Pragmatic needs and Ideological Solidarities: Why economic considerations will not end Taliban associations with terrorist groups

Jan Kosinski is a 3rd year BA student of History and War Studies mostly focusing his work on Islamism and Jihadism while writing his dissertation on the early history of al-Qaeda.

Since the Taliban recaptured Kabul in August 2021, it has found itself in a similar position as before 2001: with terrorist groups on its soil, and economic and pragmatic needs that could be met by cooperating with the international community. These two factors are at odds, since any foreign aid that could alleviate some of Afghanistan’s desperate economic problems would come with a condition that the state refuses to provide sanctuaries to foreign terrorist organizations.

It remains a pressing question the extent to which the Taliban is willing and able to limit terrorist activities in Afghanistan for establishing beneficial economic relations with other countries. For now, this is rather unlikely. The foreign terrorist community in Afghanistan and Pakistan is well embedded with local tribal communities. Decades of mutual assistance, ideological solidarities and in some cases familial ties have brought foreign terrorist groups extremely close to the Taliban. Moreover, the economic opportunities presented to foreign powers in Afghanistan are not too significant, especially considering the difficulties involved with any business activity within the country. Poor infrastructure, a decentralized state and the security threats posed by Taliban’s enemies, as Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) and Ahmad Massoud, would severely increase the costs of any operation in Afghanistan in return for limited benefits. Finally, it is also important to question the Taliban’s ability to control, direct and influence terrorists, putting aside their willingness to do so. As the historical case of Usama bin Laden shows, even Mullah Omar was not able to fully influence his guest’s behavior, not even his media appearances. This scope of this article will be transnational or otherwise foreign-affiliated terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, excluding elements of the Taliban itself, as with the Haqqani network, and those that are wholeheartedly fighting against the Taliban, like ISIS-K.[1]

Firstly, the pluralism of the Taliban and foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan should be borne in mind. Neither the ‘Taliban’ nor ‘foreign terrorist groups’ refer to unified, homogenous or monolithic entities. The Taliban’s numerous factions will always to some extent be divided on the topic of foreign terrorist groups in Afghanistan; the Haqqani network for instance is one of the most hospitable to them.[2] Still, there is consensus across the board that elements of the Taliban are at the very least tolerating the presence of foreign terrorist groups. The UN, the Middle East Institute, the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, the EU and some intelligence agencies, among others, all agree on that.[3] In particular, the primary intermediator between the Taliban and foreign fighters is the Haqqani network, whose most senior member Sirajuddin Haqqani, is Afghanistan’s Acting Minister of Interior.[4] The network’s relation with foreign fighters dates back to early 1980’s when Sirajuddin’s father, Jalaluddin Haqqani, proved to be the most welcoming local actor to the Arab volunteers who came to fight the Soviet Union.[5] The relationship developed and strengthened over time, creating a bond of solidarity that still exists today.[6] Haqqani was closest with Al-Qaeda, and remains so today.[7] Considering the history of the relations, ideological affinities, and decades of sharing battlefields and enemies, it seems highly unlikely that these ties can be instantaneously severed. This is furthermore the case when one accounts for the fact that foreign terrorists have inter-married and learned local customs for at least the past two decades, further binding the two entities more intimately.[8] There are some notable examples from within al-Qaeda of members as Ayman al-Zawahiri and Abu Ikhlas al-Misri marrying individuals from families close to the Taliban, showing how close the two entities have become.[9] Finally, there are religious reasons for the solidarity between the Taliban and, mainly, al-Qaeda. In this context it is important to remember that the Taliban’s refusal to expel bin Laden and his followers in the 1990’s was to a great extent motivated by the fear that such an act would be perceived as un-Islamic, given al-Qaeda’s backing by some Afghan and Pakistani ulemma.[10]

All this is not to say that there are no economic opportunities in Afghanistan, and there are still active regional actors that could get involved in Afghanistan itself. It is hence worth looking what potential Afghanistan offers and the possibility of foreign involvement. The most often cited resource in Afghanistan is its minerals, which are abundant in the country while there also exists considerable potential for oil extraction. There are some potential mutually beneficial economic activities centered around these resources, heavily detailed in the press and geological surveys.[11] When one considers these opportunities on the one hand, and the state of Afghanistan’s economy, which is in complete collapse, on the other, it appears that these natural riches may be the answer to the economic needs of the country.[12] At first glance, these resources may appear enticing for foreign investment, such as China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and notwithstanding the country’s willingness to get involved in fragile and unsecure environments, as previously seen in Congo and Sudan.[13] China’s close ties with Pakistan furtherly increase such possibility, as Pakistan is close with the Taliban itself, hence presenting itself as an effective intermediary.[14] The idea of involving Afghanistan in the BRI has even been mentioned by some Afghan, Pakistani and Iranian officials, in line with the narrative of China filling the power vacuum created by the United States through economic means.[15]

