April 27, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal
FDD’s Long War Journal’s response to Zalmay Khalilzad’s Twitter thread
April 27, 2023 | FDD's Long War Journal
FDD’s Long War Journal’s response to Zalmay Khalilzad’s Twitter thread
In a brief Twitter thread responding to a recent article from The Washington Post, Zalmay Khalilzad, one of the key architects of the 2020 Doha Agreement that set the stage for the collapse of Afghanistan and the return of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, continued to tout his failed deal and again urged the U.S to cooperate with the Taliban regime.
The article in question, “Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals,” detailed leaked U.S intelligence documents that provide worrying assessments of activities, including external attack plotting, by the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province (IS-K) from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. FDD’s Long War Journal cannot speak to the veracity of the leaked documents, but the assessments match current open-source evidence of the Islamic State’s operations in Afghanistan.
Khalilzad, speaking on-brand with his previous statements, vehemently denied this depiction of Afghanistan. According to Khalilzad, since the U.S. withdrawal at the end of Aug. 2021, Afghanistan has not become a terrorist safe haven. Instead, Khalilzad claimed Al Qaeda has “declined significantly,” while “the U.S. and the Taliban have a common interest against the Islamic State Khorasan Province,” and said it is possible to “hold the Taliban to their commitments on terrorism.” He claimed the Taliban can be relied on as a counterterrorism partner and “the experience of the last two years is better than many expected.”
Khalilzad’s points are at-best demonstrably false, and at worst, entirely dangerous. For instance, Khalizad’s stance that the Doha Agreement is enforceable in any way, shape or form enforceable is both. The U.S. drone strike that killed Al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri as he sheltered at a Taliban run safe house in Kabul last summer should have put Khalilzad’s proposition to rest. And yet Khalilzad continues to push for engagement with the Taliban.
Khalilzad’s Twitter thread is nothing if not consistent with his previous public statements on Afghanistan and the Doha Agreement. In addition, the former ambassador continues to downplay the Taliban-al-Qaeda-alliance, the most important jihadi alliance in Afghanistan (and beyond).
And to note the sad coincidence, Khalilzad’s thread of his repeated talking points largely fall in line with what Zabihullah Mujahid, the Taliban’s official spokesman, himself said about The Washington Post’s article.
Given Zalmay’s continued outsized relevance pertaining to U.S policy in Afghanistan, FDD’s Long War Journal feels it necessary to refute the key ideas in Khalilzad’s Twitter thread, point by point.
1. Khalilzad: A few days ago, the @washingtonpost headlined on its front page that “Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again.” They sourced this judgment to a leaked Pentagon document. However, this sensationalist hyperbole is unwarranted.
The Washington Post article referenced by Khalilzad is anything but “sensationalist hyperbole.” The leaked intelligence documents are not the only sources sounding the alarm about the Islamic State’s rising capabilities in Afghanistan. The head of the U.S Military’s Central Command, Gen. Michael Kurilla, himself testified before Congress last month warning of IS-K’s growing regional threat, to include growing capacities to target the U.S or Europe.
Other analysts have also pointed out IS-K’s growing strength on the ground, while also positioning itself to attract more Central Asian recruits to not only boost its numbers, but also make inroads across the region. This positioning was additionally noted in the latest report from the United Nations Sanctions Monitoring Team on al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. Despite a severe challenge from the Taliban and al-Qaeda, IS-K nevertheless seeks to utilize Afghanistan as a regional base for attacks elsewhere.
The Washington Post article itself details how the Islamic State is using Afghanistan as a base for its global terror operations. This is happening despite the fact that Afghanistan is in the grip of the Taliban, and the two groups are mortal enemies, as the Taliban refuses to join the Islamic State and swear allegiance to its would-be caliph.
While FDD’s Long War Journal strongly disagrees with Bruce Riedel’s quoted conclusion (“al-Qaeda is all but done”) at the end of the article, the intelligence assessment about the Islamic State’s growing threat from Afghanistan appears accurate and comports with open-source information and is therefore concerning, to say the least.
