Afghanistan’s Future Emirate? The Taliban and the Struggle for Afghanistan

Abstract: With the onset of inter-Afghan peace talks, it is important to take a close look at the Taliban—including their main objectives, ideological underpinnings, organizational structure, military strategies and tactics, and relationship with state and non-state actors. The Taliban is in many ways a different organization from the one that governed Afghanistan in the 1990s. Yet most of their leaders are nevertheless committed to an extreme interpretation of Islam that is not shared by many Afghans, an autocratic political system that eschews democracy, and the persistence of relations with terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida. These realities cast serious doubt about the possibility of a lasting peace agreement with the Afghan government in the near future.

On September 15, 2020, representatives from the Taliban and Afghan government gathered in Doha, Qatar, to begin face-to-face peace negotiations. Foreign leaders attending in person and by video conference lauded the start of peace talks as a historic moment.1 But the Taliban’s reaction was more subdued. The Taliban’s senior negotiator, Mawlawi Abdul Hakim Haqqani, sat hunched in his chair in the grand ballroom, hardly looking at the video screen and refusing to put on a translation headset even though the speeches were in English (a language he does not speak).2 Perhaps the Taliban had a point. The history of intrastate wars is littered with failed peace attempts.3 Since World War II, nearly three-quarters of insurgencies have ended because of a military victory by the government or insurgent side on the battlefield, and only a quarter have ended because of political negotiations or other factors.4 Afghanistan itself is a graveyard of failed peace talks.5

These challenges raise important questions. Among the most important—and the focus of this article—are the following: Who are the Taliban today? What are their main objectives, ideological underpinnings, organizational structure, military strategies and tactics, and relationships with state and non-state actors? Based on answers to these questions, what are the implications for peace negotiations?

An agreement with the Taliban that ends the war and decreases the possibility that Afghanistan will once again become a sanctuary for international terrorism would be a welcome development. It would end several decades of war that has killed over 157,000 people (including 43,000 civilians) in Afghanistan, created massive suffering among its population, and decimated its economy.6 It would also allow the United States and other countries to withdraw their military forces and reduce their military and other foreign assistance. After all, the United States has deployed combat forces to Afghanistan for nearly two decades (including a peak of over 100,000 U.S. troops), spent over $800 billion in military expenditures and development assistance between 2001 and 2019, and suffered over 2,300 soldiers killed.7 Around the globe and at home, there are more pressing problems, from countering and recovering from COVID-19 to competing with major powers like China and Russia.

As this article argues, however, a close look at the Taliban today suggests that their leaders remain committed to an extreme religious ideology, an authoritarian political system, and the continuation of relations with militant groups that will not likely be acceptable to the current Afghan government, many Afghans, and many foreign governments. In addition, the United States announced on November 17, 2020, that it would reduce its force posture in Afghanistan from 4,500 to 2,500 troops.8 These realities make a lasting peace agreement with the Afghan government unlikely in the near future. In this author’s view, a precipitous U.S. withdrawal without a peace agreement between the Taliban and Afghan government would be highly destabilizing and would ultimately undermine U.S. national security interests.

To examine the Taliban today, the rest of this article is divided into several sections. The first outlines the Taliban’s ideology and objectives, including in historical context. The second section examines the Taliban’s organizational structure. The third analyzes the Taliban’s military strategy and tactics. The fourth section explores the Taliban’s relationship with other militant groups, including al-Qa`ida. The fifth assesses the Taliban’s links with the governments of other countries, such as Pakistan, Iran, and Russia. Finally, the sixth section outlines implications of this analysis for peace talks and the future of Afghanistan.

Ideology and Objectives
The Taliban’s ideology is deeply rooted in Hanafi school of Islamic jurisprudence.9 While the ideology of the Taliban has been evolving since the movement’s establishment in the 1990s, Taliban leaders today generally support the establishment of a government by sharia (‘Islamic’ law) and the creation of an “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan.10 The Taliban elevate the role of Islamic scholars (ulema) that issue legal rulings (fatwas) on all aspects of daily life. The ulema play a particularly important role in monitoring society’s conformity with their view of the prescriptions of Islam and in conservatively interpreting religious doctrine.11 The Taliban has also been described as a “nationalist” movement in the sense that their leaders advocate for an “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan, rather than as part of a broader pan-‘Islamic’ caliphate.12 One of the most useful documents to understand Taliban ideology is the Layha, or code of conduct, which has been updated several times.13 It outlines the rules of behavior for Taliban members based on the movements core ‘Islamic’ principles.

