2021, the 20-year-long war in Afghanistan had cost the lives of 66,000 to 69,000 Afghan troops. According to the United Nations, 2.7 million Afghans fled the country, while 4 million were displaced. According to the U.S. Department of Defense, 2,442 U.S. troops have been killed and 20,666 wounded in the war since 2001. More than 3,800 U.S. private security contractors are estimated to have been killed. According to the website iCasualties, 1,144 personnel from the 40-nation NATO coalition that trained Afghan forces over the years have also been killed. In 2020 alone, the war had displaced 404,100 people in Afghanistan, according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). As of May 21, 2021, about 100,000 Afghans had been displaced since the beginning of the year. According to Afghanistan’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, thousands of Afghans have fled their homes in Helmand, Kandahar, Baghlan, and Laghman provinces after the United States began its withdrawal, due to escalating violence and fear of a Taliban resurgence. (Sources: Associated Press, Associated Press, Voice of America)

Despite the U.S. withdrawal, the Taliban continued their violent campaign in Afghanistan against Afghan security forces. In the month and a half after the United States began its withdrawal on May 1, the Taliban captured at least 27 districts across Afghanistan. Further, the group has maintained its ties with al-Qaeda in contravention of its agreement with the United States. A May 2021 report to the U.N. Security Council by an Afghanistan monitoring team concluded the “Taliban’s messaging remains uncompromising, and it shows no sign of reducing the level of violence in Afghanistan to facilitate peace negotiations….” The monitoring team also reported continuing ties between the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (Sources: United Nations, Deutsche Welle)

In June 2021, the Taliban captured Afghan border crossings with Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. The Taliban pledged to keep the crossings operational while collecting millions of dollars annually in customs fees. The Taliban praised their advances as “manifest victory and triumph” and promised recent advances “will be the beginning of the end of the ills birthed by occupation.” In early July, the United States withdrew from the Bagram airbase, where U.S. forces had been stationed for almost 20 years. By July 2, the Taliban had seized more than one-third of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, many of them reportedly since the April announcement of impending U.S. withdrawal. The Taliban captured more than 80 districts between the beginning of May and the end of June. The Taliban reportedly captured 15 districts between July 2 and July 4 alone. U.S. military officials have warned of the potential for a new Afghan civil war. A U.S. intelligence assessment in June 2021 estimated Afghanistan could collapse six months after the completion of the U.S. withdrawal. On August 6, 2021, Taliban fighters seized control of Zaranj, the capital of Nimruz province, southwestern Afghanistan. The seizure of Zaranj, a provincial capital, represents the strengthening of the group’s military offensive as they originally confined their fighting to the country’s rural areas. By taking Zaranj, the Taliban has demonstrated the group has the military capabilities of taking control of other cities. (Sources: Long War Journal, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post)

Despite the Taliban’s ongoing attacks throughout the country, the insurgent group has tried to implement itself as a legitimate military force and political group. On July 7, 2021, a high-level Taliban political committee, along with Afghan government representatives, met with Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif in Tehran. Zarif stated Iran “is ready to assist the dialogue process between the existing factions in Afghanistan.” Although Iran is a Shiite Muslim country, the hardline Sunni Muslim Taliban has opened communication with their former foe in an effort to repair the political and economic damage in Afghanistan resulting from decades of war and conflict. On July 28, Chinese officials—including China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi—and Taliban leaders meet in Tianjin, northeastern China, launching two days of talks to discuss possible avenues for peace in Afghanistan. Yi called the group a “pivotal military and political force,” but urged the militant group to “hold high the banner of peace talks.” Among some of the promises made, Yi was able to persuade the Taliban to not allow fighters to use Afghan territory as a base to carry out attacks inside China. (Sources: New York Times, Reuters)

Beginning on August 6, 2021, Taliban fighters seized control of at least nine major cities across Afghanistan, including Zaranj, the capital of the southwestern Nimruz province. Zaranj was the first provincial capital seized by the Taliban since the withdrawal of foreign forces began that May. On August 7, the Taliban captured Sheberghan, capital of Jowzjan province, and claimed they captured the entire province. On August 8, the Taliban captured the provincial capitals of Sar-i-Pul, Kunduz, and Takhar provinces. On August 10, 2021, Taliban forces captured Pul-i-Khumri, capital of Baghlan province, after besieging the city for several months. The Taliban also captured Farah province’s eponymous provincial capital and Badakhshan province’s capital of Faizabad, raising the group’s victories to nine captured cities within five days. Residents of Farah reported little shooting as the Taliban took control. On August 10, the Taliban also released an audio recording of military leader Mohammad Yaqoob ordering Taliban forces not to harm Afghan forces and government officials in territories they capture. The Taliban agreed not to harm any government officials who surrender. By August 13, the Taliban controlled 17 of Afghanistan’s 34 provincial capitals and more than two-thirds of the country. By mid-August 2021, the Taliban claimed to have taken control of half of Afghanistan’s districts since May.  (Sources: New York Times, Long War Journal, Associated Press, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Reuters, Associated Press)

As the Taliban gained control of major Afghan cities in August, U.S. intelligence officials estimated the Taliban could capture Kabul within 90 days. U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad warned the Taliban against pursuing a military victory in Afghanistan. He also warned that the international community would not recognize a future Taliban government. The U.S. and British embassies in Afghanistan advised their respective citizens to leave the country because of the worsening security situation. On August 12, the United States began sending a force of more than 3,000 troops to aid the evacuation of most of its embassy in Kabul. U.S. negotiators also urged the Taliban not to target the U.S. embassy if a future Taliban government would ever want to receive foreign aid. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby declared it was ultimately up to the Afghans to defend their country from the Taliban and other threats. (Sources: Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, New York Times, CBS News)

Taliban’s August 2021 Takeover of Afghanistan

On August 15, 2021, Ghani fled Afghanistan and thousands of Afghans poured into Kabul’s airport as Taliban fighters entered the city. By the morning of August 16, the American flag was lowered and removed from the U.S. Embassy and all U.S. personnel were transferred to Kabul’s airport for evacuation. The Taliban laid siege to the presidential palace and took complete control of Kabul by August 16, after which the Taliban declared the war in Afghanistan had ended. Taliban political office spokesman Mohammad Naeem said the insurgents would soon reveal the country’s new government. He claimed the Taliban did not want to live in isolation and wanted to have peaceful international relations. The Taliban also claimed they would respect women’s rights and protect foreigners and Afghans. The United States, Britain, France, Japan, and more than 55 other Western countries issued a joint statement calling for all Afghans and international citizens in Afghanistan who wanted to leave to be allowed to depart. As of August 19, 2021, Abdul Ghani Baradar, a veteran Taliban official, is reportedly set to be the president of the new Taliban government. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Reuters, The Hill, The Times)

On August 16, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that despite the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, U.S. troops will only remain on the ground for a short and focused mission—to ensure the safe and secure evacuation of U.S. citizens, personnel, allies, and vulnerable Afghans. The president, however, communicated that if the Taliban interfered with evacuation efforts, the U.S. would forcefully retaliate against the militant group. Ultimately, Biden stood firm in his decision to withdraw from the 20-year war, stating that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was solely intended for counterterrorism purposes and not for nation building. U.S. State Department spokesperson Ned Price reiterated Biden’s position and also announced that the perimeter of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport is now secured by the U.S. military. (Sources: New York Times, France 24, Bloomberg, Associated Press)

Intent on portraying a more “moderate” image, on August 17, a member of the Taliban’s media team, Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, was interviewed by Beheshta Arghand, a female presenter on Tolo News. Although the group has given interviews with female correspondents on international news outlets, the group rarely grants interviews to female journalists within the country. However, the Taliban has claimed that it would take on a more “moderate” approach in their ruling of the country, and that women are allowed to have roles in public life but in the context of “Islamic law.” The same day, Enamullah Samangani, a Taliban official, announced a general “amnesty” for all in Afghanistan to return to work. Another Taliban official, Zabihullah Mujahid, also announced that the Taliban wanted private media to “remain independent” and that the insurgents would not seek revenge against Afghans who worked with the former government or foreign forces. These statements have not mitigated the fears of Afghans worried about reprisal killings. (Sources: New York Times, NBC News, Associated Press)

According to a U.N. document, immediately following the takeover, the Taliban have intensified a search for people who they believe worked for U.S. and NATO forces. The insurgents have threatened to kill or arrest the family members of people who worked with U.S. and British forces if they cannot find them, contradicting former claims that the insurgents would not carry out reprisal killings. According to media sources, Taliban death squads have reportedly marked the doors of prominent women who had a role in the development of civil society in Afghanistan. The Taliban continues to reassure Afghans that they will bring peace and security throughout the country. However, on August 25, 2021, Taliban official Mujahid announced that women in Afghanistan needed to stay at home as the Taliban’s “security forces are not trained in how to deal with women.” Mujahid claims a proper security system will be enforced to eventually guarantee the safety of women, but did not elaborate on the specifics of that system. (Sources: New York Times, The Sun, BBC News)

