Testimony: The Biden Administration’s Policy on Afghanistan

Note: On September 30, 2021, Thomas Joscelyn testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee at a hearing titled, “To receive testimony on Afghanistan.” You can watch a recording of the hearing here, and you can read his full written testimony here. An excerpt, without footnotes, is below.

Chairman Reed, Ranking Member Inhofe, members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify today. My written testimony is focused on the terrorism threats emanating from Afghanistan and how to understand them.  

Below, I first offer my general points. I then take a closer look at the Taliban and the so-called Haqqani Network, which is al-Qaeda’s closest ally and an integral part of the Taliban. I look forward to answering your questions.  

Al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has praised the Taliban’s “historic victory” in Afghanistan.1 Indeed, the decades-long brotherhood between the Taliban and al-Qaeda remains unbroken. Al-Qaeda fought alongside the Taliban for nearly 20 years to defeat the U.S.-backed government. Al-Qaeda groups across Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia are trumpeting the Taliban’s victory as a boon for the global jihadist cause. Al-Qaeda’s branches, such as Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Shabaab in Somalia, and groups in Syria, view the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as a model for their own nascent jihadist states. In fact, key al-Qaeda leaders around the globe began their careers during the reign of the Taliban’s first emirate. And al-Qaeda’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has an unbroken pledge of allegiance to the Taliban’s “Emir of the Faithful,” Haibatullah Akhundzada.  

Al-Qaeda retained a significant footprint in Afghanistan throughout the war. At FDD’s Long War Journal, my colleague Bill Roggio and I have documented this footprint for more than a dozen years. Other sources have recently recognized al-Qaeda’s current network inside the country. For example, a team of experts working for the UN Security Council reported earlier this year that al-Qaeda has an active presence in at least 15 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.2 This assessment is broadly consistent with al-Qaeda’s own reporting, via its Arabic newsletter Thabat, as well as with reporting by other sources.3 The U.S. Treasury Department warned in January that al-Qaeda has been “gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection.” Al-Qaeda has a “network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”4 Much of al-Qaeda’s focus inside Afghanistan has been on winning the war. Now that the war has been won, al-Qaeda’s personnel in Afghanistan will have the resources to devote to other missions, both throughout the region and globally. 

The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (ISKP, also known as ISIS-K) retains a presence in Afghanistan. Some argue that America should work with the Taliban against ISKP, because the latter remains opposed to the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and is a distinct threat. But the enemy of my enemy is sometimes just my enemy — not a friend. Baked into this argument is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Taliban and its unbroken, decades-long relationship with al-Qaeda. ISKP has battled not only the Taliban, but also al-Qaeda, which remains fundamentally hostile to the United States and its interests and allies.  

ISKP continues to pose a threat throughout the region. ISKP’s network extends into Pakistan, where it has conducted a string of attacks. The group has also demonstrated some capability to strike in the Central Asian nations. In July 2018, a team of Islamic State terrorists ran over American and European cyclists in Tajikistan, killing four people.5 ISKP has also recruited members from throughout Central Asia who could potentially return to their home countries to conduct attacks. 

ISKP poses some degree of threat outside of Central and South Asia as well. In the summer of 2016, three men allegedly conspired to carry out terrorist attacks in New York City on behalf of the Islamic State.6 American investigators discovered that the trio had at least some contact with ISKP’s jihadists. In April 2020, German authorities broke up a cell of four Tajik nationals who were allegedly preparing to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities.7 Given ISKP’s open hostility to the United States, as demonstrated by the August 26 suicide bombing outside the airport in Kabul, military and intelligence officials will have to continue monitoring the group. 

The Taliban’s new regime is, in many ways, just its old regime. Many of the Taliban’s cabinet ministers are veterans of the Taliban’s first Islamic Emirate from 1996 through 2001.8 More than one dozen of them have already been sanctioned by the United Nations, including for their ties to terrorism. All five of the former Guantanamo detainees who were exchanged for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl in 2014 now serve the Taliban in senior leadership roles. Four of the five are Taliban cabinet ministers, while the fifth is the governor of Khost province.  

Over-the-horizon counterterrorism strikes will be difficult. U.S. officials cite “over-the-horizon” strikes in places such as Somalia, Syria, and Yemen as a model for Afghanistan. But those airstrikes are sporadic and have only a limited effect. It is true that some senior terrorist personnel have been killed in such airstrikes, but many remain in the fight. Afghanistan is also different. It is a landlocked nation. The United States is reportedly still trying to secure basing rights in neighboring countries. Pakistan, which harbored the Taliban’s senior leadership for the past 20 years, could reject American requests to use its airspace. Pakistani officials could also warn terrorists that airstrikes are incoming. The United States had significant blind spots even when thousands of troops were stationed inside the country. And as the August 29 drone strike in Kabul shows, the risks of errant strikes are real.  

The Taliban is using the February 29, 2020, Doha Agreement to protect terrorists. After the Department of Defense implied that members of the al-Qaeda-allied Haqqani Network could be targeted in the future, the Taliban responded by arguing that this would be a “violation” of the Doha accord.9 Thus, it is problematic for the U.S. government to argue that the agreement is still binding. The Taliban is using it to impede America’s ability to defend itself, while the Taliban itself has not complied with any of the supposed counterterrorism assurances within it. Part of my written testimony below is devoted to providing an outline of the close working relationship between the Haqqanis and al-Qaeda. 

The United States needs to finally reassess its relationship with Pakistan. During the first years of the war, the Pakistani government did provide counterterrorism assistance to the United States by helping to track down some al-Qaeda members on Pakistani soil. And Pakistan allowed the United States to use its airspace for the mission in Afghanistan. Overall, however, Pakistan provided key assistance to the Taliban in its war against the government in Kabul and helped the jihadists win the war against the United States. The Taliban’s sanctuaries inside Pakistan proved to be invaluable, as the group’s key leaders, allied with al-Qaeda, were often allowed to operate with impunity. The Pakistani military and intelligence establishment sits on what I call a “wheel of jihad” — it has sponsored and sheltered the Afghan Taliban, including the Haqqani Network, which is closely allied with al-Qaeda and Tehrik e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The TTP, in turn, threatens parts of the Pakistani state. No leader in Pakistan has broken this wheel, which will continue to cause problems for Pakistanis for years to come. In fact, leading Pakistani jihadists are emboldened by the Taliban’s victory and undoubtedly want to impose a similar regime inside Pakistan itself.  

Read the full written testimony here.

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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