Armed jihad has been an integral means for the Taliban to establish an “Islamic Emirate,” along with education and preaching (or da’wa).14 For Taliban leaders, armed jihad is obligatory for all Muslims, particularly Afghans, and must be undertaken against all enemies of Islam. Taliban leaders have been particularly adamant about armed jihad to coerce the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces.15 For example, Taliban propaganda celebrated the February 2020 deal with the United States as a major victory and urged supporters to continue armed jihad in publications on their website—appropriately called “Voice of Jihad”—even as Taliban leaders discussed the start of peace negotiations.16 In March 2020, a number of Taliban field commanders informed civilian populations that following the withdrawal of U.S. forces, they were confident of the “victory of the Islamic Emirate” and that the “Afghan government would be toppled within three months” through armed jihad.17

In addition, the Taliban’s ideology includes an important component of Pashtunwali, an evolving system of customary law, culture, and conflict resolution followed by many ethnic Pashtun tribes in Afghanistan and Pakistan.18 Pashtun tribal structure has undergone dramatic changes over the past several decades of war, and local versions of Pashtunwali (or nirkh) can differ significantly across areas.19 Local militia commanders have sometimes usurped the power of tribal leaders. Nevertheless, Taliban commanders have adopted some components of Pashtunwali. The Taliban strictly segregates the sexes, a practice known as purdah, and an Afghan man’s honor (or nang) is closely tied to how the women of his family are treated. The Taliban’s views are more popular in conservative, rural areas of Afghanistan, including Pashtun areas.20 As one assessment concluded, the Taliban movement “is characterized by horizontal, network-like structures that reflect its strong roots in the segmented Pashtun tribal society.”21 But the Taliban has expanded its support in areas of the country with fewer Pashtuns, such as the north and west.22

During the Taliban’s time in power from the mid-1990s to 2001, the movement enforced a stringent interpretation of the Islamic dress code for men and women.23 The Taliban mandated that all men grow beards and refrain from wearing Western clothes. The Taliban closed cinemas and prohibited music.24 The Taliban banned almost every conceivable kind of entertainment, such as television, videos, cards, kite-flying, and most sports—except, ironically, public executions in Kabul’s main soccer stadium. The Taliban also defaced and destroyed hundreds of cultural artifacts that it called polytheistic, including museums and private art collections. Perhaps the most outrageous was the Taliban’s destruction of the Buddha statues in the Afghan city of Bamiyan. In March 2001, Taliban fighters used dynamite to demolish the statues, which had stood for nearly 2,000 years. The Taliban’s first leader, Mullah Mohammad Omar, defended such actions by saying they were orchestrated to protect the purity of Islam.25

More recently, the Taliban has moderated its views on some issues, such as the education of girls and the use of modern technology and digital platforms.26 Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani wrote in February 2020 that the Taliban would “build an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam—from the right to education to the right to work—are protected.”27 But the Taliban has a well-documented record of repression, intolerance, and human rights abuses against women, foreigners, ethnic minorities, and journalists.28 The Taliban’s persecution of women is particularly concerning. Women who are victims of domestic violence have little recourse to justice in Taliban courts, and the Taliban discourages women from working, denies women access to modern healthcare, prohibits women from participating in politics, and supports such punishments against women as stoning and public lashing.29

Since 2001, when the United States helped overthrow the Taliban regime, the Taliban’s objectives have generally been consistent: to coerce through military force or political negotiations the withdrawal of U.S. and other international forces from Afghanistan, overthrow the government in Kabul, and replace it with an “Islamic Emirate.”30 In a March 2020 speech to Taliban military commanders in Pakistan, senior Taliban figure Mullah Fazl insisted that the movement was committed to establishing an “Islamic Emirate” based on the Taliban’s interpretation of sharia.31 While there are different views of what a future Taliban government might look like, a number of prominent Taliban leaders support the creation of an authoritarian high council of religious scholars and perhaps an unelected emir—somewhat akin to a Sunni version of the Islamic Republic of Iran.32 Taliban leaders have never accepted the post-2001 Afghan state, which they view as a “puppet” or “stooge” of the West that relies on foreign money and troops.33 Most Taliban leaders also reject the 2004 Afghan constitution as illegitimate, in part because they argue it was not adequately grounded in sharia.34 In addition, Taliban leaders generally disparage democracy as a corrupt invention of the West and dismiss as shams the elections held in Afghanistan since 2001. Their logic is that only Allah can appoint leaders—not humans, who they say tend to vote for corrupt and illegitimate figures. As one Taliban document summarized with a dash of sarcasm, “democracy will only bring an Islamic system if angels descend from the heavens and cast their votes in ballot boxes. People cast their votes in favor of oppressors and wild people.”35