Following the Taliban’s takeover, protests broke out throughout the country, with the Taliban moving quickly to suppress dissent. On August 18, anti-Taliban protests erupted in Jalalabad, leading to the death of three and injuring more than a dozen others. On August 19, the protests spread to Kabul and Nangarhar province. That same day, the Taliban imposed a 24-hour curfew after breaking up a protest in Khost province. Afghan women later took to the streets of Kabul on September 4 to demand equal rights and the ability to participate in government. The protestors were confronted by Taliban guards who allegedly hit women with electric tasers, rifle butts, metal clubs, and tools. The Taliban prevented the women from marching onto the presidential palace, claiming they would use tear gas on the protestors. The women-led protests continued on September 7 and 8, with Taliban leaders using violence to disperse protestors. The Taliban allegedly detained and beat several Afghan journalists who were covering the protests. Sirajuddin Haqqani, the minister of the interior of the Taliban’s government, later states that protests would be illegal unless their slogans, venue and timing are approved in advance by authorities. The Taliban has been vocal about the restrictions surrounding education for women. Following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, Abdul Baqi Haqqani—the then-suspected contender for minister of higher education of the Taliban government—appeared at a news conference on August 31, 2021. Haqqani stated that women would be allowed to study at universities under Taliban rule, but classrooms would be segregated by gender and Islamic dress would be mandatory. Haqqani stated, “the people of Afghanistan will continue their higher education in the light of Sharia law in safety without being in a mixed male and female environment.” Following his appointment as acting minister for higher education of the Taliban government, Haqqani later reiterated this restriction at a news conference on September 12 in Kabul, further claiming that only female teachers would be allowed to teach female students. Additionally, Haqqani claimed Taliban officials would conduct a curriculum review, which media sources believe will be in line with the group’s fundamentalist Islamist code. (Sources: Reuters, Associated Press, New York Times, CNN, Wall Street Journal, New York Post, Washington Post, Voice of America)

Despite the Taliban’s previous stance on evacuations following the August 31st deadline, on August 29, the United States and 97 other countries announced that they had reached an agreement with the Taliban to allow evacuations of all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization after the August 31st deadline. Although Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, stated on August 27 that the Taliban would not stop people from leaving the country, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan believes that although the Taliban is “allowing for safe passage…[the U.S.] is not just going to take their word for it.” (Source: Axios)

A minute before midnight on August 30, 2021, the last U.S. troops flew out of Kabul, ending a 20-year war that took the lives of 2,500 American troops and 240,000 Afghans and cost about $2 trillion. By the evening of August 30, 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul. Close to 100 Americans and tens of thousands who helped the U.S. government still remain in the country. Before departing, U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft, dozens of armored vehicles, and disabled air defenses that were used to counteract jihadist attacks in the country. The final withdrawal of U.S. troops was not a celebration of a more secure Afghanistan, but marked the beginning of a new Taliban regime. (Source: Reuters

On September 7, 2021, the Taliban officially announced the appointments within its caretaker government. At the helm of the movement is Haibatullah Akhundzada, who will serve as supreme leader. Mullah Muhammad Hassan was named the acting prime minister, with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Mawlawi Abdul Salam Hanafi named deputy prime ministers. The top security post was given to Sirajuddin Haqqani, who will serve as acting minister of the interior, a role in which he will have extensive authority over policing and legal matters. Mawlawi Mohammad Yaqoob, who is the oldest son of Taliban founder Mullah Muhammad Omar, is named the acting defense minister. The government is exclusively male, with many positions filled with veterans from their hardline movement in the early nineties. Shortly after the appointments were made, on September 14, 2021, rumors emerged that deputy prime minister Abdul Ghani Baradar was allegedly injured following disputes between the Taliban and the Haqqani network—the U.S. designated, and allegedly more radical, branch of the Taliban. Baradar quickly refuted those claims in a television interview on September 15, while also denying any internal disagreements. (Sources: New York Times, Associated Press, CNN, CNN)

On September 24, 2021, Mullah Nooruddin Turabi, the Taliban official in charge of prisons, was reported saying that extreme punishments such as executions and amputations will resume in Afghanistan. Although Turabi claimed those punishments would not be carried out publicly, on September 25, the Taliban hanged four dead bodies for public display throughout Herat, western Afghanistan. Taliban officials claimed the four were caught in a kidnapping on September 24, before being killed by police. According to the Taliban, the aim of hanging the bodies for public display was to alert “all criminals that they are not safe.” (Sources: Associated Press, BBC News)

Al-Qaeda

Al-Qaeda has been operating in Afghanistan for more than two decades, during which time the terror group maintained close ties with the Taliban. Osama bin Laden swore allegiance to deceased Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar in 1996. In August 2015, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri swore allegiance to Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the now-deceased Taliban leader who replaced Omar after his death in 2013. After Mansour’s death, al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance to his replacement, Mullah Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhundzada. In August 2016, al-Zawahiri issued a call for Afghans to reject ISIS, which “seeks to split the ranks of the mujahideen” in Afghanistan, and support the Taliban. (Sources: Long War Journal, Long War Journal)

Al-Qaeda’s central command, which includes al-Zawahiri and his top aides, has traditionally been headquartered in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda established several training camps in Afghanistan, including the sprawling Tarnak Farms, where Osama bin Laden allegedly plotted the 9/11 attacks. The CIA recorded footage of al-Qaeda fighters conducting military drills and firing at targets, as well as of bin Laden within the walled confines of Tarnak Farms. Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan training camps have hosted notable terrorists such as Sahim Alwan, one of the “Lackawanna Six” from Buffalo, New York, who were convicted of supporting al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda maintained its training camps in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the 2001 U.S. invasion. In May 2009, U.S. and Afghan forces discovered several training camps in Afghanistan’s Baghran district in the Helmand Province that were used by al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. In August 2015, the United States bombed two al-Qaeda camps in the southern Afghan province of Kandahar. One of the camps encompassed nearly 30 square miles. (Sources: MI5, NBC News, Wall Street Journal, Weekly Standard, Long War Journal, Long War Journal)

After fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union, bin Laden returned to his native Saudi Arabia in 1989 following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia revoked bin Laden’s citizenship and expelled him in 1991. The Taliban provided a safe haven for al-Qaeda insurgents in Afghanistan prior to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks. In May 1996, bin Laden returned to Afghanistan. During a meeting that October with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, bin Laden pledged “unconditional support and financial backing” in exchange for the Taliban’s protection. That same year, bin Laden established al-Qaeda’s 55th Arab Brigade to fight alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan. Leaked memos from the U.S. military Joint Task Force Guantanamo (JTF) describe the brigade as bin Laden’s “primary battle formation supporting Taliban objectives.” According to the JTF, bin Laden remained “closely in the command and control of the brigade.” (Sources: Long War Journal, CNN, Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, Steve Coll, p. 9, Council on Foreign Relations, Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy, Guardian, Weekly Standard)

After the 1998 al-Qaeda attacks on U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, the United States launched cruise missiles at suspected al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Following the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, al-Qaeda and the Taliban fled to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan, where both organizations began to regroup and retool. After coalition forces destroyed the 55th Arab Brigade in late 2001, bin Laden and al-Qaeda rebuilt the organization as Lashkar al Zil, “the Shadow Army,” recruiting from jihadist groups in Pakistan to fight against Pakistani forces there and against coalition forces in Afghanistan. According to U.S. intelligence in 2009, Lashkar al Zil had been “instrumental” in Taliban victories in eastern and southern Afghanistan. Lashkar al Zil’s activities have decreased since the death of the group’s leader, Ilyas Kashmiri, in a June 2011 U.S. drone strike, but the group remains active. (Sources: PBS, Council on Foreign Relations, Weekly Standard, Long War Journal, BBC News, Jamestown Foundation)

Al-Qaeda maintained a close relationship with the Taliban following the U.S. invasion. A U.S. intelligence report from Guantanamo Bay acquired by journalists Bill Roggio and Thomas Joscelyn described “a newly-conceived ‘unification’ of Al Qaeda and Taliban forces within Afghanistan.” The same report indicated that Mullah Omar and bin Laden “envisioned this new coalition” during a meeting in Pakistan in early spring 2003. Guantanamo detainee Haroon al Afghan reported an August 2006 meeting during which commanders of the Taliban and al-Qaeda “decided to increase terrorist operations in the Kapisa, Kunar, Laghman, and Nangarhar provinces, including suicide bombings, mines, and assassinations.” (Source: Weekly Standard)

In an October 2010 letter, bin Laden ordered al-Qaeda operatives to relocate to Afghanistan’s eastern provinces because of U.S. airstrikes in Pakistan. U.S. forces have killed several high-level al-Qaeda commanders in Afghanistan since. For example, a December 2013 airstrike in Nangarhar killed two al-Qaeda military commanders, along with members of the Pakistani Taliban and Afghan Taliban. An October 2014 airstrike killed al-Qaeda leader Abu Bara al-Kuwaiti while he was at the home of al-Qaeda commander Abdul Samad Khanjari, who was also the Taliban’s shadow governor for the Achin district in Nangarhar. (Sources: Long War Journal, Long War Journal)

During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the men who eventually created al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2009—Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Said al-Shihri, Qasim al-Raymi, and Mohamed al-Awfi—traveled to Afghanistan and spent time at al-Qaeda-sponsored training camps. Al-Wuhayshi served as Osama bin Laden’s personal secretary in Afghanistan between 1998 until about late 2001, when the two were separated during the U.S.-led Battle of Tora Bora. U.S. forces captured al-Shihri in Afghanistan in 2001 and transferred him to Guantanamo Bay. Al-Awfi was sent to Guantanamo Bay in 2002 and released to Saudi Arabia’s custody in 2007 to undergo deradicalization. After helping found AQAP, al-Awfi returned to Saudi Arabia, where he remained as of 2010, providing intelligence on al-Qaeda from a Saudi prison. Al-Raymi took over AQAP in June 2015 after al-Wuhayshi died in a U.S. drone strike. (Sources: CTC Sentinel, New York Times, USA Today, BBC News)

Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) also maintains a presence in Afghanistan. AQIS was founded in September 2014 at the behest of al-Zawahiri, who appointed Asim Omar as emir of the new affiliate. The affiliate allegedly operates in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Burma, Bangladesh, and Kashmir. Al-Zawahiri stated that AQIS seeks to “rescue” the subcontinent’s Muslim population from “injustice, oppression, persecution, and suffering.” Harakat-ul-Mujahidden, a Pakistani Islamist terrorist organization long linked to al-Qaeda and now to AQIS, reportedly operates training camps in Afghanistan. A joint U.S.-Afghan mission in October 2015 destroyed an AQIS training camp in the Kandahar Province and killed dozens of trainees. (Sources: Long War Journal, Long War Journal, U.S. Department of State)

