As of October 2018, the Taliban controlled more territory in Afghanistan than it has at any point since 2001, according to the quarterly report of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR). SIGAR found that the Afghan government controlled or influenced just 55.5 percent of the country, the lowest level reported since 2015 when the government controlled 72 percent. According to media reports, 9 percent of Afghanistan’s population live in areas controlled by the Taliban, while 41 percent live in areas contested by the Taliban. (Sources: CNN, SIGAR, Long War Journal)

In July 2018, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (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. The United Nations also documented more attacks on Shiites during the first nine months of 2018 than in the entirety of 2017. (Sources: U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, Al Jazeera, Associated Press)

Overview

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)

Bin Laden used Afghanistan as a base of operations from which to build his al-Qaeda network.

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)

Since being driven from the government in 2001, Taliban insurgents have 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 have 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 has 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 continues 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 combatting the Taliban, ISIS, and other violent extremists. Despite Afghan successes against the insurgency, the Taliban have continued their bloody rebellion and seized new territory from the Afghan government. (Sources: Guardian, New York Times, New York Times, Bloomberg News)

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters

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)

As many as 20,000 foreign fighters passed through bin Laden’s network, according to media estimates.

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.) In 2014, the “core Taliban” were estimated to include over 60,000 fighters with varying degrees of loyalty. These forces have allowed the Taliban to remain a credible fighting force with the ability to win and hold territory. According to a September 2015 U.N. report, the Taliban had reclaimed more territory in Afghanistan by this time than at any point since 2001, when the U.S.-led coalition invaded in response to the September 11 terrorist attacks. (Sources: 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)

The Taliban were founded in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 1994 by Mullah Mohammed Omar.

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)

As of January 2018, the Taliban controlled or threatened 70 percent of Afghanistan, according to estimates by BBC News. The BBC estimated that the Taliban 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 represent a significant increase since September 2016 when the group reportedly controlled just 10 percent of the country. (Sources: BBC News, NBC News, Reuters, Reuters, Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty)

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)

On June 15, 2018, the Taliban announced a three-day ceasefire for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr. In mid-July, the Taliban announced that it had decided to end suicide attacks in cities that could cause civilian casualties. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid told the New York Times that the group hadn’t launched any suicide attacks in Kabul since the temporary ceasefire. He also pledged that the Taliban would “annihilate” ISIS. Mujahid shortly after denied the report and the claim that the Taliban is limiting suicide attacks. Nonetheless, the Taliban reportedly issued orders to their fighters not to attack civilians. (Sources: New York Times, New York Times, Voice of America, Associated Press)

The United States remains entrenched in the fight against Taliban forces, which has cost the United States more than $700 billion 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. (Sources: Reuters, Military Times, Bloomberg News, New York Times, New York Times, Associated Press)

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)

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)

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)

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)

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)

ISIS

In January 2015, ISIS declared Afghanistan and Pakistan to be one region called the Khorasan Province. 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)

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)

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)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

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. 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 July 2018, the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (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: 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)

Taliban Takeover

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)

 

Domestic Counter-Extremism

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. (Sources: NATO, Guardian, U.S. Department of State)

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)

ISIS

Afghan forces are combatting ISIS domestically with the U.S.-led international coalition. ISIS has attempted to expand its presence in Afghanistan, and the United States is monitoring ISIS-affiliated groups in the country, according to the U.S. State Department. 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. U.S. General John Nicholson of NATO told Reuters in August 2016 that the United States is intent on degrading ISIS’s capability in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. (Sources: Reuters, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Department of State)

The United States has also targeted ISIS in Afghanistan. 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: CNN, ABC News, Associated Press, Reuters)

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

Taliban

The Afghan Security Forces continue to coordinate 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 remains committed to helping Afghanistan “build a more stable, peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future.” The United States is 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.” Nonetheless, some Afghan officials have criticized the United States for focusing its military strikes on ISIS rather than the Taliban. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Reuters)

The Afghan Security Forces continue to coordinate with the United States in confronting the Taliban.

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)

International Counter-Extremism

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 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)

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. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

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)

Public Opinion

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)