Taliban support appears to be notably weaker in urban areas, where the Afghan population is more progressive and disinclined to support the Taliban’s extremist views. Some public opinion polling suggests that the Taliban’s ideology is still too extreme for many Afghans—including urban Afghans—who adhere to a much less conservative form of Islam and thus take a more progressive approach to social media , music, television, political participation, and rights for women.36 In addition, the ideological views of Taliban leaders are not shared by all Taliban members and sympathizers. Instead, they support the Taliban because of a variety of factors including Afghan police abuses and harassment, civilian casualties caused by foreign forces, money, unhappiness with the Afghan government, and the presence of foreign forces.37

There have been divisions within the movement, as there are with virtually every insurgent group. First, there have been disagreements about the wisdom and specifics of peace negotiations. Some Taliban leaders have supported negotiations (such as Mullah Ghani Baradar), while others have been more skeptical (such as Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai). While the on-going peace negotiations have not caused major defections—at least not yet—some disaffected Taliban established the Hizb-i Vilayet Islami (Islamic Governorate Party) in response.38 Second, there is a long history of conflict between and among pro-Taliban tribes and sub-tribes in Afghanistan, such as some members of the Alizai and Noorzai tribes in southern Afghanistan.39 Third, there has been discontent among some Taliban commanders who believe that Taliban leaders are out of touch with the hardships in Afghanistan, since they live comfortable lifestyles in Pakistan and Qatar.40 Fourth, there has been notable dissent about the Taliban’s relationship with various state and non-state actors, including Pakistan, Russia, and Iran. According to a Taliban member interviewed by two Western scholars, some Taliban oppose the group’s relations with Russia since they consider Moscow a historical “murderer of the Afghan nation” and resent Shi`a Iran because “it will never be a friend of the Afghan people.”41 Fifth, there have been ideological and other divisions within the Taliban over civilian casualties, the legitimacy of suicide bombing, corruption, poor leadership among some local commanders, and other issues.42

Organizational Structure
To accomplish its main objectives, the Taliban has established a relatively centralized organizational structure.a Since World War II, the vast majority of insurgent groups (91 percent) have set up centralized structures, largely because such structures are more effective in dealing with “principal-agent” problems.43 A principal (an insurgent leader) needs to set in place a system of incentives and penalties so that an agent (a rank-and-file member of the group) will perform as the principal expects.44 Principal-agent problems are particularly important to prevent such steps as “shirking” and defections, especially when lower-level operatives have different preferences and motivations from senior leaders. An insurgent engages in shirking behavior by acting in inefficient ways, such as idling with friends rather than burying an improvised explosive device before a government convoy drives through the area.45 Centralization is also helpful for groups like the Taliban in governing territory, since it minimizes the likelihood that local cells can usurp power and resources for their own interests.46

At the top of the Taliban’s organizational structure is the Rahbari Shura, or leadership council, which is outlined in Figure 1. The body is often colloquially referred to as the Quetta Shura because some of its members and their families live in—and around—the Pakistan city of Quetta.47 The Taliban also has regional shuras in Pakistan’s Peshawar and Miranshah. Beginning around 2007, the Taliban established a shura in Mashhad, Iran, (the Mashhad Shura) to oversee operations in western Afghanistan, with the aid of the Iranian government’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF).48 The Rahbari Shura does not exercise unfettered control over the regional shuras and rank-and-file members. There have been tensions between the Quetta Shura and those in Peshawar, for example, over command-and-control arrangements, funding, and personality clashes.49

The Taliban is led by Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada, who was appointed emir after the United States killed his predecessor, Mullah Akhtar Mansour, in a May 2016 drone strike. Akhunzada is a cleric with no serious military experience.50 While Akhunzada is the organization’s leader, the Taliban rules by consensus among members of its Rahbari Shura. The shura is primarily composed of Pashtuns from eastern and southern Afghanistan, though it does have some non-Pashtun figures including Uzbeks.51

To help run the organization, the Taliban has several commissions (komisiuns), as highlighted in Figure 2. These commissions, which are based in Pakistan, are critical to performing the key tasks of running an insurgency and governing territory. After all, insurgency is a process of alternative state building, where insurgents provide governance to the population in areas they control.53 Leaders want to extract what they can from non-combatants to sustain their groups, such as information, food, housing, and supplies. Groups need to establish organizational structures that can secure funds through taxation and other means, organize policing, administer justice, and provide health benefits (including care to wounded fighters).54 The Taliban’s primary commissions allow them to perform these tasks, including overseeing military strategy (Military Commission), running an extensive propaganda enterprise (Media Commission), raising funds (Commission for Financial Affairs), and overseeing peace negotiations (Political Commission).