A January 2021 memorandum from the U.S. Department of the Treasury warned that al-Qaeda gained strength in Afghanistan in 2020 while continuing to operate with the Taliban’s protection.  According to the report, senior Haqqani network figures have discussed forming a new joint unit of armed fighters in cooperation with and funded by al-Qaeda. In April 2021, two al-Qaeda operatives gave an exclusive interview to CNN and promised the terror network would wage “war on all fronts” against the United States after it withdraws from Afghanistan “unless they are expelled from the rest of the Islamic world.” A May 2021 U.N. report concluded the Taliban maintained strong ties to al-Qaeda. The U.N. monitoring team behind the report concluded it is “impossible to assess with confidence that the Taliban will live up to its commitment to suppress any future” al-Qaeda threat in Afghanistan. In June 2021, U.S. military leaders voiced concern that a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 2021 could enable al-Qaeda and other militants to regroup in the country and pose a threat to the United States within two years.(Sources: U.S. Department of the Treasury, CNN, United Nations, Reuters)

ISIS

In January 2015, ISIS declared Afghanistan and Pakistan to be one region called the Khorasan Province (Wilayat Khorasan or ISIS-K). That same month, a group of Afghan and Pakistani militants released a video in which they pledged allegiance to ISIS and promised to increase their domestic operations. The militants introduced Hafez Sayed Khan Orakzai—a commander in the Pakistani Taliban who pledged allegiance to ISIS in October 2014—as their regional leader. In April 2015, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jalalabad, its first major attack in Afghanistan. Since then, ISIS has increasingly targeted Shiite targets in Afghanistan. ISIS suicide bombers attacked a July 2016 demonstration by the predominately Shiite Hazara minority group, killing 80. And ISIS attacked two Shiite sites in October 2016, on the Shiite holy day of Ashura, killing more than 30 people. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, NBC News, Wall Street Journal, Diplomat, Reuters, Deutsche Welle)

According to an April 2019 assessment by an unnamed senior U.S. intelligence official, ISIS-K poses the top threat for so-called spectacular attacks on the United States. According to that official, ISIS-K has been emboldened by its success in Afghanistan and has targeted its recruitment at college graduates who have been unable to find employment. Another U.S. intelligence official told CNN that ISIS-K is using social media to establish contacts within the United States and is capable of striking within the country. According to retired U.S. Central Command commander General Joseph Votel, ISIS-K requires complete eradication because its fighters are ideologically committed. (Sources: USA Today, CNN)

ISIS fighters in Afghanistan have also used the country as a launching pad for attacks on neighboring Pakistan. After a February 17, 2016, ISIS suicide bombing killed at least 83 people in Pakistan, the Pakistani government blamed Jamaat-ur-Ahrar (JuA) for the attack. JuA is a faction of the Taliban that reportedly also has links to ISIS. Pakistani officials accused the Afghan government of allowing JuA to operate freely in Afghanistan and responded by launching overnight raids into Afghanistan, reportedly destroying a JuA training camp. (Sources: Reuters, Nation, BBC News)

In 2016, ISIS operated in only one Afghan province, Nangarhar. A September 2017 U.N. report revealed that ISIS had expanded its presence in Afghanistan to all of the country’s seven provinces. (Source: Voice of America)

On July 11, 2017, a U.S. airstrike killed ISIS Khorasan leader Abu Sayed in the group’s headquarters in Kunar province. He was the third ISIS-Khorasan leader to be killed within a year. Previous ISIS leader Abdul Hasib was killed in a joint U.S.-Afghan operation in Afghanistan’s Nangahar province on April 27, 2017. His predecessor Hafiz Saeed Khan was killed in a July 2016 U.S. drone strike. (Sources: CNN, Reuters)

There were approximately 1,300 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan as of September 2016, according to General John Nicholson, the highest ranking U.S. military commander in the country. Nicholson said on September 23, 2016, that ISIS leaders in Syria provide the Afghanistan fighters with money, guidance, and communications support. According to Nicholson, ISIS’s fighters are largely former members of the Pakistan Taliban and primarily based in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar region. On January 3, 2017, Najibullah Mani, head of the Interior Ministry’s Counterterrorism Department, said ISIS is active in “at least 11” of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. As of March 1, 2017, U.S.-backed Afghan forces had reduced the number of ISIS fighters in the country to approximately 700, according to the U.S. military. (Sources: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Voice of America)

Afghan media reported in December 2015 that ISIS had launched a Pashto-language radio station in Afghanistan called Voice of the Caliphate, which reportedly broadcasted anti-government and anti-Taliban messages. The Afghan government shut down the station later that month, but the station returned soon after using alternate frequencies. U.S. airstrikes reportedly destroyed the eastern Afghanistan broadcasting station in February 2016.(Sources: U.S. Department of State, Long War Journal, Fox News)

According to the U.S. State Department, the majority of the extremist groups active in Afghanistan have shunned the ISIS affiliate. The exception is the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, which operates in northern Afghanistan near Uzbekistan as well as along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The group broke its alliance with the Taliban to ally with ISIS’s Khorasan Province in August 2015. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

As a result of ISIS’s encroachment on its territory, the Taliban have become more direct in opposing ISIS. The two terrorist groups have violently clashed on several occasions. In June 2015, the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour sent a missive to al-Baghdadi, warning ISIS’s caliph that “jihad against the Americans and their allies [in Afghanistan] must be conducted under one flag and one leadership.” ISIS and the Taliban reportedly agreed to a ceasefire in eastern Afghanistan in early August 2016, according to media reports. (Sources: Diplomat, Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal)

ISIS claimed a July 31, 2017, attack on the Iraqi embassy in Kabul, as well as an attack the following day on a Shiite mosque in Herat. The attacks came three weeks after U.S.-backed Iraqi forces recaptured the Iraq’s second city of Mosul from ISIS, prompting Afghan security officials to question whether ISIS was increasing its activity in Afghanistan in response to its losses in Iraq. (Sources: Reuters, CNN, Reuters)

On May 30, 2019, a suicide bomber targeted the Marshal Fahim National Defense University in Kabul. At least six people were killed and another six were wounded. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack stating its fighters attacked “trainees in the Afghan army.” It is suspected that ISIS is increasing its presence in Afghanistan as the U.S. and the Taliban are in the process of brokering a peace deal. On August 1, 2019, ISIS released a video of its members publicly beheading a member of the Taliban. According to the Middle East Media Research Institute, “ISIS considers Taliban members to be apostates who can thus be lawfully killed.” ISIS claimed responsibility for a March 25, 2020, attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul that killed at least 25. (Sources: Defense Post, Washington Times, Reuters)

In the first half of 2020, ISIS claimed responsibility for a spate of attacks in Afghanistan. On March 6, ISIS gunmen killed 32 and wounded 58 at a memorial in Kabul. ISIS militants launched a rocket attack on Afghanistan’s presidential palace on March 9. Another ISIS attack on a Sikh temple in Kabul, on March 25, killed at least 25. On May 11, Afghan forces arrested ISIS-K leader Zia-ul Haq, a.k.a. Shaikh Abu Omer al-Khorasani. ISIS-K reportedly had as few as 1,000 fighters at this point. Following Khorasani’s arrest, the Afghan ISIS affiliate installed new leadership and renewed its focus on localized and lone-wolf attacks throughout the rest of 2020. In June 2020, Shahab al-Muhajir took over leadership of ISIS-K, which has since sought to recruit disaffected Taliban members and other militants. In early 2021, U.S. military officials in Afghanistan warned that ISIS-K remained a threat. That January, Afghan security said it had foiled an ISIS plot to assassinate U.S. Charge d’Affaires in Kabul Ross Wilson. A February 2021 U.N. report estimated ISIS-K maintained 1,000 to 2,500 fighters across Afghanistan. The report also warned of ISIS-K sleeper cells throughout the country, particularly in Kabul. A May 2021 U.N. report concluded that while ISIS-K is not as strong as it once was, it remains a threat and has positioned itself as the primary rejectionist group in the country. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, Guardian, Newsweek, New York Times, CNN, Voice of America, Hindu, United Nations)

Following the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government on August 15, 2021, and the impending full withdrawal of U.S. military forces by August 31, on August 22, 2021, U.S. national security adviser, Jake Sullivan announced that ISIS poses a significant threat to Americans in Afghanistan. According to reports from U.S. intelligence and military officials, as the Biden administration attempts to evacuate American citizens and U.S. personnel from Afghanistan, ISIS will likely seek to exploit the security vacuum in the country and plot attacks against American targets. A few days later, on August 26, an attack was carried out at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul. The attack began when a suicide bomber detonated himself outside of the airport, near Abbey Gate. Following the blast, another assailant opened fire on the crowds, with a second blast going off near the Baron hotel adjacent to the airport. According to media reports, as many as 170 people and 13 U.S. service members were killed, with an additional 200 wounded. The Taliban condemn the attack, later launching an investigation into the perpetrators. That evening, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement released by its Amaq News Agency on their Telegram channel. On August 27, Marine General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, head of U.S. Central Command told reporters that U.S. troops in Kabul are preparing for more ISIS attacks. U.S. forces are allegedly sharing information with Taliban fighters stationed outside of Kabul’s airport in anticipation of future ISIS attacks that could include car bombs or rocket fire. That same day, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby announced that the Taliban had released “thousands” of ISIS-K militants from U.S. prisons in Afghanistan following their takeover of the country. Kirby did not reveal how many prisoners remain at Bagram Air Base. (Sources: Washington Post, Telegraph, NBC News, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Washington Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Independent, Business Insider)

