Countering a Resurgent Terrorist Threat in Afghanistan

In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the return of Taliban rule, the United States is now contending with a resurgent terrorist threat. Both al-Qaeda and the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K) are growing in strength and could pose a significant threat beyond Afghanistan, according to recent U.S. government estimates. As a recent UN Security Council assessment concluded, “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history.”

A 2020 CFR Contingency Planning Memorandum, A Failed Afghan Peace Deal, warned that a U.S. military withdrawal from the country could result in a collapsed peace process and an overthrow of the Afghan government. It also argued that one of the most significant consequences of a withdrawal would be a resurgence of terrorist groups. These concerns have proved true. This update assesses the evolving terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan and how best to counter it.

Two factors account for the growing terrorist threat in Afghanistan. First, the Taliban government has close links with several terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, and has allowed them to rebuild and reestablish training camps in the country.

Second, Afghanistan is a weak and failing state, a prerequisite for a terrorist sanctuary. The Taliban does not control law and order outside of most cities. In addition, the Taliban government has been unable to establish basic services, and the Afghan economy has shrunk by at least 40 percent since the U.S. withdrawal. The poverty rate could hit 97 percent of the population by the middle of this year. Afghanistan has jumped to the top of the International Rescue Committee’s 2022 Emergency Watchlist as it nears the collapse of virtually all basic services. The combination of a weak state and a collapsing economy gives terrorist groups relative freedom within which to operate and provides a pool of potential recruits.

With the terrorism problem worsening, the United States needs to design and implement a more effective counterterrorism strategy to mitigate this threat.

In August 2021, President Joe Biden remarked that the United States’ “only vital national interest in Afghanistan remains today what it has always been: preventing a terrorist attack on [the] American homeland.” Since the U.S. withdrawal, however, the terrorist problem has become steadily worse. According to U.S. intelligence estimates, the number of al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan has increased since U.S. forces withdrew in August 2021. As one senior U.S. Department of Defense official concluded, “the intelligence community [assessed] that both ISIS-K and al-Qaeda have the intent to conduct external operations,” with ISIS-K capable of conducting external attacks in 2022.