At the operational and tactical levels, the Taliban has established shadow governors and military commanders at the provincial, district, and local levels in Afghanistan. In February 2020, Rahbari Shura members met to discuss new appointments in eastern, southern, and northern Afghanistan as the Taliban reorganized their shadow government structure.56 Taliban governance—including its courts—has sometimes been effective. Local Afghan police in provinces such as Helmand, for example, have handed over suspects to the Taliban to be tried at their “shadow” religious courts because they believe the outcome would be quicker and fairer than if they sent them to the district center.57

The Taliban’s Commission for Financial Affairs plays an important role in securing funding for the group. The Taliban receives money from the cultivation, production, and trafficking of opium. The Taliban has allowed drug-smuggling syndicates, known as tanzeems, to operate in return for a portion of their profit.58 In addition, the Taliban has profited from methamphetamine production and trafficking, and they reportedly control nearly two-thirds of the methamphetamine laboratories in Farah and Nimroz provinces in western Afghanistan.59 Estimates of the Taliban’s overall revenues range from $300 million to roughly $1.5 billion per year.60 One of the Rahbari Shura’s key sources of financing comes from outside states, such as Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and wealthy donors in the Gulf.61 The Taliban secure funding in a range of ways, such as road taxes, ushr, and zakat.b In addition, they levy taxes on infrastructure, utilities, and agriculture under their influence or control. The Taliban have also secured funding through extortion against mobile telephone and electricity companies, as well as received money from the illegal extraction of onyx marble, tin, aragonite, gold, rare earth minerals, copper, and zinc.62

Military Strategy and Tactics
To achieve their objectives, Taliban leaders have conducted a guerrilla campaign and emphasized the importance of armed jihad. A guerrilla strategy includes the utilization of ambushes, raids, and other hit-and-run attacks to weaken a government’s political will to fight.63 The primary goal of a guerrilla strategy is to defeat the will of the government by mobilizing the civilian population, undermining government support, and raising the costs of continued fighting; it is not necessarily to defeat the capacity of its adversary to fight. A guerrilla strategy is often palatable to insurgent groups that are significantly weaker than their adversaries, which is why a guerrilla campaign is sometimes likened to a “war of the flea.”64

Taliban leaders have generally eschewed a conventional military strategy. The goal of a conventional strategy is to win the war in a series of battles by destroying the adversary’s physical capacity to resist.65 Unlike a guerrilla strategy, a conventional strategy focuses on defeating the security forces of the government and its international backers.66 In 2006, the Taliban briefly attempted a conventional strategy in an effort to overrun Kandahar City by massing forces. As Omer Lavoie, the commander of Canada’s Task Force 3-06 Battle Group, explained, “for the last six months I trained my battle group to fight a counter-insurgency, and now find that we are facing something a lot more like conventional warfare.”67 In response, U.S., Canadian, and other allied forces conducted Operation Medusa, which successfully prevented the Taliban from seizing and holding Kandahar City.68 More recently, the Taliban have conducted some operations in larger formations against static Afghan forces, including in Kunar, Nuristan, Kunduz, Badakhshan, and Wardak provinces.69 The threat of U.S. air support and U.S. special operations forces has generally deterred the Taliban from conducting a conventional strategy. However, the Taliban would likely switch to a conventional strategy—at least in some areas—with the withdrawal of U.S. and other international military forces.

In waging guerrilla warfare, the Taliban’s military structure includes provincial and district military commanders, including those at the following levels: large front (loy mahaz), front (mahaz), group (grup), and team (dilghay).70 Among the most effective and innovative Taliban units has been the Sare Qeta (Red Units), which are roughly equivalent to special operations forces trained to operate in small groups.71 Though their organizational structure is fairly centralized, the Taliban do allow local commanders to have some autonomy at the operational and tactical levels—including regarding military operations, financing, and recruitment.72 Overall, the number of full-time Taliban fighters ranges from low estimates of 55,000 to higher estimates of 85,000 fighters, though the number of Taliban facilitators and intelligence operatives likely brings the total estimate to over 100,000 personnel.73 Despite U.S., Afghan, and other international targeting of Taliban fighters over the years, the group has nevertheless been successful in recruiting new members. As one Taliban recruiter remarked:

It’s not easy being in the Taliban. It’s like wearing a jacket of fire. You have to leave your family and live with the knowledge that you can be killed at any time … You can’t expect any quick medical treatment if you’re wounded. You don’t have any money. Yet when I tell new recruits what they are facing they still freely put on this jacket of fire.74