Following the ISIS-K attacks outside of the Kabul airport, on the evening of August 27, 2021, the U.S. military carried out a drone strike in Nangarhar, targeting and killing two “high profile” ISIS-K targets. According to Kirby, the targets were “ISIS-K planners and facilitators.” Another ISIS-K member was wounded in the attack. On August 29, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike against an ISIS-K target in Kabul. The strike targeted a vehicle that, according to U.S. Central Command spokesperson, Navy Captain Bill Urban, posed “an imminent threat” to Kabul airport. The vehicle allegedly contained substantial amounts of explosive material. The driver, a suspected suicide bomber was killed in the attack. According to media sources, ten civilians were also killed in the attack. On September 17, the Pentagon acknowledged that the drone strike was a tragic mistake. Following an inquiry conducted by the U.S. military’s Central Command, the alleged explosives in the vehicle were most likely water bottles, and a second explosion in a Kabul neighborhood was most likely due to a propane or gas tank. The driver of the vehicle, Zemari Ahmadi, was a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group and had no connection to ISIS-K. Ahmadi had a quick interaction with some people in an alleged ISIS safe house which military analysts falsely concluded was a direct connection to the militant group. (Sources: CNN, NBC News, New York Times)

Although the Taliban has asserted that they will take on defeating ISIS-K themselves, ISIS-K has continued to carry out high casualty attacks throughout the country. On October 3, a suicide bomber launched an attack outside of the Eidgah mosque in Kabul, targeting a funeral service that was held for the mother of Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid. The blast killed at least five. ISIS-K released a statement in a Telegram post that one of their fighters managed to evade security forces at the funeral and detonate his explosive belt. That evening, Taliban government forces launched an operation north of Kabul to target and neutralize an ISIS-K cell. The ISIS-K cell was neutralized after an explosives-packed car blew up and destroyed the building the militants were hiding in. On October 8, a suicide bomber detonated an explosive at the Shiite Sayed Abad mosque in Kunduz, northern Afghanistan which killed 43 people and injured more than 140 others. In another similar attack on October 15, 2021, a group of ISIS-K suicide bombers detonated explosives at the Imam Barga mosque in Kandahar during Friday prayers. (Sources: NPR, CNN, New York TimesCNN, CBS, Reuters, CNN, Reuters, New York Times, New York Times)

Haqqani Network

The Haqqani network is a militant Islamist group operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It is considered a branch of the Afghan Taliban, but operates independently from the organization and has a more diffuse command structure. It originated in the late 1970s but rose to prominence in the resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s. After the 1989 Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Jalaluddin Haqqani formed an alliance with the Taliban and supported the growth of al-Qaeda. When the Taliban violently assumed de facto control of Afghanistan in 1996, the group appointed Haqqani as minister of tribal affairs. Ever since, the Haqqani network has been subsumed under the larger Taliban, although the Haqqanis preserve distinct command and control. (Sources: New York Times, Asia Times Online, Institute for the Study of War)

The Haqqani network seeks to establish an Islamic state in Pakistan and Afghanistan and build a caliphate under Islamic law. Like the Taliban, the Haqqani network endorses an austere and radical interpretation of sharia (Islamic law), positing that Muslims must aspire to live in accordance with the actions of the Salaf, the first generation of Muslim leaders after the Prophet Muhammad. (Source: Economist)

Since the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001, the Haqqani network has been a lethal and sophisticated arm of the Afghan insurgency against the Western-backed government in Kabul. Although it has cooperated with and even praised al-Qaeda, the Haqqani network focus is regional, not global like al-Qaeda’s. Indeed, according to declassified U.S. intelligence, the Haqqanis enjoyed close ties with the United States from the time of anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s until September 11, 2001. (Sources: Christian Science Monitor, Economist)

Haqqani fighters first acquired battlefield experience during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. Members later honed their combat capabilities through cooperation with al-Qaeda and the Taliban, especially after 2001. For a period, the Haqqani network was regarded by both the U.S. and Afghan governments as the most dangerous outfit operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. By 2011, Haqqani operations accounted for 10 percent of attacks on coalition forces and about 15 percent of casualties. Since 2011, the group has sustained heavy casualties from the Pakistani military as well as from U.S. drone strikes, but it remains a formidable fighting force in the region. (Sources: Foreign Policy, Heritage Foundation)

In September 2011, senior U.S. military officer Mike Mullen told a Senate panel that the Haqqani network “acts as a veritable arms of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI).” According to Mullen, Haqqani militants had ISI support for an attack on the U.S. embassy and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul earlier that month. Pakistan, however, denied that it works with militant groups. (Source: BBC News)

Hezb-i-Islami

Hezb-i-Islami is reportedly the second largest insurgent faction in Afghanistan after the Taliban. It was created in the late 1970s by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to fight against the Soviets. After the withdrawal of Soviet forces, Hekmatyar gained a reputation for firing hundreds of rockets at civilian targets during Afghanistan’s civil war as Islamist groups fought for control of the country. Hekmatyar’s attacks killed thousands of civilians, earning him the nickname “the Butcher of Kabul.” (Sources: CNN, New York Times, New York Times, Voice of America)

Following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban government, Hezb-i-Islami split into a political wing that worked with the government, and a militant wing led by Hekmatyar. The militant faction launched numerous attacks against coalition forces. For example, a May 2013 Hezb-i-Islami suicide bombing in Kabul killed 16 people, including six U.S. military advisers. A spokesman for the group said that Hezb-i-Islami decided to increase its attacks after it realized “that American invaders have the devil intention of staying in Afghanistan.” Kabul University political scientist Tahir Hashimi told the New York Times that the group’s main goal “was to make sure that whichever side wins the war, Hezb-i-Islami would be part of it.” (Sources: CNN, New York Times, New York Times, Voice of America, New York Times)

Hezb-i-Islami signed a draft treaty with the Afghan government on September 22, 2016. The final agreement grants Hekmatyar amnesty and stipulates that the Afghan government will lobby international actors to lift sanctions on the group. (Sources: CNN, Voice of America)

Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) is a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization based primarily in Uzbekistan and northern Afghanistan. The group’s leadership largely operates in northern Afghanistan near Uzbekistan as well as along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. According to the U.S. State Department, the IMU has ties to al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Pakistani Taliban. When the IMU emerged in 1998, it sought to overthrow Uzbekistan’s communist President Islam Karimov. Following a violent crackdown by Karimov, the IMU expanded into Afghanistan in 1999 and reportedly shifted its focus from central Asia to an “international jihadism,” according to a regional expert cited by the Wall Street Journal. The Taliban government granted the IMU safe haven in Afghanistan in exchange for foreign fighters, according to the Institute for the Study of War. The IMU fought alongside the Taliban after the 2001 U.S. invasion. Following heavy losses to coalition forces, the IMU reorganized in Pakistan. The IMU also clashed with local tribesmen, resulting in IMU fighters moving to Afghanistan. In 2009, NATO reported an increase in IMU foreign fighters in Afghanistan. IMU leaders “have integrated themselves into the Taliban’s shadow government in Afghanistan’s northern provinces,” according to the U.S. State Department. The group has also carried out attacks on international forces in Afghanistan, such as an October 15, 2011, suicide attack on a U.S.-led Provincial Reconstruction Team, killing two Afghan civilians. In April 2015, the IMU released a video reportedly of the beheading of an Afghan soldier. The IMU threatened in the video to also behead members of Afghanistan’s Shiite Hazara minority. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Institute for the Study of War, Wall Street Journal)

[IMU leaders] have integrated themselves into the Taliban’s shadow government in Afghanistan’s northern provinces.U.S. State Department

In early August 2015, the IMU released a statement declaring that the Taliban cannot be trusted because they concealed the death of their leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar. The IMU also accused the Taliban of collaborating with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence. A few days later, the group pledged allegiance to ISIS and declared itself part of its caliphate. According to IMU leader Usmon Ghazi, the IMU is no longer “just a movement, we are a state.” He further said that IMU fighters should be considered ISIS fighters from Khorasan, referring to ISIS’s branch in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In June 2016, an IMU breakaway faction—continuing to call itself the IMU—disavowed ISIS and reasserted its loyalty to the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other jihadist groups in the region. According to the statement, the IMU fractured after the 2015 declaration of loyalty to ISIS. The pro-Taliban IMU faction pledged to “continue its Islamic activities with the grace of Allah against the enemies of religion and stand shoulder to shoulder with [believers] and Muslim brothers of Afghanistan.” (Sources: Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Long War Journal)

Foreign Fighters

Since the 1980s, Afghanistan has been a destination for foreign fighters. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban have set up training camps for foreign fighters to fight either against the Soviet occupation or the U.S. coalition. These fighters reportedly sometimes go on to other conflicts. According to the Soufan Group, some 50 Afghans were fighting in Syria as of January 2015. (Sources: The Soufan Group, Al Jazeera, Washington Post)

Since the 2001 fall of the Taliban government, foreign fighters have continued to arrive in Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban and other militant groups. According to Afghan officials, foreign fighters are entering Afghanistan from Pakistan, Chechnya, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan. Gul Muhamad Bedar, the deputy governor of Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province, told Al Jazeera that 400 foreign fighters and their families have joined some 100 Afghan Taliban fighters, and they are “spreading rapidly.” In April 2015, media reported that hundreds of Pakistani jihadists were fleeing into Afghanistan to escape a government crackdown. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Washington Post)

Extremist groups operating in Afghanistan employ tactics such as suicide bombings, kidnappings, beheadings, and targeted assassinations. These attacks target the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces as well as civilians, government infrastructure, and foreigners. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

