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Afghanistan is among the countries most affected by Islamic militancy. There are a myriad militant groups varying in size, tactics, and political objectives perpetrating violent Islamist activity. Key groups include the Taliban and their affiliates, the Haqqani Network, Hizb-e-Islami - Hekmatyar, Pakistan-based jihadi groups such as Lashkar-e-Taiba, Sipah-e-Sahaba, and Tehrik-e-Nafaz-e-Shariat-e-Mohammadi, as well as transnational jihadi groups like al-Qaeda and a more recent ultra-radical group called the Islamic State (IS, or ISIS), also known by its Arabic acronym Da’esh. The largest of these groups active on both sides of the Afghan and Pakistani border remains the Taliban. Under the leadership of their spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar, it seized control of the Afghan state in 1996, effectively ending the Afghan Civil War that followed the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89). The Taliban regime was subsequently ousted in 2001 by a U.S.-led coalition in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center – attacks perpetrated by the Afghan-based al-Qaeda group, led by Osama bin Laden.  In the decade-and-a-half since, the U.S.-led coalition and the Afghan government, headed first by President Hamid Karzai and now by his successor, Ashraf Ghani, have struggled to subdue an insurgency waged by the Taliban and its militant allies, which have received safe haven as well as financial and military support inside neighboring Pakistan. 

While the U.S. and international forces withdrew from Afghanistan at the end of December 2014, the country remains a hotbed of Islamist militancy. Despite fractures in the insurgency – primarily due to the death of Mullah Omar (which took place in 2013 but was only publicly announced in mid 2015), the succession and then death of his principal deputy, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, and the appointment of the Taliban’s current emir, Mullah Hibatullah Akhundzada – the movement persists, threatening a fragile Afghan government.

Level of Islamist Activity: 
Islamist Activity: 

The Afghan state continues to fight the Taliban-led insurgency fifteen years after the U.S.-led coalition intervened in Afghanistan. In the first half of 2013 alone, over 1,300 Afghan civilians were killed and an estimated 2,500 injured, a 23 percent increase over 2012.1 According to UN estimates, in the first half of 2014 alone, civilian casualties sharply rose by 24 percent.2 In their 2015 mid-year report on Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the UN Human Rights Office documented almost 5,000 civilian casualties – with close to 1,600 deaths and over 3,300 injured – in the first half of 2015.3 By the end of December 2015, civilian casualties had risen to over 11,000.4 For the first three months of 2016, UNAMA reported 600 civilian deaths and 1,343 injuries, and the casualties continue to rise.5 More and more Afghan civilians are killed through ground operations and crossfire than because of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In total, there has been an estimated 58,736 civilian casualties, with over 21,000 Afghan civilians killed since late 2001, with 2015 as the worst year for Afghan civilians.6 Meanwhile, 2013 and 2014 were the bloodiest years on record for the Afghan security forces, which have assumed primary responsibility for security from the U.S.-led coalition.7 The Afghan Ministry of Defense estimated that almost 1,400 soldiers lost their lives in 2013 alone fighting the insurgency.8 The year 2014 bore witness to an even higher death toll for Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), with 1,868 soldiers and 3,720 police killed in the line of duty.9 Additionally, for 2015, the UN reported the Afghan security forces casualties at over 12,000 deaths and injuries.10 The vast majority of these casualties are attributable to the Taliban. 

The success of the Taliban is owed, in large part, to its appeal to the broader Pashtun population, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan from which the majority of Taliban manpower stems. The south and east of Afghanistan, the country’s hotspots and where the majority of Pashtuns reside, offer fertile recruiting ground for the Taliban. The Taliban’s key tactic in eliciting grassroots support is to leverage resentment felt by local Afghan villagers toward the indiscriminate killing of Afghan civilians in U.S. airstrikes and perceived disrespect toward local Afghan values and religious norms. Although former Afghan President Hamid Karzai is himself a Pashtun, many in the Taliban reviled him as a Western puppet.