At the tactical level, the Taliban rely on ambushes, raids, assassinations, and bombings against the Afghan government and foreign forces. Taliban fighters utilize weapons ideal for guerrilla warfare, such as Kalashnikov assault rifles, DSchK heavy machine guns, RPG-7 rocket launchers, 107-mm field rocket launchers, 14.5-mm anti-aircraft machine guns, improvised explosive devices, heavy mortars, 122-mm rockets, and advanced anti-armor weaponry.75 As Figure 3 highlights, in 2020 the Taliban conducted attacks—especially direct-fire attacks—throughout the country, highlighting the group’s ability to strike a wide range of urban and rural targets. Taliban units conducted bombings and assassinations in virtually every major Afghan city, such as Kabul, Kandahar, and Kunduz.76 In addition, Taliban fighters conducted sustained violence against Afghan army and police fixed positions, set up checkpoints on some major roads, and seized some district centers such as in Yamgan District, Badakhshan Province, in March 2020.77 c The Taliban have also caused the majority of civilian casualties in Afghanistan, largely because of their utilization of pressure-plate improvised explosive devices.78

To complement military operations, Taliban leaders have long recognized the importance of propaganda. As one Taliban media official acknowledged, “Wars today cannot be won without media … If the media can defeat the heart, then the body is defeated too and the battle is won.”79 The Taliban’s information campaign relies on traditional tools like shabnamah (night letters), taranas (chants), poems, khutba (Friday sermons), graffiti, printed materials, and other mediums. The Taliban also use radio broadcasts, text messages, social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, and websites to issue propaganda.80

Figure 3: Taliban and Other Insurgent Attacks, January 1 to November 7, 202081

While the Taliban have succeeded in waging a sustained campaign against the United States and its partners for nearly two decades, they have faced serious setbacks. They have failed to seize and hold any major cities in Afghanistan. The Taliban attempted to capture Kunduz City in 2015, but could not maintain control of the city. Taliban fighters also entered Farah City in February and May 2018, but again could not hold the city. This failure to hold urban terrain marks a notable difference from some other insurgent groups, including the Islamic State.82 In Syria and Iraq, for example, the Islamic State seized and held several cities for a significant length of time, such as Raqqa, Mosul, Fallujah, and Ramadi. Instead, the Afghan government’s security forces maintain the majority of control of Kabul, provincial capitals, and most of the main roads, though the Taliban have threatened (and occasionally seized) some district centers.83 In fact, the number of districts under Taliban control slightly decreased between 2019 and mid-2020.84

U.S. and Afghan forces have killed numerous Taliban commanders, such as Mullah Abdul Bari, the shadow governor for Farah Province, in August 2019; Haji Lala, the shadow governor for Logar, in June 2019; and Wali Jan (aka Hamza), the shadow governor for Wardak, in April 2020.85 In addition, the Taliban have struggled with corruption, criminal activity, and human rights abuses from some of their commanders, forcing them to establish a series of Layha (code of conduct) to govern the organization.86

The Taliban’s commitment to armed jihad has been consistent since the movement’s establishment in the 1990s. Yet while the Taliban have sustained an insurgency against the Afghan government and been a formidable opponent, they have failed to control major urban centers. This reality suggests that—at least at the moment—the Taliban are strong enough to fight the Afghan government and its international backers to a rough stalemate, but too weak to hold populated areas and overthrow the government.

Relationship with Non-State Actors
In the February 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the United States, the Taliban agreed to prevent al-Qaida and other terrorist groups from using Afghan territory to threaten the United States and its partners.87 Yet the available evidence indicates that the Taliban retain close ties with al-Qaida and several other groups.

Relations between the Taliban and al-Qaida have lasted for nearly two and a half decades.88 After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Taliban refused to hand over Usama bin Ladin to the United States. Today, the Taliban retain close relations with al-Qaida, including its local affiliate, al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). As a 2020 U.S. Department of Defense assessment concluded, “Despite recent progress in the peace process, AQIS maintains close ties to the Taliban in Afghanistan, likely for protection and training.”89 Contacts between al-Qaida and the Haqqani Network—including the Taliban’s deputy leader, Sirajuddin Haqqani—remain particularly close. They share long-standing personal relationships, intermarriage, a shared history of struggle, and sympathetic ideologies.90 Still, the Taliban and al-Qa`ida have different ideologies, and Taliban leaders remain focused on establishing an “Islamic Emirate” in Afghanistan—not the creation of a pan-‘Islamic’ caliphate.91

The periodic meetings between Taliban and al-Qaida leaders are one example of a persistent relationship. In the spring of 2019, senior Taliban leaders reportedly met with al-Qaida’s Hamza bin Ladin, the son of Usama bin Ladin, in the Sarwan Qal’ah District of Helmand Province to personally reassure him that the Taliban would never break links with al-Qaida—including as part of a peace deal. In addition, members of the Haqqani Network reportedly met with al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in February 2020 to discuss a range of issues, including implications of a possible peace agreement. According to U.N. estimates, senior al-Qa`ida leaders met with Taliban officials at least a half dozen times between May 2019 and May 2020.92