A February 2021 report by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) and the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) noted a “sharp rise” in civilian casualties in Afghanistan since peace negotiations began in September 2020. The report recorded 8,820 civilian casualties (3,035 deaths and 5,785 injuries) in 2020, about 15 percent less than in 2019. The report credited the decrease to a decline in suicide attacks and fewer casualties from international military forces. Nevertheless, the United Nations noted a “worrying rise” in targeted killings of approximately 45 percent from 2019. The report blamed “anti-Government elements” for about 62 percent of Afghanistan’s civilian casualties in 2020, while pro-Government forces were responsible for about 25 percent casualties. The report attributed the remaining 13 percent of casualties to crossfire and other incidents. On March 12, 2021, the U.N. Security Council condemned an “alarming” increase in attacks on civilians in Afghanistan since September 2020. (Sources: United Nations, United Nations)

Between January and March 2018, the United Nations recorded 2,258 civilian casualties in Afghanistan, a near record level, according to the organization. Casualties included 763 deaths and 1,495 injuries. The report by the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan showed suicide bombings and gun attacks had doubled over the same period in 2017. (Sources: Washington Post, U.S. Department of State)

In November 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced that 28,529 Afghan soldiers had been killed since 2015, representing an average of 25 per day. According to Ghani, 58 American were killed during the same period. In July 2018, UNAMA reported that 1,692 civilians were killed in Afghanistan between January 1 and June 30, 2018. UNAMA found that anti-government forces were responsible for 67 percent (1,127 deaths and 2,286 injuries) of the casualties. The organization attributed 42 percent of the casualties to the Taliban, 18 percent to ISIS, and 7 percent to unidentified attackers. According to UNAMA, suicide and other complex attacks were responsible for 1,413 casualties (28 percent), marking a 22 percent increase from the same period in 2017. (Sources: New York Times, U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera)

According to UNAMA’s 2017 Annual Report on the Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict in Afghanistan, 3,438 Afghan civilians were killed and 7,015 were wounded in 2017. The 10,453 casualties represent a 9 percent decrease from 2016. The investigation attributed 42 percent of the casualties to the Taliban, 10 percent to ISIS, and 13 percent to other militants and anti-government forces. The remaining casualties were attributed to Afghan security forces (16 percent), international military forces (2 percent), other pro-government armed groups (1 percent), and crossfire between government and anti-government forces (11 percent). Suicide bombings and improvised explosive devices were the largest cause of casualties in 2017. (Sources: U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan)

On July 26, 2021, UNAMA reported that more women and children were killed and wounded in the first half of 2021 than in the same period of any year since 2009. According to the report, there have been 5,183 civilian casualties—of which 1,659 were deaths—since January 2021. (Sources: UNAMA, Al Jazeera)

Taliban Takeover in the 1990s

By 1994, the mujahideen had “carved [Kandahar, Afghanistan] and neighboring districts into criminal fiefs,” according to journalist Steve Coll. The Taliban emerged as a singular, armed force in Kandahar, Afghanistan, with Mullah Mohammed Omar as their leader. The group soon absorbed over 15,000 students and clerics from western Pakistan and began implementing sharia. By the end of 1994, the Taliban had complete control over Kandahar and Helmand province, the center of opium cultivation. (Sources: New Yorker, Council on Foreign Relations)

Taliban forces began a bloody offensive in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of most NATO troops in December 2014.

In September 1996, Taliban fighters captured Kabul, driving out the controlling mujahideen forces. The Taliban implemented a hardline version of sharia based on Hanafi Islamic jurisprudence, implementing Islamic punishments such as public executions, amputations, and stoning. In August 1998, Taliban forces captured the city of Mazar in northwest Afghanistan, slaughtering 5,000 to 6,000 people. Human Rights Watch noted that during the seizure of the city, Taliban troops shot at “anything that [moves],” specially targeting members of the Persian-speaking Shiite Hazara ethnic community. Among the dead were 10 Iranian diplomats and a journalist. (Sources: BBC News, Council on Foreign Relations, The Looming Tower, Lawrence Wright, p. 261, Human Rights Watch)

Taliban Insurgency

The U.S.-led coalition had deposed the Taliban by December 2001, and the terror group’s leadership fled to neighboring Pakistan. Between late 2001 and early 2002, the coalition reportedly killed, wounded, or captured an estimated 30,000 Taliban fighters. The remaining fighters fled to Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) or reintegrated into Afghan society. Taliban fighters in the FATA eventually form Tahrik-e Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban, in 2007. (Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, RAND Corporation)

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan began to reorganize in May 2003. A renewed Taliban insurgency emerged in April 2006 with an uptick in suicide bombings and the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Afghan, Canadian, and British troops responded in May and June 2006 with Operation Mountain Thrust, which sought to degrade the Taliban in southern and eastern Afghanistan and resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 Taliban fighters. According to then-U.N. Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom Koenigs in August 2006, the Taliban “will not be overcome by high casualty figures.” The Taliban committed numerous suicide bombings and attacks on Afghan and U.S. forces. For example, on February 27, 2007, a Taliban suicide bomber blew up a checkpoint at Bagram Air Base during a visit by U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney, killing 20 and injuring 20 more. In February 2008, a Taliban suicide bomber killed more than 80 and injured 50 at a dogfight near Kandahar. At the time, the attack was the deadliest in Afghanistan since 2001. (Sources: Council on Foreign Relations, RAND Corporation, CNN, New Yorker, USA Today, BBC News, Der Spiegel, Washington Post)

In September 2011, Taliban suicide bombers attacked the home of former Afghanistan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, killing him and four other members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council. On September 13, 2011, Taliban gunmen attacked the U.S. embassy and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) headquarters in Kabul, killing three police officers and one civilian. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid told CNN that the Taliban are targeting “the U.S. Embassy, governmental organizations and other foreign organizations.” U.S. and Afghan officials later said the Haqqani network was most likely behind the attack with support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence Agency. (Sources: Telegraph, New York Times, CNN, New York Times, BBC News)

Taliban forces began a bloody offensive in Afghanistan after the withdrawal of most NATO troops in December 2014. On September 28, 2015, the Taliban took control of the northern Afghan city of Kunduz. It was the first major city to fall into Taliban hands since the group was forcibly deposed in 2001. The Taliban have since fought Afghan and U.S. forces for control of Afghan territory. As of March 2017, Taliban forces reportedly controlled up to 43 percent of Afghanistan. The Taliban’s influence has since continued to increase. An October 2018 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found that the Taliban controlled more territory in Afghanistan than it has at any point since 2001. SIGAR reported that the Afghan government controlled or influenced only 55.5 percent of Afghanistan, the lowest level reported since 2015, when the government controlled 72 percent. Further documenting the Taliban’s increased influence, an October 2018 study by the Long War Journal estimated that 9 percent of Afghanistan’s population lived in areas controlled by the Taliban, while 41 percent lived in areas contested by the Taliban. (Sources: Reuters, New York Times, BBC News, Al Jazeera, Long War Journal, CNN, SIGAR)

The Taliban have also specifically targeted Afghan media. An October 2015 statement said the group would begin targeting Afghanistan’s two largest television networks in response to media reports on violent Taliban activities, which the Taliban called a “clear, shameless example of propaganda by these satanic networks.” According to the statement, the Taliban would treat the networks “as military objectives because of their disrespectful and hostile actions toward the Afghan mujahid nation.” In January 2016, a Taliban suicide bomber drove into a minibus carrying employees of Tolo TV, Afghanistan’s largest television network. The attack during rush hour killed seven and wounded at least 25. A Taliban spokesman promised more attacks unless Tolo TV apologized for its “malicious acts” to the Taliban, to the Afghan people, “and especially to the residents of Kunduz.” (Source: New York Times)

Both ISIS and the Taliban have sought to disrupt Afghanistan’s fledgling democracy. In 2018, militants launched several attacks on campaign rallies and voter registration drives ahead of the country’s parliamentary elections that October. The Taliban have denounced the elections as an “American-led process” that legitimizes foreign occupation. The Taliban specifically warned people to stay away from schools used as voting centers. Security forces recorded 120 hand grenade or improvised explosives attacks in the days prior to the October 20, 2018, parliamentary elections. Nonetheless, more than 4 million Afghans voted in the elections. The U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded at least 56 people killed and 370 wounded during the October voting period. (Sources: Reuters, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, CNN, UNAMA)

Capture of Bowe Bergdahl

On June 30, 2009, the Taliban took U.S. soldier Private Bowe Bergdahl hostage. Days after his capture, a senior U.S. military official said that Bergdahl was captured by low-level insurgents and then purportedly “sold” to members of the Taliban-aligned Haqqani network. On July 18, 2009, the Taliban released a 28-minute video on the Internet in which Bergdahl said he was scared and wished to return home. The Taliban alleged that Bergdahl was drunk and off base at the time of his capture, but U.S. officials refuted that claim, stating, “The Taliban are known for lying and what they are claiming (is) not true.” Bergdahl is promoted to sergeant while held in captivity. (Sources: CNN, CNN, Guardian)

On May 31, 2014, the United States exchanged Bergdahl for five Taliban militants held at Guantanamo Bay. The United States transferred the detainees to Qatar, where they would receive a one-year travel ban. On October 16, 2017, Bergdahl pled guilty to desertion and misbehavior in front of the enemy. On November 4, 2017, Bergdahl was dishonorably discharged but avoided a prison sentence. A military court reduced his rank to private and fined him $1,000. (Sources: Hill, New York Times, Fox News, CNN, CNN)

Government Counter Extremism

Afghanistan lacks a “comprehensive formal national countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy,” according to the U.S. State Department. In 2016, the State Department credited Afghanistan’s Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) for beginning the process of creating a CVE strategy, while government ministries have “CVE issues incorporated in their portfolios.” The ONSC began work on a CVE strategy in late 2015. The ONSC has elicited advice and feedback from provincial leaders, while also creating an inter-ministerial working group to develop the country’s CVE strategy. The State Department has also praised the “major role” of Afghanistan’s media in countering violent extremism by highlighting the Afghan people’s criticism of terrorist tactics. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