 This is however easier said than done. Firstly, the Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda has ties with the Turkistan Islamic Party, a Chinese based terror group that operates in Xinjiang, a vital region for the BRI.[16] This is a huge security concern for the Chinese and the Taliban is rather unwilling, and probably unable, to eliminate all support for the group within its borders. China would certainly not get involved with a state that indirectly aides a terrorist group resolutely opposed to the People’s Republic. Furthermore, China’s own mineral resources are much more extensive than those of Afghanistan, lowering the marginal benefits of any involvement.[17] Simultaneously, the costs would be high, as there is little existing infrastructure, more exploratory work must be done, and security is fragile. Thus, although using economic incentives to push the Taliban to limit foreign terrorist presence in Afghanistan seems practical for China, especially given how desperately Afghanistan needs a revival of its economy, it seems unlikely due to pragmatic difficulties. Economic opportunities do not count for much if a conducive political environment is pressingly lacking. The Taliban’s unwillingness and disability to fully control foreign terrorist organizations, difficulties in operating in a decentralized state with little infrastructure and security, and potential gains remaining moderate, all make it unlikely that foreign states would get economically engaged in Afghanistan.

Thus, the possible scenario of the Taliban limiting terrorist groups in Afghanistan in order to establish international cooperation that would solve its grave economic problems is not probable. The group is both unwilling and unable to fully eliminate terrorist links on its soil, while the potential benefits for other countries remain low in comparison to the costs and risks involved. Additionally, one should not assume the current reticence towards high-profile attacks on foreign individuals and assets on the part of al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups to be a permanent posture. The complex and haphazard state of affairs in Afghanistan makes it difficult for the Taliban to completely rein in terrorist activity, assuming at all that is the Taliban’s intent. While two decades of counterterrorism campaigns have limited these terrorist groups’ abilities, it remains unlikely that the Taliban will possess any thorough intent or ability to significantly limit terrorist activities on Afghan soil for the future.[18]

Here, ’Risk’ refers to the probability of Taliban continuing to shelter terrorist groups and their potential for violent activity conducted under Taliban sanctuary.


Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/isafmedia/7293433774/in/photolist-c7uKLb-5F3pYp-7oTUT3-7AidKY-5F3siB-c7uLwC-c7uL3j-7Dw8U7-2cQBwBM-2mhwBd1-HXm1br-7Hx7ig-9yK7oi-946t5o-8LEiGL-5F7Jr3-dabNHj-79gaoF-7PE8oN-5DG9Bo-9CAXHL-5F7ArU-A8Styf-VJmiyh-5F3rJK-5F7wwS-95RYZ2-9Nvni4-8WLdLw-b7fF9i-9v4dBj-5CGRth-5F7Cf1-7UL9Pf-auGBiv-95tDY5-bEDbA4-88Jjgf-5F7HRL-8XA3iV-ftRLMW-23Z7Qjz-VJmhcE-TfCzh-VJmhxj-VJmhVJ-99aq9J-9jjNNK-9Nvkbg-8rrvi3

[1] “Foreign Terrorist Organizations”, The United States State Department, https://www.state.gov/foreign-terrorist-organizations/, accessed 10.11.2021. ; “United Nations Security Council Consolidated List”, The United Nations, https://scsanctions.un.org/owuq1en-all.html#alqaedaent, accessed 10.11.2021.

[2] Asfandyar Mir, “Afghanistan’s Terrorism Challenge The Political Trajectories Of Al-Qaeda, The Afghan Taliban, And The Islamic State”, Middle East Institue, October, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/sites/default/files/2020-10/Afghanistan%27s%20Terrorism%20Challenge.pdf, accessed 02.11.2021, 5-9.