Between 2001 and 2005, the U.S. intervention effectively degraded the Taliban’s capabilities and sent their leadership fleeing into Pakistan. During this period, the northern part of Afghanistan was largely free from Taliban activity. Afghanistan’s north has traditionally been dominated by ethnic Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras who were previously members of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Taliban tactics in the early years of the war amounted to sporadic raids on U.S. and international forces and attacks on major population centers in the country’s south, where the group enjoys the most sympathy. Though Taliban forces were able to control significant swathes of the countryside in the south and east, and along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, they were unsuccessful in launching major attacks against U.S. and international forces elsewhere. So-called “swarm attacks” on U.S. and international forces often resulted in heavy losses for the Taliban, which then switched to traditional guerilla and terrorist tactics. When pressure was applied to Taliban strongholds in the south and east of Afghanistan, they simply took refuge across the border in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), where international troops could not pursue them. Within the FATA region, the Taliban and their allies were concentrated most heavily in the North and South Waziristan Agencies and remain so to the present day. However, the city of Quetta, located in Pakistan’s Baluchistan province, served as the headquarters for the exiled Afghan Taliban leadership and was the place where Taliban spiritual leader Mullah Omar supposedly resided.11 In recent years and months, Baluchistan has become the prime target of the U.S. drone campaign, killing high value Taliban operatives. For instance, in May 2016, U.S. drone strike killed Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, the leader of the Afghan Taliban who succeeded Mullah Omar after the Taliban confirmed their spiritual leader had died.12 Interestingly, according to an official statement issued by Afghan government, Mullah Omar, too, had died in Pakistan in 2013, allegedly in his safe haven of Quetta.13

The Taliban’s fortunes changed between 2005 and 2008. During this period, a radical Pakistani offshoot of the Afghan Taliban, the Tehrik-e-Taliban-e-Pakistan (TTP) or Pakistani Taliban, formed, gaining control over parts of Pakistan’s Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa Province (formerly known as the FATA). Unlike the Afghan Taliban, with which they share loose links and affiliations, the Pakistani Taliban focused their attacks largely on the Pakistani state, which had largely taken a hands-off approach to the Afghan Taliban residing within its borders.

The Afghan Taliban, which continued to refrain from attacking the Pakistani state, began regrouping in Pakistan and reconstituting their command structure.  They expanded operations in Afghanistan, including to the northern province of Kunduz, where a sizeable and sympathetic Pashtun population lives amid Tajiks and Uzbeks. The Taliban also expanded operations in Kunar and Nuristan provinces in the north, and in the west of Afghanistan around Herat province, while consolidating their hold over the Pashtun-strongholds of Kandahar and Helmand in the south.14 The use of suicide attacks, which were virtually unknown to Afghanistan before 2001, multiplied exponentially between 2005 and 2008, with approximately 100-130 suicide attacks being carried out in the country each year.15

During this period, the Afghan Taliban also began to incorporate tactics developed by insurgent and jihadist groups in Iraq (namely suicide attacks and IED attacks). At present, IEDs remain the primary cause of casualties in U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan, although a large number of suicide attacks that were directed against international forces, it has proved less successful in recent years than was true in the past.16 Targeting foreign nationals, especially aid workers, whenever possible, was much more effective as a tactic, and significantly downgraded the efforts of international aid and relief organizations operating in Afghanistan, although the number of such targeted attacks on foreign aid workers remains small. Still, in 2014, the greatest number of attacks on aid workers was in Afghanistan, with more than twice as many attacks than the next most violent setting for aid workers, Syria. There were 54 attacks on aid workers in Afghanistan, and 26 in Syria in 2014.17

By 2009, before President Barack Obama came into office, conditions on the ground had deteriorated further, and U.S. and international forces were on the defensive. Throughout the south and east, Taliban “vanguard units” infiltrated towns and began executing pro-Afghan government and especially pro-Karzai political and religious figures, setting up “shadow courts” that administered and delivered swift sharia justice, and attacking local Afghan army and police checkpoints and outposts. Most crucially, the Taliban were lent pseudo-legitimacy by the widespread corruption and ineffectiveness of the Karzai government, its local representatives, the police, and the judiciary. Broad swathes of territory were lost, as the United States belatedly began to shift troops from Iraq to Afghanistan with a “surge” of 30,000 troops and embraced a marked change in counterinsurgency tactics under the leadership of General Stanley McChrystal, then-commander of all U.S. and international forces in Afghanistan. 