Created in March 2014, the government-supported Moderation Center of Afghanistan promotes intrafaith communication and a government-sanctioned “moderate interpretation of Islam.” Afghan Shiite and Sunni clerics traveled to Kuwait for training and then became teachers throughout Afghanistan to train other religious leaders. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Former President Hamid Karzai created the National Ulema Council in 2002. The quasi-governmental organization includes religious scholars (“ulema”) working to spread moderation through Afghanistan’s religious institutions. The October 2015 National Ulema Conference in Support of Peace in Afghanistan brought together more than 500 religious scholars, including members of the council. Attendees issued a joint condemnation of recent violence and called on the government and armed opposition groups to reach an accord through peaceful negotiation. According to the State Department, Afghan leaders highlight the council’s role in “preaching peace and denouncing terrorist attacks….” (Sources: Afghan Office of the President, U.S. Department of State, High Peace Council)

Karzai also created the High Peace Council in 2010 to negotiate with the Taliban. The council held informal meetings with Taliban members on the sidelines of other events until their first direct meeting with the Taliban on July 7, 2015. Meeting participants agreed to “move forward with sincerity to ensure security and lasting peace in Afghanistan.” They also agreed to hold future meetings “on developing a mechanism to put an end to the killing and shedding the blood of innocent people.” (Sources: Associated Press, High Peace Council)

Afghan individuals accused of terrorism are prosecuted by Afghanistan’s Justice Center in Parwan (JCIP). In July 2015, the Office of the National Security Council granted the JCIP jurisdiction over all individuals captured on the battlefield; persons accused of terrorist crimes; influential and prominent members of the Taliban; and commanders of terrorist groups. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani expanded the JCIP’s authority in September 2015 and gave it nationwide jurisdiction, declaring it to be Afghanistan’s counterterrorism court. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Afghanistan’s government has sought to initiate dialogue with insurgent factions. The government began negotiations with Hezb-i-Islami in March 2016 and signed a draft treaty with the group on September 22, 2016. Under the terms of the treaty the Afghan government would grant leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar amnesty and provide for his security while lobbying international actors to lift sanctions on the group. Human Right Watch criticized the treaty for not holding warlords accountable, while the United States praised the deal as “a step in bringing the conflict in Afghanistan to a peaceful end.” Afghanistan’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, called on the Taliban to sign a similar treaty. (Sources: CNN, Voice of America)

Military Counter Extremism

NATO launched the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2001 under a U.N. mandate to root out the Taliban and support Afghanistan’s security. The mission included 130,000 troops from 51 nations at its height. ISAF officially ended combat missions in Afghanistan in December 2014 and Afghan forces took control of the country’s security. Up to 17,000 NATO troops were expected to remain in Afghanistan in a supporting role as the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) assumed full responsibility for Afghanistan’s security and defense. NATO launched Operation Resolute Support in January 2015 to train and assist ANDSF. By 2018, the United States had 14,000 troops in Afghanistan. That December, U.S. President Donald Trump called for a drawdown of half of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan. (Sources: NATO, Guardian, U.S. Department of State, CNN)

The Afghan people will need the partnership of the world, led by the United States, for many years to come.U.S. President Barack Obama

In October 2015, then-President Barack Obama halted the drawdown of U.S. troops from the country, citing the need to prevent Afghanistan from being used as “a safe haven for terrorists to attack our nation again.” Afghan security has continued to work with U.S. forces to combat domestic extremist groups such as the Taliban and ISIS. Obama announced in July 2016 that the United States would maintain a troop presence of more than 8,000 soldiers through the end of his term in 2017. According to Obama, “the Afghan people will need the partnership of the world, led by the United States, for many years to come.” (Sources: New York Times, New York Times)

Afghanistan’s security is challenged by reported shortages in military equipment and personnel. The country’s air force comprises 130 aircraft, but the air force does not have enough personnel to maintain and fly them. The Afghan air force flew 22,260 missions in 2015. The air force flew almost 7,000 missions between January and May 2016, but U.S. military advisers in Afghanistan have pointed to the challenge of “human capital.” In October 2016, Afghan military sources told Reuters that the Afghan security forces are losing up to 5,000 soldiers each month due to desertions or casualties, with only about 3,000 new soldiers and police recruited at the same time. As of March 2017, the Afghan military numbered approximately 300,000 soldiers. (Sources: Reuters, Reuters, Reuters)

In March 2017, the Afghan government announced plans to double the country’s complement of 17,000 elite special forces to combat militants such as the Taliban. As of the announcement, Afghan special forces carried out 70 percent of the country’s offensive operations. The following month, U.S. General John Nicholson called for thousands more troops to support the NATO coalition during the Taliban’s planned spring offensive. As of April 2017, there were 8,500 American troops in Afghanistan supporting the Afghan forces. That month, 300 U.S. Marines arrived in Afghanistan to aid Afghan forces in recapturing territory from the Taliban in Helmand province. It is reportedly the first significant Marine presence in Afghanistan since 2014. In August 2017, President Donald Trump announced that U.S. troops would remain in Afghanistan indefinitely. The following month, the U.S. government sent an additional 3,000 troops to Afghanistan. (Sources: Reuters, Al Jazeera, NPR, Military Times, BBC News)

In April 2018, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report signaling a decrease in the number of personnel in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) in 2017. ANDSF includes the army, air force, and police. According to the report, the ANDSF included an estimated 296,400 personnel as of January 2018. The number represents a 10.6 percent decrease over January 2017. SIGAR also noted that the portion of the Afghan population living under the authority of the Afghan government as of January 2018 had increased to 65 percent, an increase of 1 percent from October 2017. In 2017, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced a plan, in conjunction with the Pentagon, to double the size of ANDSF’s commando forces by 2020, from 11,700 to 23,300. According to a Pentagon report cited by the Washington Post, Ghani wants Afghan forces “to cover the preponderance of the population by 2020, compelling the Taliban to seek reconciliation.” (Sources: Reuters, Washington Post)

International airstrikes targeting militants in Afghanistan have also led to civilian casualties. On February 10, 2017, U.S. and Afghan coalition forces killed at least 26 Afghan civilians during airstrikes in Helmand province. The strikes targeted “anti-government elements,” according to the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. In November 2016, at least 30 civilians died in a NATO airstrike in Kunduz. NATO said the strike was to protect “friendly forces under fire.” (Sources: CNN, Associated Press, Al Jazeera)

On December 9, 2019, the Washington Post published thousands of pages of documents revealing that senior U.S. officials misrepresented the reality of the 18-year campaign in Afghanistan. According to the documents, the U.S. military achieved a quick but short-term victory over the Taliban and al-Qaeda in early 2002, and the Pentagon’s focus then shifted toward Iraq. However, the Taliban returned in greater numbers. Despite troops on the ground voicing concerns about the American strategy’s growing shortcomings, senior American officials almost always said that progress was being made. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015. The 2,000 pages of interviews were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request and years of legal back-and-forth with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, according to the Washington Post. (Sources: Washington Post, New York Times)

ISIS

Afghan forces combatted and monitored ISIS domestically with the U.S.-led international coalition. In July 2016, Afghan forces supported by the United States reportedly killed an estimated 300 ISIS fighters and several top leaders in an operation in the eastern part of the country. On April 13, 2017, U.S. forces dropped an 11-ton warhead on a series of Afghan caves allegedly used by ISIS in Nangarhar province in eastern Afghanistan. Afghan officials claimed the bomb killed at least 94 ISIS fighters, though the U.S. military has refused to confirm the bomb’s toll. The warhead—the GBU-43B Massive Ordnance Air Blast, nicknamed the “mother of all bombs”—was the largest non-nuclear warhead ever deployed by the United States. Afghan officials criticized the U.S. government for using the ordnance against ISIS instead of the Taliban, which eight days later killed at least 170 Afghan soldiers in its largest ever attack on an Afghan military base. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, CNN, ABC News, Associated Press, Reuters)

According to the U.S. State Department, “grassroots, civilian-organized militias” previously emerged in Afghanistan to fight ISIS. These militias have at times partnered with the Afghan Security Forces. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Following the Taliban’s takeover of the Afghan government on August 15, 2021, and the impending full withdrawal of U.S. military forces by August 31, on August 22, 2021, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan announced that ISIS posed a significant threat to Americans in Afghanistan. A few days later, on August 26, ISIS-K carried out a suicide bombing and mass shooting at Kabul’s airport, killing as many as 170 people and wounding an additional 200. In response to the attacks, on the evening of August 27, 2021, the U.S. military carried out a drone strike in Nangarhar, targeting and killing two “high profile” ISIS-K targets. According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, the targets were “ISIS-K planners and facilitators.” Another ISIS-K member was wounded in the attack. On August 29, U.S. forces conducted an airstrike against an ISIS-K target in Kabul. The strike targeted a vehicle that, according to U.S. Central Command spokesperson, Navy Captain Bill Urban, posed “an imminent threat” to Kabul airport. The vehicle allegedly contained substantial amounts of explosive material. The driver, a suspected suicide bomber, was killed in the airstrike. According to media sources, ten civilians were also killed. On September 17, the Pentagon acknowledged that the drone strike was a tragic mistake. Following an inquiry conducted by the U.S. military’s Central Command, the alleged explosives in the vehicle were most likely water bottles, and a second explosion in a Kabul neighborhood was most likely due to a propane or gas tank. The driver of the vehicle, Zemari Ahmadi, was a longtime worker for a U.S. aid group and had no connection to ISIS-K. Ahmadi had a quick interaction with some people in an alleged ISIS safe house which military analysts falsely concluded was a direct connection to the militant group. (Sources: Washington Post, Telegraph, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Washington Post, Washington Post, New York Times, Independent, Business Insider, CNN, NBC News, New York Times)

Taliban

The Afghan Security Forces coordinated with the United States in confronting the Taliban. According to then-U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesman Mark Toner in August 2016, the United States was committed to helping Afghanistan “build a more stable, peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future.” The United States was in “close contact and coordination with the Afghan Security Forces … if we see opportunities to take out key leadership [of the Taliban], we’re going to strike.” (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Reuters)

