Is the Taliban capable of counterterrorism?

It takes far more than territorial control to ensure security

A view of destruction caused at the scene of a bomb blast that targeted a Shi'ite Muslims mosque in Kunduz, Afghanistan, on October 8, 2021. EPA
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The saying that one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter has gotten a lot of mileage in various conflicts in the region. It has never been convincing, mostly because terrorist tactics, by definition, target freedom-loving civilians rather than those holding the tools of oppression. When they double as terrorists, so-called freedom fighters are, at most, seeking to overthrow a government to assert control for themselves.

In the past few years in some countries, terrorist groups have managed this, to varying degrees. When ISIS captured and claimed statehood over large swathes of Syria and Iraq (after all, “state” is right there in the name) in 2014, and the Houthi rebel group took over Yemen’s capital shortly afterwards, it started becoming clear for the first time in the “global war on terror” that one man’s terrorist could be another man’s government. And they do not make very good governments (nor do they govern in a way that promotes freedom).

ISIS’s territory was never fully consolidated before it collapsed, and Houthi authority in Yemen remains heavily contested. But in August, when the Taliban took control of every province in Afghanistan, the full transition of a terrorist group into a real national authority was witnessed for the first time in a generation.

The Taliban might have learnt from the trials of ISIS and the Houthis that terrorist experience does not lend itself to expertise in governance. It may seem an obvious point, but it was not so obvious for the Taliban, which has filled its Cabinet with individuals distinguished only by their work on the battlefield. It declined to put together a transitional administration that drew from the experience of those who have governed before, opting instead to throw out every page of what it considered to be a wholly corrupt playbook.

Now, ironically but to tragic effect, the Taliban has to deal with other “freedom fighters” whom it has begun to call terrorists, and the absence of any skill in governance could make the problem intractable. IS-K, a franchise of ISIS, is chief among Afghanistan’s new terrorist threats. The group has murdered hundreds of civilians in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, leading the Taliban in panicked fashion to rebrand itself as a counterterrorist force. After an IS-K suicide bomber killed himself and 62 civilians in a Shiite mosque in Kunduz, Taliban authorities issued several statements condemning “IS-K terrorists”, and launched multiple “counter-terrorist operations”.

It will be difficult for the Taliban’s opponents not to revel in the irony, but that would be wrong. Instead, those who would wish well for Afghanistan should hope that this is an urgent lesson for the Taliban in the difference between “statehood” and “government” – between what international legal experts call “territorial control” and “effective control”.

This is an urgent lesson for the Taliban in the difference between 'statehood' and 'government'

Terrorism can achieve one, but not the other. The Taliban, through terrorist tactics, has gained territorial control. But counterterrorism requires effective control, which can only be acquired through political skill and diplomacy at home and abroad.

Bizarrely, the US, the architect of the “global war on terror”, has signalled a deep ignorance of this fact in the way that it seeks to outsource its own counterterrorism to the Taliban. A few short months ago, the notion that the US would collaborate with the Taliban on counterterrorism would have been laughable. Now, Washington is not merely collaborating with them, but instead is dependent on them for it.

Ahead of bilateral talks in Doha this week, a US State Department spokesperson said that Washington would “press the Taliban to ensure terrorists do not create a base for attacks” in Afghanistan. It may seem that having one militant group police the actions of others is an advantage. After all, who would know terrorist tactics better than former terrorists?

But the Kunduz bombing shows how complicated counterterrorism will be for the Taliban. The attack was symptomatic of IS-K’s hatred of Shiites. But another, more public reason behind it is that it is meant to pre-empt any temptation on the part of the Taliban to acquiesce to potential Chinese requests to deport Uyghurs back to China. Indeed, the bombing was carried out by an ethnic Uyghur member of IS-K.

What to do about this is a decision the Taliban, which has no experienced diplomats, will struggle with. On the one hand, the Uyghur militant movement within IS-K is Islamist-tinged “freedom-fighting” of the kind the Taliban have long advocated. On the other, governing a country like Afghanistan, which will need Chinese political support in order to succeed economically, requires defining what the national interest is and picking the state’s battles. Terrorism does not prepare you for that kind of burden. Experience in government does.

The Kunduz bombing also further exposes the emptiness of Taliban promises of tolerance and security to Afghanistan’s majority-Shiite Hazara community, who were the main victims of the attack. I say “further” because there are multiple reports of Taliban security officials forcibly displacing Hazaras from their homes across the country.

Given that the Taliban Cabinet has no Hazaras or Shiites in any senior positions (and only one in a junior position), it would have been extraordinary if those promises were kept. But the fact that they are broken is yet more evidence that the Taliban does not understand how fundamental they are to public safety. Competent governments know that minority communities must be protected to maintain national cohesion, as a form of counterterrorism, lest those communities begin to generate their own “freedom fighters”.

When the Taliban was on the terrorist side of the fence, it often cited the corruption, oppression and incompetence of the previous Afghan government as a way of winning more supporters. Terrorists exploit those faults in government. Counterterrorism does not only require defeating terrorists on the battlefield, but addressing those faults head-on and correcting them, so as to remove the attraction of terrorist groups for people who cannot see through their false claims to be “freedom fighters”. Until the Taliban realises how complicated being a government is, both at home and abroad, it cannot be the counterterrorist force it claims to be.

Published: October 12, 2021, 3:00 PM