McChrystal attempted to minimize Afghan civilian casualties and to apply force more judiciously so as not to drive local Afghan villagers who suffered “collateral damage” deaths from coalition operations, particularly airstrikes that caused a sharp increase in civilian casualties, into joining the Taliban. McChrystal made clear that he did not believe the United States and its international allies could “kill our way out of an insurgency.”18 In his major policy speech of December 1, 2009, President Obama detailed that the purpose of his surge of U.S. troops in Afghanistan was to strategically defeat the Taliban over the course of eighteen months, before beginning the drawdown of American troops in July 2011.19 The offensive against Taliban strongholds in the south and east of the country paralleled an increase in the use of remotely-controlled predator drone attacks against Taliban targets in Pakistan’s remote tribal agencies, resulting in the killing of dozens of “high-value targets” between 2009 and 2013.

In June 2010, General McChrystal was replaced by General David Petraeus, a war veteran who had previously commanded the “surge” offensive in Iraq (2007-2009). Petraeus launched a more robust effort to rout Taliban insurgents and initiated a policy of using special operations forces to engage in night raids on Taliban hideouts.  Although frequent night raids by U.S. special forces proved helpful in dismantling, killing and/or capturing of high-ranking Taliban operatives across Afghanistan, it also triggered local resentments against U.S. and international forces who oftentimes disrespected local culture and religious beliefs by entering private homes at night, investigating inside mosques, searching Afghan women, and at times holding local villagers in custody without trial. It also stoked tensions between Afghan and U.S. governments after President Karzai repeatedly complained that any such raids on Afghan homes were in violation of Afghan sovereignty and must be conducted in consultation with Afghan security forces. On July 18, 2011, General Petraeus relinquished command and was replaced by U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford. General Dunford focused his efforts on a new role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan to “train, advise and assist” the Afghan security forces in advance of the drawdown of U.S. and international troops in December 2014.20 In the meantime, the United States and Afghanistan negotiated a bilateral security agreement, based principally on the broader Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) signed by President Obama and President Karzai in May 2012, with a duration until the end of 2024.21 In September 2014, the new Afghan National Unity Government led by President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah signed the BSA.22 The pact serves as a basis for a continued U.S. military presence of an estimated 9,800 U.S. troops and at least 2,000 NATO troops – as part of the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission launched on January 1, 2015 under the command of U.S. Army General John F. Campbell, who was later replaced by the current commander General John W. Nicholson – that will remain in Afghanistan to train, advise, and assist Afghan security forces, and conduct unfettered counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda and its affiliates.

A second major component of Islamist activity in Afghanistan is al-Qaeda which recently resumed its activities in Afghanistan. Although the core of al-Qaeda is Arab, its ranks also include fighters from Uzbekistan,24 Turkey,25 Muslims of European descent,26 as well as other nationalities.27 These affiliated radicals cannot be easily distinguished from their counterparts in Pakistan (nor are all of them necessarily members of al-Qaeda Central), and they regularly utilize bases scattered throughout Pakistan’s tribal areas, particularly in North Waziristan, to train, plan and plot, and undertake raids against U.S. and foreign forces in Afghanistan. 

While the Taliban have tried to minimize civilian casualties from suicide and IED attacks, al-Qaeda and its allies have not shown such restraint, and are presumed to be responsible for the many mass-casualty suicide attacks that have occurred in the country since 2005.28 In addition, al-Qaeda carried out one of the most successful penetration suicide attacks to date against a CIA base in Khost, Afghanistan on December 30, 2009.29 During the operation, an al-Qaeda double agent, claiming to work for the CIA, detonated a suicide bomb among a group of CIA agents, killing eight of them and makes it a single largest casualty in CIA’s history.  However, while al-Qaeda and its allies might supply shock troops and suicide bombers to the Taliban, their overall role in the insurgency remains limited. Rather, al-Qaeda’s primary aid to the Taliban is in the form of sophisticated Internet and media propaganda.30 While al-Qaeda once maintained a strong presence in Afghanistan with thousands of militants, it has shrunk significantly in recent years: its total strength is estimated to be between 150-200 operatives that are active in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, al-Qaeda has shifted its battlefield strategy from one of offensive to forging alliances. For example, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri recently pledged allegiance to the new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Hibatullah Akhundzada, a largely symbolic move aimed at rebuilding al-Qaeda-Taliban alliance in order to counter a shared threat: ISIS in Khorasan.