According to U.S. General John Nicholson, the top U.S. and NATO officer in Afghanistan, Afghan forces suffered 5,000 fatalities in 2015 against the Taliban. Nicholson told Reuters in August 2016 that Afghan forces have been more aggressive in confronting the Taliban in 2016, and therefore more successful. Afghan forces have reportedly used schools in Taliban-held areas as military bases, according to Human Rights Watch. The organization accused Afghan forces of “putting children at risk and depriving thousands of an education.” (Sources: Associated Press, Reuters, Voice of America, Human Rights Watch)

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani initiated direct contact with the Taliban in July 2015 in an attempt to start a peace process. The talks collapsed later that month after the publication of the 2013 death of Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. In December 2015, Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and the United States committed to resuming peace talks with the Taliban. By June 2017, however, continuous violent attacks by the Taliban had derailed talks as the government debated whether to increase the severity of its responses. After a May 31, 2017, bombing killed more than 80 people in Kabul, the government ordered the execution of 11 Taliban prisoners. The Taliban threatened retaliation against the Afghan judiciary and also foreign detainees. (Sources: New York Times, Voice of America, U.S. Department of State)

In a bid to end the 18-year Afghanistan war, Qatar and Germany sponsored a two-day intra-Afghan meeting in Doha in July 2019. The high-profile meeting featured Afghan leaders and Taliban representatives. Around 50 Afghan politicians, activists, and journalists joined the Taliban in discussions on ways to find lasting peace in Afghanistan. As the Taliban has repeatedly refused to negotiate with the Western-backed government of Ashraf Ghani, they agreed to join the meeting on the condition that the attendees were there only in a personal capacity. The talks were informal and were not expected to result in concrete settlements or policies, but attendees were hopeful that the meeting would set the groundwork for future negotiations. (Source: Al Jazeera

The Afghan government and United States both engaged in negotiations with the Taliban to end the war that began in 2001. On February 29, 2020, U.S. and Taliban representatives signed an agreement in Qatar for a gradual U.S. troop withdrawal in exchange for the Taliban renouncing renounce al-Qaeda and agreeing to prevent al-Qaeda and other groups from using Afghanistan as a base for terrorism against the United States. The Taliban also agreed to negotiate a permanent ceasefire with other Afghan militants and the Afghan government. The Afghan government voiced immediate objections to a clause calling for a prisoner swap of 5,000 Taliban prisoners in Afghan custody for 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban as a precondition for negotiations. The government argued that the United States did not have the authority to free Taliban prisoners from Afghan custody and that should be left to direct negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban. In response, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would work on confidence-building measures with the Taliban and the Afghan government. (Sources: Associated Press, Al Jazeera, U.S. Department of State, Washington Post)

On May 23, 2020, the Taliban announced a three-day Eid ceasefire. The statement instructed Taliban fighters to refrain from entering government areas, and also stated that Kabul forces should not enter territories under their control. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani accepted the ceasefire, and ordered his forces to comply, also announcing plans to release up to 2,000 Taliban prisoners. Despite the ceasefire, according to Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the country’s main intelligence and security office in Kabul, at least 146 civilians were killed and another 430 were wounded by the Taliban during Ramadan. Following the three-day Eid ceasefire on May 26, Faisal announced that Afghan authorities would release as many as 900 Taliban prisoners. The Afghan government also urged the Taliban to extend the Eid ceasefire. By May 2020, Kabul released about 1,000 Taliban inmates, whereas the Taliban has released about 300 Afghan security forces. On May 27, Reuters reported that two senior U.S. officials in Kabul claimed that the U.S. will significantly reduce the number of troops in Afghanistan from 13,000 to about 8,600 by early June 2020. Due to ongoing concerns regarding the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, the withdrawal was ahead of the original mid-July deadline agreed upon by the U.S. and the Taliban on February 29 in Doha, Qatar. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Reuters, New York Times, The Hill)

On August 9, 2020, the Afghan government agreed to release 400 Taliban prisoners. The release was an attempt to pave the way for peace talks with the Taliban. The last of the prisoners were freed and put on house arrest on September 10. The released prisoners were the last in a batch of 5,000 to be freed as a condition to initiate peace talks with the Afghan government. However, among those released included Taliban members connected with a 2017 truck bombing near the German embassy in Kabul that killed more than 150 people, and members of the militant Haqqani network. (Sources: Reuters, Washington Post)

On September 12, 2020, representatives for the Afghan government and the Taliban met in Doha, Qatar to negotiate a framework for lasting peace in the country. The peace negotiations are the first-ever talks between the two camps, having been facilitated by the U.S.-Taliban peace deal that was signed on February 29, 2020. Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader, did not provide concrete details about the Taliban’s ambitions in Afghanistan, but did state that the insurgents will participate in the negotiations with “full sincerity.” Abdullah Abdullah, the head of Kabul’s High Council for National Reconciliation stated that even if both sides do not agree on every detail, the hope is to create a political system based on Islamic principles that will preserve the rights of all Afghans. As of October 6, 2020, the two sides agreed to a broad code of conduct to advance peace talks. The Taliban has demanded that the Hanafi Islamic code be used to guide negotiations as well as basing the talks around the conditions of the U.S.-Taliban deal. Nonetheless, violence has escalated between the Taliban and security forces in southern Afghanistan, leading tens of thousands—estimated around 30,000—of Afghans to flee the region. On January 4, 2021, the United States accused the Taliban of responsibility for a recent wave of high-profile assassinations, while the Taliban accused the United States of continuing to launch airstrikes against the terror group despite its commitment to halt strikes under a 2020 agreement. Despite the charges, Afghan officials resumed peace talks with the Taliban on January 5, 2021. Talks broke off in April when the United States announced it would withdraw its forces by September 11—months after the May deadline agreed to by the previous Trump administration. However, on June 9, the Afghan government and Taliban negotiators met again in Doha, with limited details of the content of the meeting being reported by either side. (Sources: Washington Post, NPR, New York Times, Reuters, France 24, Washington Post, Reuters)

On May 1, 2021, the United States began its phased withdrawal from Afghanistan with the goal of completing the withdrawal by that September. Shortly after the withdrawal began, the head of Central Command (CENTCOM) forces, General Frank McKenzie, said the United States would no longer provide the Afghan military with air support once the withdrawal is completed. The United States would also limit counterterrorism strikes in the country to instances when specific plans to attack the U.S. homeland or U.S. allies are discovered. (Source: Voice of America)

The United States effectively ended major U.S. military operations in Afghanistan on July 2, 2021, as American troops and their western allies left their last Afghan base after two decades. Although the Taliban has intensified their offensive since the beginning of the U.S. withdrawal process in May—seizing at least 150 of Afghanistan’s 400 districts—the United States will retain some ability to conduct airstrikes if needed. However, air support for the Afghan forces will be flown in from outside of the country, from bases in Qatar or the United Arab Emirates. Additionally, 650 U.S. troops will remain in the country to protect the American Embassy in Kabul. Despite the ongoing offensive from the Taliban, the United States has no plans to reverse the withdrawal which has worried security experts in the region who estimate that the country could fall to the Taliban anywhere from six months to two years if left to their own devices. (Sources: New York Times, New York Times)

Despite the Taliban’s ongoing attacks throughout the country, the insurgent group has tried to implement itself as a legitimate military force and political group. The militant group engaged in two separate diplomatic visits to Tehran, Iran on July 7, 2021, and Tianjin, China on July 28. Both meetings, in which the high-level Taliban political committee met with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, were intended to catapult discussions on how to maintain peaceful recovery in Afghanistan. (Sources: New York Times, Reuters)

Nonetheless, on August 15, 2021, Taliban fighters entered Kabul. The Taliban laid siege to the presidential palace and took complete control of Kabul by August 16, after which the Taliban declared the war in Afghanistan had ended. Given the severity of the situation, the Pentagon authorized another 1,000 troops—expanding their security presence on the ground to 6,000 troops—to help evacuate U.S. citizens and all U.S. personnel. Later on August 16, U.S. President Joe Biden announced that despite the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, U.S. troops will only remain on the ground for a short and focused mission—to ensure the safe and secure evacuation of U.S. citizens, personnel, allies, and vulnerable Afghans. The president, however, communicated that if the Taliban interfered with evacuation efforts, the U.S. would forcefully retaliate against the militant group. Ultimately, Biden stood firm in his decision to withdraw from the 20-year war, stating that the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was solely intended for counterterrorism purposes and not for nation building. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby also announced that the Pentagon was working on the logistics to get as many as 22,000 Afghan interpreters, their families, and other vulnerable Afghans into the U.S. by August 31, with refugees to be temporarily housed at Fort Bliss, Texas and Fort McCoy, Wisconsin. Taliban spokesperson Suhail Shaheen later stated that if U.S. troops remain in the country past the deadline of August 31, “there would be consequences. It will create mistrust between us. If they are intent on continuing the occupation it will provoke a reaction.” (Sources: New York Times, France 24, Bloomberg, Associated Press, Reuters, Military Times, CNN, Sky News)

Despite the Taliban’s previous stance on evacuations following the August 31st deadline, on August 29, the United States and 97 other countries announced that they had reached an agreement with the Taliban to allow evacuations of all foreign nationals and any Afghan citizen with travel authorization after the August 31st deadline. Although Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, stated on August 27 that the Taliban would not stop people from leaving the country, U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan believes that although the Taliban is “allowing for safe passage…[the U.S.] is not just going to take their word for it.” (Sources: Axios, Reuters)