2. An upswing in terrorism from #Afghanistan had been one of the fears associated with the US withdrawal. But that has not happened.
Khalilzad is making a common mistake in his analysis. He assumes that because a terrorist threat against the West has not yet materialized since the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, it will indefinitely remain that way. The Islamic State, Al Qaeda, and a host of regional and global terrorist groups, are based in Afghanistan. It was widely anticipated that the Taliban would attempt to keep plots from Afghanistan at bay, and that al-Qaeda and its allies would cooperate.
It is in the best interest of all parties (excluding the Islamic State) to comply as it is in all of their interests to keep the heat off of the Taliban as it consolidates its power and seeks to receive support and recognition from countries like Russia, China, Qatar, Turkey, Iran, and others. The Islamic State, for its part, has tried to play spoiler to such maneuvers, with attacks against Chinese, Russian, and other interests and targets throughout the country and across Afghanistan’s borders.
Moreover, just because Al Qaeda and its allies may not necessarily be plotting or executing attacks external today does not mean they are not building the capacity to do so in the future. These groups now have exactly what the 9/11 Commission Report said was important to allow terrorist groups to survive and thrive: safe haven and state sponsorship.
3. Al Qaida has declined significantly and is currently at its weakest in Afghanistan. In regard to ISIS-K, the Taliban regard them as their mortal enemies and have carried out ongoing deadly attacks against them, killing many of their leaders.
There is no evidence to support this, and in fact, there is evidence of the opposite. Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul in the summer of 2022, less than one year after the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, is not evidence of weakness, but its strength. It is also evidence of the enduring ties between the Taliban and Al Qaeda. Al Qaeda would not allow its emir to shelter in Kabul if it didn’t think he was welcomed and protected by the Taliban.
Zawahiri was living in a posh mansion that was owned by a deputy of Sirajuddin Haqqani, one of two Taliban deputy emirs as well as the interior minister of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. In addition, Sirajuddin is the head of the al-Qaeda-linked Haqqani Network, which is itself a Foreign Terrorist Organization, and Sirajuddin is himself listed as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist for his ties to al-Qaeda. The U.S State Department’s Rewards for Justice Program currently has a $10 million bounty for Sirajuddin.
And for its part, no Taliban leaders have come out to denounce the fact that Sirajiddin was sheltering Zawahiri. In fact, the Taliban have not even admitted Zawahiri was killed in the Kabul strike. The Taliban instead denies the presence of any foreign terrorist organization (or foreign terrorist leaders) inside Afghanistan, despite no one taking its claims seriously.
Instead, other top Al Qaeda leaders and commanders are known to have entered or are currently operating in Afghanistan, all under the support of the Taliban. For instance, Saif al-Adl, the longtime Al Qaeda leader who is widely believed to have succeeded Zawahiri, is rumored to have entered Afghanistan shortly after the latter’s death (though both the UN and the U.S. currently assess Adl to be Iran-based and not currently in Afghanistan).
Dr. Amin al-Haq, Osama bin Laden’s former chief of security who guarded him at the battle of Tora Bora, triumphantly returned to his home province of Nangarhar just days after the Afghan government collapsed. The Taliban even escorted al Haq to his home; the parade was captured on video and posted online.
Abu Ikhlas al-Masri, a key Al Qaeda leader who was detained in Bagram for more than a decade before being freed in the last days of the Afghan government, has reportedly reorganized his Al Qaeda cadre and is operating training camps in northeastern Afghanistan according to the United Nations.
And of course, the leaders of various foreign jihadi groups in Afghanistan who also act as dual-hatted Al Qaeda or Taliban leaders, such as the Turkistan Islamic Party’s Abdul Haq al-Turkistani, are also still based inside the country. Also is the case of Mahdi Arsalon, a Tajik national who serves as the emir of the Al Qaeda-linked Jamaat Ansarullah, while also commanding several districts of Afghanistan’s north as a local Taliban leader.