[3] Mir, “Afghanistan’s Terrorism Challenge’; Tanya Mehra, Julie Coleman, “The Fall of Afghanistan: A Blow to Counter-Terrorism and Rule of Law Efforts”, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, August 23, 2021,

https://icct.nl/publication/the-fall-of-afghanistan-a-blow-to-counter-terrorism-and-rule-of-law-efforts/, accessed 02.11.2021. ; “Afghanistan once more under Taliban rule”, European Parliament, September 2, 2021, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2021/696192/EPRS_ATA(2021)696192_EN.pdf, accessed 04.11.2021. ; Rafi, Kambaiz, “Will China Replace the US in Afghanistan?”, The Royal United Services Institue, October 14, 2021, https://rusi.org/explore-our-research/publications/commentary/will-china-replace-us-afghanistan, accessed 01.11.2021. ; “S/2021/486 Security Council”, The United Nations, June, 2021, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486, accessed 01.11.2021.

[4] “S/2021/486 Security Council”, 3. ; Sudarsan Raghavan, “The U.S. branded the Haqqanis terrorists and issued $5 million bounties. Now they’re in power in the Taliban government.”, The Washington Post, September 11, 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/asia_pacific/haqqanis-afghanistan-taliban/2021/09/10/71f82620-123b-11ec-baca-86b144fc8a2d_story.html, accessed 02.11.2021.

[5] See for example : Thomas Hegghammer, The Caravan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[6] “S/2021/486 Security Council”, 3.

[7] ibid.

[8] Anne Stenersen, “Al Qaeda’s Foot Soldiers: A Study of the Biographies of Foreign Fighters Killed in Afghanistan and Pakistan Between 2002 and 2006”, Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 34 (2011). ; Asfandyar, “Afghanistan’s Terrorism Challenge”, 9.

[9] Stenersen, “Al Qaeda’s Foot Soldiers”, 186.

[10] Stenersen, Anne, Al Qaeda in Afghanistan (Cambrdige: Cambridge University Press, 2017), 85-96.

[11] Natasha Turak, “China’s rumored ambitions to dive into Afghanistan are overstated and unrealistic, experts say”, CNBC, September 9, 2021, https://www.cnbc.com/2021/09/09/chinas-rumored-aims-to-dive-into-afghanistan-are-exaggerated-experts.html, accessed 02.11.2021. ; Michael Standaret, “China seeks stability in Afghanistan before economic dialogue”, al-Jazeera, August 18, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/economy/2021/8/18/china-seeks-stability-in-afghanistan-before-economic-dialogue, accessed 01.11.2021.

[12] Fawaz Gerges, “The Taliban Can’t Control Afghanistan. That Should Worry the West.”, Foreign Policy, August 31, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/08/31/taliban-afghanistan-islamic-state-khorasan-isis-west-security-terrorism-attacks/, accessed 01.11.2021. ; “Afghanistan’s economy is collapsing”, The Economist, October 30, 2021, https://www.economist.com/asia/2021/10/30/afghanistans-economy-is-collapsing, accessed 01.11.2021. ; “Afghanistan once more under Taliban rule”, European Parliament, September 2, 2021, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/etudes/ATAG/2021/696192/EPRS_ATA(2021)696192_EN.pdf, accessed 04.11.2021.

[13] Turak, “China’s rumored ambitions to dive into Afghanistan are overstated and unrealistic”.

[14] “Taliban expresses interest in CPEC: Should India be worried, why China is reaching out and what Pakistan said”, Firstpost, September 9, 2021, https://www.firstpost.com/india/taliban-expresses-interest-in-cpec-should-india-be-worried-why-china-is-reaching-out-and-what-pakistan-said-9944711.html, accessed 02.11.2021.

[15] Joe Macaron, “What will the Taliban takeover mean for the Middle East?”, al-Jazeera, August 19, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/8/19/what-will-the-taliban-victory-mean-for-the-middle-east, accessed 03.11.2021. ; Xie Wenting,” BRI could help in improving Afghanistan’s economy: Iranian Ambassador”, Global Times, October 29, 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202110/1237654.shtml, accessed 02.11.2021. ; “Taliban expresses interest in CPEC”.

[16] Rafi, “Will China Replace the US in Afghanistan?”.

[17] Ibid.

[18] For the current state of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan see: “Al Qaeda: Background, Current Status, and U.S. Policy”, Congressional Research Service, June 14, 2021, https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11854, accessed 04.11.2021. ; Colin Clarke, “Trends in Terrorism: What’s on the Horizon in 2021?”, Foreign Policy Research Institute, January 5, 2021, https://www.fpri.org/article/2021/01/trends-in-terrorism-whats-on-the-horizon-in-2021/, accessed 04.11.2021. 

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