A minute before midnight on August 30, 2021, the last of U.S. troops flew out of Kabul, ending a 20-year war that took the lives of 2,500 troops and 240,000 Afghans and cost the U.S. about $2 trillion. In the past two weeks, 123,000 people were evacuated from Kabul, with close to 100 Americans, and tens of thousands who helped the U.S., still remaining in the country. Before departing, U.S. troops destroyed more than 70 aircraft, dozens of armored vehicles, and disabled air defenses that were used to counteract jihadist attacks in the country. The final withdrawal of U.S. troops was not a celebration of a more secure Afghanistan, but marked the beginning of a new Taliban regime, an outcome the U.S. sought to prevent. (Source: Reuters)

On October 9 and 10, 2021, a U.S. delegation met with senior Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar. The U.S. delegation focused on security, terrorism concerns, and the guarantee of human rights and meaningful participation of all Afghans in Afghan society. Additionally, the United States reiterated the concern for safe passage for U.S. citizens and Afghan partners still seeking to leave the country. Despite refusing to provide political recognition to the self-imposed government, the U.S. agreed to provide humanitarian aid that will go “directly to the Afghan people.” Although the talks were also meant to touch on containing extremist groups in Afghanistan—particularly ISIS-K—Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Associated Press that, the Taliban is “able to tackle Daesh independently.” (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Guardian, Associated Press, Associated Press)

International Organizations

Afghanistan has “consistently emphasized the need to strengthen joint cooperation to fight terrorism and violent extremism in a variety of bilateral and multilateral fora,” according to the U.S. State Department. In December 2015, Afghanistan participated in the Heart of Asia Conference in Pakistan. In May 2015, Afghanistan, the United Nations, and Tajikistan organized the “Sharing of Experiences on Implementing the UN Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy in Central Asia for Heart of Asia Countries.” (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Afghanistan has also belonged to the Asia/Pacific Group on Money Laundering since April 2006. In June 2014, the Financial Action Task Force warned Afghanistan that it risked being placed on a list of “high-risk and non-cooperative jurisdictions” if it did not enact anti-money laundering and terror-financing legislation. The Afghan government amended its laws in 2015 to increase cross-border declarations for the physical transportation of cash and negotiable instruments, according to the State Department. In 2016, Afghanistan froze the assets of individuals and entities designated under U.N. Security Council resolutions 1267 and 1988, which related to ISIS, al-Qaeda, and related groups. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State, U.N. Security Council, U.N. Security Council)

China’s Role in Countering Terrorism in Afghanistan

On June 20, 2019, China hosted a Taliban delegation in an effort to promote peace and reconciliation in Afghanistan. China’s Xinjiang region shares a short border with Afghanistan, and it is suspected that the talks were held in part to prevent Islamist extremists from recruiting or operating in the mostly Muslim Xinjiang. Furthermore, on July 11 and 12, 2019, the United States, Russia, China, and Pakistan held talks in Beijing to call on the Taliban to immediately agree to a ceasefire and to direct negotiations with the Afghan government. Pakistan’s inclusion in the Beijing talks was considered pivotal as Islamabad has active, albeit clandestine, channels in negotiating with the Taliban. A Taliban delegation met with Chinese officials in Beijing on September 23, 2019, to discuss peace efforts in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s nine-member delegation traveled to Beijing and met Deng Xijun, China’s special representative for Afghanistan, said Suhail Shaheen, the Afghan group’s spokesman in Qatar. On July 28, Chinese officials—including China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi—and Taliban leaders meet in Tianjin, northeastern China, launching two days of talks to discuss possible avenues for peace in Afghanistan. Yi called the group a “pivotal military and political force,” but urged the militant group to “hold high the banner of peace talks.” Among some of the promises made, Yi was able to persuade the Taliban to not allow fighters to use Afghan territory as a base to carry out attacks inside China. China was one of the few countries that was quick to warmly receive the Taliban’s new regime. On August 30, 2021, Taliban spokesman Suhail Shaheen stated in an interview that he believes China can play a “constructive and positive” role in reconstruction and economic development of Afghanistan. Additionally, Shaheen reiterated that the Taliban would keep to their commitment of keeping Afghanistan from being a staging ground for terrorists. (Sources: Reuters, U.S. Department of State, Radio Free Europe, Al Jazeera, Reuters, New York Times, South China Morning Post)

Cooperation with India

The leaders of Afghanistan and India agreed in late August 2016 to continue working together to “overcome terror and extremism” facing their countries. India is one of the largest donors to Afghanistan’s reconstruction efforts, having invested approximately $2 billion since 2001. According to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Afghanistan “continues to be challenged by externally sponsored instruments and entities of violence and terror.” Indian officials are reportedly concerned about Pakistani militants crossing the border into Afghanistan to carry out terrorist attacks. (Sources: Voice of America, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, Diplomat, Bakhtar News Agency)

Regional Security in Central Asia

Following the Taliban’s offensive beginning in July 2021, the Taliban has assured their neighbors in Central Asia that they will strive to keep war and conflict within Afghanistan’s borders. The Taliban has not fired on or threatened Central Asian forces on their borders as they are seemingly promoting a diplomatic approach that respects the territorial integrity of the countries, albeit possibly to prevent its Central Asian neighbors from actively interfering with the new government. (Source: United States Institute of Peace)

A 2019 public opinion poll, published by the Asia Foundation, was taken following the initiation of the U.S.-Taliban peace talks that year. According to the poll, 58 percent of the Afghan public surveyed in the sample size thought that the country was headed in the wrong direction. Additionally, 75 percent of the Afghans surveyed feared for their safety. Furthermore, pollsters were unable to visit about 32 percent of Afghan villages due to “Taliban presence in the village, military operations or other security reasons.” More than 75 percent of Afghans live in rural areas, which demonstrates that the Taliban had considerable influence over these rural spaces—considering pollsters were unable to access a significant number of these communities—well before the movement took over Kabul in August 2021. (Source: Washington Post)

Personal Safety

The United Nations recorded near record levels of civilian casualties in Afghanistan between January and March 2018. That February, the Washington Post reported high levels of feelings of insecurity among the Afghan population, as well as a general feeling that the government has abandoned the Afghan people. (Sources: Washington Post, Washington Post)

According to a 2016 poll of the Afghan people by the Asia Foundation, 69.8 percent of Afghans fear for their personal safety. This represents only a slight increase over the 2015 survey’s result of 67 percent, but is still the highest number recorded in a decade. According to the 2016 poll, Afghans in the southwest region of the country experienced the greatest fear for their safety (82 percent). Within that region, 55.4 percent residents of Helmand province reported always being afraid for their safety. Overall, 73.5 percent of Afghans living in urban areas said they feared for their safety, compared with 68.6 percent of Afghans living in rural areas. (Sources: Asia Foundation, Asia Foundation)

Public safety fears have negatively affected Afghan civics. In the 2016 survey, 74.8 percent of Afghans believed it dangerous to run for public office. Afghans’ fear of voting declined slightly from 55.6 percent in 2015 to 53.7 percent in 2016, though the Asia Foundation noted that no major elections took place in 2016. The Asia Foundation also recorded a slight increase in Afghans’ fear of participating in peaceful demonstrations, rising from 69.1 percent in 2015 to 71.6 percent in 2016. (Source: Asia Foundation)

Afghans are also increasingly fearful of travel. The Asia Foundation recorded an all-time high of 81.5 percent of Afghans reported some or a lot of fear when traveling to other regions of the country. This represented an increase of 20.5 percent since 2008. (Source: Asia Foundation)

The Asia Foundation poll found that 53.7 percent of Afghans believed that the Afghan National Army is getting better at providing security, while 20 percent believed the army is getting worse. A smaller 39.6 percent believed that the Afghan Local Police (ALP) were improving, while 26.4 percent believed the ALP was getting worse. Only 34.6 percent of Afghans believe the Afghan National Police (ANP) is getting better at providing security, while 30.7 believe the ANP is getting worse. (Source: Asia Foundation)

ISIS

Almost three out of four Afghans (74.3 percent) polled by the Asia Foundation in 2015 had heard of ISIS. Of that number, 54.2 percent said that ISIS poses or could pose a threat in the future to their home districts. Knowledge of ISIS was higher in Kabul and the southeastern provinces and lower in more remote areas, according to the Asia Foundation. In the 2016 poll, overall knowledge of ISIS increased to 81.3 percent, but perception of ISIS as a security threat decreased from 2015 (54.2 percent) to 2016 (47.9). The 2016 survey found that 94.6 percent of Afghans in general fear an encounter with ISIS. (Sources: Asia Foundation, Asia Foundation)

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Country Report on Afghanistan, ISIS has received little support among the Afghan population since the group declared a province in Afghanistan and Pakistan in January 2015. According to the State Department, Afghan militants, including the Taliban, have largely rejected ISIS’s ideology and tactics. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Armed Opposition Groups

A 2016 survey by the Asia Foundation found that 93 percent of Afghans are fearful of encountering the Taliban. As in 2015, the 2016 survey found that 62.9 percent of Afghans believed that a peace process with armed opposition groups could help stabilize Afghanistan, but confidence levels dropped in Kabul and the central region, as well as in the western and northeastern regions. (Source: Asia Foundation)

Sympathy for armed opposition groups fell by 10.8 percent in 2016 to 16.7 percent. When the Asia Foundation asked Afghans in 2016 why they believed armed opposition groups are fighting against the Afghan government, 23.1 percent responded that the armed opposition groups are seeking power, an increase over 2015 (18.9 percent) and 2014 (15.6 percent). Other reasons cited include: support from Pakistan (12 percent), government corruption (7 percent), unemployment/poverty (2 percent), the presence of foreign troops/foreign community (11 percent), and to support Islam (2 percent). In 2015, Afghans had selected the pursuit of power as the primary motivator for armed opposition groups in the country. In 2014, Afghans had largely believed the presence of foreign troops motivated Afghanistan’s armed opposition groups, according to the Asia Foundation. (Sources: Asia Foundation, Asia Foundation)

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