In February 2010, at the peak of US military engagement in Afghanistan, Pakistani security forces captured Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar in an intelligence-led operation in Karachi. Mullah Baradar was, at the time, the head of the Taliban military and therefore the general commander of the guerrillas and suicide bombers fighting against the Afghan government and the US. He was also deputy to the Taliban movement’s supreme leader, Mullah Omar. The US provided the intelligence which was vital to Baradar’s capture and detention. Almost exactly a decade later, on 29th February 2020, with much diplomatic fanfare, Mullah Baradar sat next to US special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, in Doha, to sign an agreement on behalf of the United States and the Taliban’s political entity, the Islamic Emirate. The man who had orchestrated the fight against the US signed off on a deal intended to lay the foundations of peace in Afghanistan. Through this deal, Mullah Baradar promised that the Taliban would prevent Afghan territory being used to threaten other countries (and implied counter-terror commitment), and suspend Taliban attacks against US forces and against major Afghan cities. In return, the US announced a troop withdrawal timetable and promised to orchestrate the release of five thousand prisoners from Afghan jails.
The US-Taliban deal represented a remarkable gambit for the US. Less than two decades after launching the global war on terror (GWOT), the US dealt diplomatically with a man it had earlier hunted as a key target in that war. On one level, the US-Taliban deal can be interpreted as a response to US frustration with interminable counter-terrorism operations, which were long used to rationalise the presence in Afghanistan. Ostensibly, the deal was a bold effort to integrate political and security actions to achieve a counter-terrorism effect. Enthusiasts for the deal hoped it might prove a healthy alternative to the main thrust of counter-terror strategy in Afghanistan, which had long relied on hunting down targeted terrorist operatives, but had not mastered the environment which enabled them to operate. Afghan experience in the wake of the deal highlights the complex inter-play of terrorism and peace and offers lessons on the potential and pitfalls of integrating political and security actions in counter-terror.
Afghanistan provides a classic case of the political dilemmas inherent in specifying which sections of the endemic and multi-actor political violence should be labelled as terrorism. The Taliban Movement is still the perpetrator of most anti-state violence. It uses the full range of asymmetric warfare tactics, from skirmishing against army units to target killings of civilian officials and mass casualty suicide bombings. However, the US approach to terrorist listing of Afghan actors has focused on elite sections of the Taliban military with the most advanced suicide bombing capability (the “Haqqani Network”) and those associated with Al Qaeda. In addition to the Afghan actors, who are primarily focused on the Afghan theatre, Afghanistan continues to play host to a range of regional and global jihadi organisations engaged in terrorism. Core Al Qaeda retains its foothold in the country, amid much debate on its remaining strength, capability and strategic intent. While the original rationale for the US-led intervention was global terrorists’ use of Afghanistan as a rear-base for attacks on the west, Pakistan-origin groups such as Lashkar Tayyaba and Jaesh Mohammad have long exploited Afghanistan as a theatre for their jihad. Afghanistan also continues to host multiple militants from Xinjiang, the Central Asian states and the Caucasus. They have since 2014 been split between Daesh and Al Qaeda. They have both used Afghanistan as a sanctuary and have acquired a track record of providing expertise in advanced terror tactics to the Taliban. From the Afghan perspective, the country suffers from imported terrorism — attacks conducted against its forces or citizens perpetrated by foreign militants or those operating from bases in Pakistan. But, insofar as Afghanistan still functions as an “exporter” of terrorism, the main target is Pakistan. Since 2014, the various off-shoots of the Pakistan Taliban Movement have based themselves in insurgency-affected Afghan border provinces and conducted operations against Pakistan.
The Taliban undertaking, within the 29 February agreement, to control the actions of other groups within territory they hold, was helpful in rendering the deal politically palatable within the US, given that counter-terrorism had been a key rationale for the long US presence. Because of the architecture adopted by Special Envoy Khalilzad for his dealings with the Taliban, their counter-terrorism undertaking was part of the sequence, progressing towards negotiations between the Afghan parties. The Taliban undertaking allowed the US to adopt a conditional timetable for their troop withdrawal, which in turn incentivised the Taliban to commit to join intra-Afghan negotiations, which in turn created an opportunity for a political settlement of the armed conflict between the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Mullah Baradar’s signing of the 29 February agreement and the implied counter-terror undertaking were clearly a milestone in the evolution of the Afghan conflict. But, the implementation record proved patchy as, in the months following, the Taliban position on terrorism remained ambivalent and progress towards a negotiated peace was elusive. In the first place, while negotiating the agreement, the Taliban successfully resisted attempts to make any explicit comment to desist, or restrain other groups, from terrorism. The commitment in the text is to ensure there are no threats to other countries. The Taliban position was driven by their imperative to avoid a conflation of terrorism and jihad. They were intent on continuing to assert that their armed struggle against the US and fellow Afghans alike had always been legitimate (a jihad). They also successfully resisted pressure for them to denounce Al Qaeda and were reluctant even to sign off on referring to any of the international militants as terrorists.