This continuing relationship is not surprising. Al-Qaida leaders have pledged loyalty (baya) to every Taliban leader since the group’s establishment, from Mullah Muhammad Omar to Mullah Akhtar Mansour and Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada. For example, Usama bin Ladin remarked that the Taliban “are fighting America and its agents under the leadership of the Commander of the Believers, Mullah Omar, may Allah protect him.”93 Bin Ladin may have pledged baya to ensure that Afghans saw the insurgency as being led by Afghan mujahideen and not by foreign Arabs. According to one account, around 2010, Taliban leader Tayeb Agha traveled from Quetta to deliver a personal message to Usama bin Ladin, which indicated that “if we—when we—return to power in Afghanistan,” al-Qaida “will have to maintain a very low profile.”94 Following bin Ladin’s death in 2011, the Taliban praised him as a martyr that had fought “with great honesty and bravery, shoulder to shoulder with the Afghans.”95

In August 2015, Ayman al-Zawahiri pledged baya to newly announced Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour. “I, as the Emir of [al Qaida], present to you our pledge of allegiance, renewing the method of Sheikh Osama and his brothers the pure martyrs,” al-Zawahiri said.96 In June 2016, al-Zawahiri similarly pledged allegiance to Mansour’s successor, Mawlawi Haibatullah Akhunzada: “We pledge allegiance to you on jihad to liberate every inch of the lands of the Muslims that are invaded and stolen—from Kashgar to al-Andalus, from the Caucasus to Somalia and Central Africa, from Kashmir to Jerusalem, from the Philippines to Kabul, and from Bukhara to Samarkand.”97 d

Overall, there are likely less than 1,000 al-Qaida operatives in Afghanistan, with some estimates between 400 and 600 militants.98 Core al-Qaida leaders believed to be in Afghanistan—or in the vicinity of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border—included al-Zawahiri, Ahmad al-Qatari, Sheikh Abdul Rahman, and Abu Osman. U.S. and Afghan forces killed some al-Qaida leaders in Afghanistan. In October 2020, for example, Afghan special operations forces killed a senior al-Qaida official, Hossam Abdul Al-Raouf (who used the nom de guerre Abu Muhsin al-Masri), who had been sheltered by local Taliban commanders in Ghazni province.99 While al-Qaida is not a major part of the insurgency, al-Qaida fighters have still engaged in military operations in support of the Taliban in at least a dozen Afghan provinces—including Badakhshan, Ghazni, Helmand, Khost, Kunar, Kunduz, Logar, Nangarhar, Nimruz, Nuristan, Paktiya, and Zabul.100

On December 11, 2019, for example, al-Qaida allegedly conducted an attack against U.S. and other forces at Bagram Airfield. Operatives detonated car bombs and then launched a multi-pronged attack, killing two people and wounding over 70 others.101 In May 2019, AQIS released a video claiming an attack against Afghan forces in Paktika Province in eastern Afghanistan.102 In September 2019, U.S. and Afghan forces targeted a Taliban and al-Qaida meeting in the Shabaroz area of Musa Qal’ah District, Helmand Province. They killed Asim Umar, AQIS’s leader, as well as six others—including the group’s courier to Ayman al-Zawahiri.103 In March 2020, one of al-Qa`ida’s media arms, Thabat, released summaries of its global operations, including hundreds of alleged attacks in Afghanistan that month.104 e

In addition to al-Qa`ida, the Taliban has coordinated with other international and regional militant groups, such as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Taiba.105 Most of the fighters from these groups are located in eastern provinces like Kunar, Nangarhar, and Nuristan, where they cooperate with local Taliban commanders.106 In addition, there are other militant groups in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region that cooperate with local Taliban commanders, such as some networks of the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and Lashkar-e-Islam.107

One of the militant groups not aligned with the Taliban is the Islamic State’s local branch, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K). There are roughly 2,200 ISIL-K fighters in Afghanistan, many of which are located in Kunar Province (especially Tsowkey District).108 Islamic State publications have repeatedly criticized the Taliban’s willingness to negotiate peace with the United States as heretical and portrayed their ideology as corrupt.109 ISIL-K has conducted mass casualty attacks in Afghanistan, though it has suffered significant attrition and lost control of territory in such areas as Nangarhar Province.110 Afghan forces captured its leader, Aslam Farooqi, and several other commanders, such as Qari Zahid and Saifullah, in Kandahar province in March 2020.111

While the Taliban has fought ISIL-K fighters in Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to cooperate with regional and international terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida, Jaish-e-Mohammed, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The Taliban’s relationship with these groups has been deep and historical, making it unlikely that they will break ties. This reality has significant implications for the United States. It is conceivable—perhaps even likely—that Afghanistan could once again become a sanctuary for international terrorist groups if the United States pulled out all forces from Afghanistan without an inter-Afghan peace deal.