Khalilzad’s tired point about al-Qaeda’s defeat has long been repeated ad nauseam for over a decade, despite no actual evidence to support this claim. Estimates on al-Qaeda’s relative strength in Afghanistan have long been inaccurate, as documented by FDD’s Long War Journal over the last three presidencies.
That Al Qaeda largely acts as and consists of a constellation of varied forces inside Afghanistan, which are then often integrated within the Taliban’s own military structures, muddles the accuracy of any assessment of its numbers and strength inside the country.
And to be clear, gauging Al Qaeda’s relative strength through the exclusive lens of its capacity to execute attacks abroad – particularly against the United States – greatly misunderstands not only how Al Qaeda operates, but its raison d’etre of fomenting, supporting, and playing a part in various Islamic insurgencies around the globe.
Khalilzad is right, however, about the Islamic State and the Taliban being mortal enemies and the Taliban has indeed attempted to suppress them. But broken clocks are right twice a day.
4. ISIS-K does remain a threat, and it remains to be seen if the Talibs can eliminate them. They face challenges. For example, Tajikistani extremists have been able to cross into Afghanistan and join ISIS.
5. Controlling the Afghanistan borders was one of the biggest challenges when our forces were in Afghanistan. The neighbors, especially Tajikistan, Pakistan, and Iran must do their part to prevent ISIS terrorists from crossing into Afghanistan.
IS-K’s attempts to recruit and incorporate more Central Asians into its ranks was addressed above. However, this fact does not help Khalilzad’s case, in fact, it does the opposite.
The fact that IS-K is acting, or attempting to act, as a beacon for both Central Asians outside of Afghanistan, and more-radical members of already established Central Asian jihadi groups inside Afghanistan, only helps the group expand its reach.
That said, FDD’s Long War Journal largely agrees with Khalilzad’s points in these specific tweets. However, he misses the context, or consciously chooses to omit, of other regional jihadis in Afghanistan that threaten the region. Namely, he omits the whole galaxy of jihadi groups in Afghanistan that operate within Al Qaeda’s orbit.
Tajik, Uighur, Uzbek, and other Central Asian terrorists, are already present inside Afghanistan alongside al-Qaeda and often are integrated into Taliban structures, this includes Jamaat Ansarullah, the Turkistan Islamic Party, and the Islamic Jihad Union, to name a few.
Pakistani jihadis also routinely cross the border and join al-Qaeda and allied other groups, including a long list of Pakistani terror groups sheltered by the Taliban, such as the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan (or TTP), Lashkar-e-Taiba, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, Hizbul Mujahideen, and others.
All such groups listed have their own extensive ties to Al Qaeda. And as mentioned above, senior leaders and commanders of these groups are often dual-hatted Al Qaeda and Afghan Taliban leaders and commanders.
Perhaps the most worrying is the role of the TTP in Afghanistan. Al Qaeda helped write the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan’s charter and issued orders to its leaders. The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan swears allegiance to the Taliban’s emir, helped the Afghan Taliban battle the U.S. and the prior Afghan government, and has a safe haven in eastern Afghanistan. It is now using this relative resurgence to regroup, restructure, and continue its jihad in Pakistan.
Khalilzad is absolutely aware of these groups and their ties to both Al Qaeda and the Taliban. But more worrying, Khalilzad’s omission of these groups, particularly the TTP, does not capture the entire picture of the Taliban’s Afghanistan.
While the Taliban is rightfully publicly concerned about the Islamic State’s infiltration of its borders, it still privately supports a whole host of foreign jihadi groups within its borders and their members entering Afghan territory.
And whereas the Islamic State does threaten regional stability, at least one foreign jihadi group currently operating inside Afghanistan, the TTP, is already helping to destabilize a regional neighbor. These points expand beyond just IS-K and speak to the danger writ large of Afghanistan’s current terrorist safe haven.
Though Khalilzad was likely attempting to just keep the brief thread germane to The Washington Post article’s contentions, he nevertheless left out the entire other half of the discussion related to the dangers faced by Afghanistan’s neighbors vis-a-vis regional jihadis.