In terms of mechanisms, the Doha Agreement built on US-Taliban channels which had been developed in the preceding year and a half of negotiations. US military officials deployed in Doha were able to maintain regular liaison with a Taliban delegation, which connected to the movement’s leadership and, as required, the top theatre commander, General Scott Miller, was also able to engage with Mullah Baradar and other senior Taliban. The terrorist activity which proved most responsive to the agreement was the elite domestic terrorism. Taliban paused mass casualty suicide attacks on Kabul and major cities. Most Taliban violence in Afghanistan’s provinces is highly decentralised, initiated by local field commanders, without reference to a command chain. The suicide attacks on Kabul, usually attributed to the Haqqani Network, are far more tightly controlled by the Taliban military leadership than regular skirmishes in the provinces, as they rely on centralised planning and budgeting and the deployment of specialist, trained personnel. The agreement thus became the framework through which the US, in concert with the Pakistani authorities, was successfully able to persuade the Taliban leadership to suspend the Kabul suicide bomb campaign.
The agreement seemed to be far less useful in transforming the relationship between the Taliban and Al Qaeda or the other Afghanistan-based militant groups. But, on this issue, the Taliban negotiators were helped by the rather unambitious nature of the commitment which the US had secured from them. In the wake of the deal, the Taliban intelligence commission took responsibility for managing the movement’s dealings with the foreign militants and the various Pakistani factions operating in Taliban territory. In effect, the instructions from Taliban intelligence to foreign and Pakistani militants were that they should keep a low profile and shift location as directed by the Taliban, and that they must participate in the Taliban’s jihad against the Afghan government. Thus, post-agreement, foreign militants, such as Uygur fighters from Xinjiang and men from Uzbekistan, continued to provide specialist training to Taliban fighters and to facilitate the conduct of suicide bombings against Afghan government officials. Assessing whether Taliban intelligence handlers, while encouraging their foreign and Pakistani militant counterparts to focus their energies on the “Afghan jihad”, restrained them from international or cross-border terrorism is challenging. Only those Al Qaeda operatives have survived the intense counterterror campaign in Afghanistan, who have the strongest operational security. Because of the threat of disruption, militants operating in Afghanistan protect the details of activities connected to international attacks as the most sensitive secrets.
Even if the Taliban were inclined to abide by the spirit of the agreement, of all foreign militant activities in Afghanistan, Taliban have least leverage over preparation of international attacks. However, the real test of the 29th February deal in addressing terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan lay not in whether it disrupted specific plots or groups. Rather, the key issue was how it impacted on the operating environment experienced by the externally-oriented militant groups operating in Afghanistan. The Taliban’s insistence on militant groups participating in the movement’s “Afghan jihad” has provided a cover for all the groups hosted by the Taliban to sustain their military activities and thus build their personnel, skills and weaponry. In contrast to original hopes that the Taliban-US deal might prompt the Taliban to cut links with Al Qaeda, it seems to have emboldened the Taliban to protect the capabilities of militant groups with a history of participation in the international jihad.
US officials have repeatedly asserted that their plan to withdraw troops from Afghanistan, under the 29 February deal, was conditional, with the implication that the US could slow down troop withdrawal if it judged that the Taliban had failed to live up to commitments. However, another even more fundamental way in which the 29 February deal linked terrorism and peace concerned the issue of the continuity of the state. Proponents of the US-Taliban deal hoped that the government-Taliban talks which it made possible would result in a political agreement which provided for continuity of the state, with its security institutions and with the Taliban on board, appropriately integrated. Such an arrangement — an actual peace deal — would have allowed security institutions to retain their counter-terror function, including regional and international cooperation. Critically, in terms of recent experience of terrorism in Afghanistan, a peace deal to end the government-Taliban conflict promised to reintegrate national territory and extend government authority. Even once the start of government-Taliban negotiations was announced, agreement proved elusive and Taliban chose to escalate violence, contrary to US, international and Afghan government demands to reduce violence or go on ceasefire.
Counter-terrorism practice has long been a factor helping to shape the evolution of the conflict and prospects for peace in Afghanistan. The first attempt at a peace agreement, the December 2001 Bonn Accord, explicitly provided for a US-led counter-terrorism force distinct from the peace-keeping oriented International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). However, it is widely understood that abuses conducted in counter-terrorism operations of the early years helped to alienate potentially reconcilable Taliban figures and thus drive the post-Bonn conflict. After 2009 and the US decision under President Obama to respond to increased Taliban violence with a troop surge, the US and allies invested heavily in a “decapitation approach”. The counter-terror campaign came, to a remarkable extent, to be dominated by intelligence-driven targeting of specific terrorist operators, culminating of course in the successful operation against Osama bin Laden. But the long term durability of any gains achieved in the decapitation campaign ultimately depended upon the effectiveness of the Afghan state and its ability to sustain itself, control the territory and manage its security forces.
A key factor driving the US decision to undertake its unconventional diplomacy with the Taliban during 2018-20 was the desire to wind down its long military intervention and do so responsibly. Policy makers have struggled to pursue the linked goals of a peaceful Afghanistan, an end to the costly intervention and a prevention of the re-emergence of the terrorist threat which originally precipitated the war. The Taliban’s reluctance or inability to abide by their implied counter-terror commitments are not the sole obstacle to achievement of the ambitious objectives. A far more profound obstacle is the lack of a credible strategy for the sustainment of the Afghan state. Indeed, the process through which the US single-mindedly pursued its deal with the Taliban helped to boost the Taliban’s claims to legitimacy and undermine the government’s position. This made it even less likely that the Taliban would embrace any power-sharing deal preserving state structures and counter-terrorism capability. The latest stage of the Afghan peace process commenced with the gambit of bringing a former commander of terrorist operations to the table. But the success of that gambit is likely to rest on the performance of the Afghan state as US troops depart, rather than on whether Mullah Baradar sticks to his implied counter-terror commitments.