Outside State Support
One of the most important reasons the Taliban have persisted is their ability to secure outside assistance from states. The Taliban receive support from their primary state backer, Pakistan, as well as from Iran and Russia.

Pakistan—especially the country’s most powerful spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Directorate—has aided the Taliban since their rise in Afghanistan. Part of Pakistan’s impetus is likely the continuing conflict with India and Islamabad’s fear—as one Pakistan government official explained to the author—of a “double squeeze” by New Delhi from both India and Afghanistan.112 India remains a major ally of the government in Kabul. ISI’s directorate that aids the Taliban has been led by a series of competent general officers, such as Major General Muhammad Waseem Ashraf.113 Over the past decade, the ISI and other Pakistan agencies have provided money, equipment, intelligence, strategic guidance, and—perhaps most importantly—sanctuary to the Taliban.114 As already noted, the Taliban’s Rahbari Shura and several of their most important regional shuras—such as the Peshawar and Miranshah shuras—are located in Pakistan. Several leaders of the Taliban and the Haqqani Network—such as Mullah Akhtar Mansour and Badruddin Haqqani—were killed in Pakistan by U.S. strikes. In addition, much of the Taliban’s propaganda production infrastructure has been located in Pakistan, including media production facilities like Alemarah and al Hijrat, the monthly pamphlet Srak (Beam of Light), and such magazines as Al Somood (Resistance), In Fight, Shahamat (Courage), Elhan (Inspiration), and Murchal (Trench).115

Yet Pakistan’s relationship with the Taliban—including senior Taliban leaders—has sometimes been testy. In February 2010, for example, ISI arrested Mullah Ghani Baradar after he discussed the possibility of peace negotiations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai without consulting Islamabad. Baradar’s actions had also infuriated other Taliban leaders, such as Abdul Qayum Zakir and Abdul Majid.116 More broadly, Pakistan support to the Taliban has caused some problems for the militant group, such as creating a perception among some Afghans that it is a stooge of the ISI.

In addition to Pakistan, Iran has aided the Taliban—particularly the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force (IRGC-QF), the paramilitary arm of the IRGC. Iran is likely motivated by a desire to remove the U.S. military presence from Afghanistan, develop relations with the Taliban as it plays a more important political role in the country, and weaken the Islamic State.117 Iran has established close relations with such Taliban leaders as Abdul Qayum Zakir, Mullah Ghani Baradar, and the deceased Mullah Akhtar Mansour.118 Iran has also provided sanctuary for some senior al-Qaida officials, such as Saif al-Adl, in the years since 9/11.119

Iran has provided money, weapons (such as Kalashnikovs and long-range sniper rifles), materiel (such as explosives, remote-control technology for IEDs, and night vision goggles), logistics, and training to the Taliban—including at camps in Iran.120 But Iranian aid has been limited, and it has not likely provided surface-to-air missiles or other advanced weapons to the Taliban or other Afghan groups. The IRGC-QF also helped the Taliban establish a shura in Mashhad to oversee operations in western Afghanistan, as well as offices in Zahidan and Sistan, Iran.121 These Taliban hubs in Iran allowed the organization to plan operations, train, and move weapons and materiel into Afghanistan—including such provinces as Nimruz, Farah, Herat, and Badghis—outside the reach of the U.S. and Afghan governments.122 The IRGC-QF and Hezbollah also worked with Afghan fighters in Syria, including Afghans who were part of the Fatemeyoun Division—a unit of mostly Shi`a Afghan fighters that conducted operations in Syria under Iranian command.123

Russia has also provided some aid to the Taliban, though Moscow supports peace talks as well.124 Moscow is likely motivated by a desire to expand Russian influence on its southern flank in Central and South Asia, secure the withdrawal of U.S. military forces, counter Islamic State operations, and cultivate influence within the Taliban in case they return to power.125 Russian support to the Taliban is not new. Around 2016, Russia began to provide limited assistance to the Taliban, including small arms and money, according to U.S. government assessments.126

In addition, the Russian military allegedly encouraged and offered money to Taliban-linked militants in Afghanistan to target foreign forces, including possibly U.S. troops.127 Russian actions were likely the handiwork of Unit 29155—a shadowy division of Russia’s military intelligence agency known as the GRU, tasked with foreign assassinations and other covert activities. U.S. intelligence agencies had monitored financial transfers from a bank account controlled by the GRU, and then watched as it was dispersed through a complex hawala system—an informal way to transfer money—to Taliban militants. In early 2020, U.S. forces and Afghan operatives from the Afghan intelligence agency, the National Directorate for Security, had raided a Taliban compound in Afghanistan and recovered roughly $500,000 in U.S. currency and other materiel that raised suspicion of Russian activity. Some of this information was summarized in a President’s Daily Brief provided to U.S. President Donald Trump around February 27, 2020. In a July 2020 intelligence community memo, the CIA and National Counterterrorism Center assessed with medium confidence that GRU Unit 29155 had offered aid to Taliban operatives to possibly target U.S. and other international soldiers.128

In sum, outside state support has been critical to the Taliban, as has financial support from some wealthy Gulf donors.129 It has allowed the Taliban to retain neighboring sanctuaries—especially in Pakistan—and to maintain a relatively steady supply of money, weapons, and materiel.