Any discussion of “controlling Afghanistan’s borders” in regard to foreign jihadis must include at least a recognition of all of the other various foreign groups in the country, most of which are within Al Qaeda’s orbit.
6. The US and the Taliban have a common interest against ISIS-K. Thus, the current bottom line is that from a US standpoint, things have improved in regard to Al Qaida and have remained more or less the same regarding the threat from ISIS in Afghanistan.
Just because the U.S and the Taliban have a common enemy does not make the two natural allies. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan itself is a terrorist state. As noted above, it sponsors Al Qaeda and and its allied terror groups, continues to maintain “suicide battalions,” and proudly flaunts its use of suicide bombers against the U.S., NATO, the Afghan government, and civilians alike. The Taliban’s current government includes numerous Specially Designated Global Terrorists, former detainees from Guantanamo Bay, and mass murderers and human rights violators.
Using and trusting terrorists to fight terrorists is simply bad policy, especially when one such terrorist side continues to harbor and support a separate terrorist entity that is vehemently opposed to the United States.
7. When the US still had forces in Afghanistan, ISIS-K had plans and intentions to attack the US and the West. According to the DNI’s Annual Assessment, published in February, it “RETAINS the intent to conduct operations against the West”
This tweet only seemingly hurts his case in that The Washington Post’s article is “sensationalist hyperbole.”
8. We should hold the Taliban to their commitments on terrorism. For our part, we must remain vigilant by both monitoring the evolution of the terror threat from Afghanistan and retaining the ability to protect and defend ourselves.
9. At the same time, we should be pragmatic in dealing with the Taliban in the service of our counter-terror and geopolitical interests and continue expressing our concerns about the human rights of the Afghan people.
The Doha Agreement was dead the moment the ink hit the paper. The Taliban was never serious about its commitments to Doha. It never intended to negotiate with the now-ousted Afghan government – a fact made even more evident that the actual Afghan government was not even present during large parts of the proceedings.
The Taliban sheltered Al Qaeda at the time the document was signed and continues to do so to this day. The Taliban were never going to respect the rights of Afghan women and girls. There never were so-called “moderate” Taliban. The Taliban played the U.S. in Doha, and continues to do so. Khalilzad cannot or will not recognize this, but instead continues to push the agreement while indirectly repeating many of the Taliban’s own talking points.
10. The experience of the last two years is better than many expected—with no US loss of life since the withdrawal and with the saving of some $40 billion that we spent on the war there annually.
It is difficult to see what in Afghanistan is “is better than many expected” since the U.S. withdrawal. Afghanistan remains a safe haven for a myriad of terrorists, and Al Qaeda and its allies have safe haven and state sponsorship. And as mentioned, the Islamic State continues to rampage across areas of Afghanistan, including sporadic large-scale attacks inside Kabul.
FDD’s Long War Journal, to be clear, does not advocate for the return of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. But instead wishes to see such public officials, especially those who have dedicated much of their professional careers working on Afghan issues, make more accurate, or at least more nuanced statements and assessments, on the country rather than tired, inaccurate, and misleading talking points that have been previously refuted.
The Taliban fully control the country; resistance to the Taliban is nascent at best and there is no “Northern Alliance 2.0” to give the West a window into the country. The Taliban-controlled country is rife with starvation, near famine, and drought as the Taliban tightens its grip on power. And human rights remain abysmal, made ever more clear with the return of the 1990’s-style repression of Afghan women and girls.
Khalilzad continues to play his recognizable political motif about the Taliban and Afghanistan, providing the reader with his common refrain. But just as he was out of tune during the negotiations in Doha, he remains playing the wrong notes today.
The Washington Post’s article, though based on leaked U.S. intel assessments, is seemingly largely based in reality and provides a bleak picture of Afghanistan’s current state and its future for hosting a myriad of terrorist organizations – including jihadis on opposing sides of the global jihadi schism. If anything is sensationalist, it’s Khalilzad’s recent Twitter thread.