Implications of a Peace Deal
A peace agreement between the Afghan government and the Taliban that ends over four decades of near-constant war in Afghanistan would be a remarkable achievement. Negotiators from the Afghan government, Taliban, United States, Europe, Pakistan, and other countries need to continue to support peace talks. While this article does not provide a comprehensive assessment of the negotiations, including the bargaining positions of all sides, it does raise several issues regarding the Taliban that cast doubt about the likelihood of successful inter-Afghan talks in the near future.

First, the Taliban’s goal of establishing an extreme version of sharia in Afghanistan under the rubric of an “Islamic Emirate” is incompatible with the views of the current Afghan government, many (though not all) Afghans, and Western governments. Despite promises to the contrary, the Taliban has perpetrated substantial human rights violations and oppression against women, ethnic minorities, journalists, international aid workers, and others. Second, most Taliban leaders eschew democracy as a corrupt foreign political system. Instead, many have advocated the establishment of an authoritarian high council of religious scholars and figures with sweeping authority and an unelected emir (or leader) in place of the current government in Kabul—somewhat akin to a Sunni version of Iran. Third, the Taliban continue to cooperate with al-Qa`ida and other terrorist organizations. To help sustain operations, the Taliban are aided by sanctuary in Pakistan; support from Pakistan, Iran, Russia, and other state and non-state actors; and profits from a range of illicit activity, including opium. These activities will allow the Taliban—who remain optimistic about their prospects for winning the war—to continue fighting for the foreseeable future.130 It is possible that the Taliban could moderate some of their positions in the future—such as backing off their insistence on an “Islamic Emirate” or supporting a system of government that includes democratic characteristics—as part of peace talks. But they have not meaningfully done so yet with regard to these issues.

The possibility of failed negotiations raises serious questions for the United States and other international partners. Should the United States still withdraw military forces without a veritable peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban? Or should the United States and other countries keep some forces in Afghanistan, along with some intelligence personnel, diplomats, and development experts? The United States still has interests in Afghanistan, though they are not what they were following the September 11th terrorist attacks. The United States needs to focus on global competition with countries like China, Russia, and Iran, as well as the financial implications of COVID-19. Still, U.S. interests in Afghanistan include preventing the country from becoming a launching pad for international terrorism; precluding U.S. adversaries, such as China, Russia, and Iran, from using Afghan soil to undermine U.S. national security; and minimizing the likelihood of a humanitarian crisis. Several international terrorist groups continue to operate in Afghanistan today, including al-Qa`ida, the Islamic State, and other organizations that have conducted attacks in the region like Lashkar-e-Taiba.

If an agreement is not reached, there are strong arguments for the United States to maintain soldiers in Afghanistan to conduct counterterrorism operations and provide limited training, equipment, and other assistance to Afghan forces. Afghan national security forces are leading the military campaign against the Taliban and other insurgent groups, and they have done a reasonable job—in part because the Taliban have weaknesses. The Taliban have failed to seize and hold any major cities, their extremist ideology is not supported by many Afghans, their involvement in the drug trade indicates that the group is deeply corrupt, and they do not have a strong track record of competent national governance. But without a peace deal, the further withdrawal of U.S. forces—as highlighted in the November 17, 2020, announcement to cut U.S. forces from 4,500 to 2,500 troops—will likely shift the balance of power in favor of the Taliban. With continuing support from Pakistan, Russia, Iran, and terrorist groups like al-Qa`ida, it is the view of the author that the Taliban would eventually overthrow the Afghan government in Kabul.

In a September 2020 interview, former Trump National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster remarked that it was wishful thinking to expect the Taliban to renounce ties to al-Qa`ida and that negotiations are unlikely to be fruitful.131 He also asked what power-sharing might look like with the Taliban. “Does it look like bulldozing every other girl’s school? Does it look like mass executions in the soccer stadium every other Saturday?”132 Based on the Taliban’s current objectives, ideological underpinnings, organizational structure, military strategies and tactics, and relationship with state and non-state actors, it is unlikely that a Taliban military or political victory would be in the United States’s interests without significant Taliban concessions. It is too early to tell whether the Taliban will be willing to compromise. If not, however, the war may be far from over.