The Islamic State (IS, or ISIS) represents a more recent threat to the Afghan government and its people, having emerged in Afghanistan in 2015.31 Its grand strategic objective is to establish a trans-regional caliphate – by expanding its military presence and menacing activities outside Iraq and Syria (or the Levant) – as part of an “apocalyptic war” against the West.32 ISIS’s rationale for its presence in the region is rooted in its interpretation of the Islamic religious texts, which states that an army of true believers will convene in Wilayat Khorasan, (or Khorasan Province, a historic region that encompasses Afghanistan and Pakistan), before the “apocalypse,” or the Day of Judgment.33 Additionally, ISIS’s presence in the region enables the group to challenge and replace its rival, al Qaeda, as the leader of the global jihadist movement.34 

After the group’s declaration of a “caliphate” in June 2014,35 it began to gain support among jihadist groups in the “Khorasan” region, particularly in Pakistan. As Pakistan’s Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP) splintered after the death of its leader Hakimullah Mehsud in November 2013, fractures in the group prompted defections, starting with TTP’s spokesman Shahidullah Shahid, who publicly announced his allegiance to ISIS in October 2014, along with most of the movement’s regional commanders, forming ISIS’s most formidable support base in the region.36 By contrast, the Afghan Taliban do not share ISIS’s objective of establishing a global caliphate encompassing the entire Muslim community. Instead, the Taliban hold a narrow ethnic and nationalistic agenda of establishing an Islamic Afghan state under their rule, which is the basis for the hostility ISIS bears towards the Taliban.37 

As of November 2015, ISIS maintained a sizable presence (between 3,000-5,000 fighters) in eastern Afghanistan, mainly Nangarhar province, where it controls villages in numerous districts.38 In April 2015, a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of a bank in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, killing at least 33 people and injuring more than 100. The Institute for the Study of War reported that on the same day, the Afghan local media had received text messages from Shahidullah Shahib, claiming responsibility for the attack on behalf of ISIS.40 ISIS’s Khorasan affiliate also claimed responsibility for the June 2016 assassination of Sher Wali Wardak, a member of the Afghan Parliament.41 On July 23, 2016, ISIS took responsibility for the deadliest attack of the year, and the biggest they have carried out since the onset of their militant operations in Afghanistan, when two suicide bombers detonated their suicide belts among thousands of minority Shi’ite Hazaras (the Islamic sect against whom ISIS bears exclusive antagonism) that had gathered near the Afghan Parliament, demanding the reroute of a planned power line through Bamyan province.42 As a result, over 80 innocent civilians were killed and over 250 wounded.43 Although ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan is limited so far, the group is starting to gain global attention as a new vanguard of reinvigorated jihadism in Afghanistan. 

The third Islamist component present in Afghanistan is the Hizb-e-Islami group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Hekmatyar was an important commander in the anti-Soviet jihad, and was allegedly backed by Pakistan’s military and intelligence apparatus. During his small stint as the Afghanistan’s prime minister during the Afghan civil war in 1990s, he contributed significantly to the destruction of Afghanistan. He later fled to Iran in order to escape the Taliban in 1996. His base of support within Afghanistan collapsed, and although he returned to Afghanistan in 2002, he has not been able to mobilize mass support among Afghans. Most of the fighters that belong to Hizb-e-Islami - Hekmatyar (there do not appear to be any authoritative numbers in this regard) operate in the northeastern parts of the country, close to the border with Pakistan, and many hail from Pashtun ethnic group.44 The principal division between Hizb-e-Islami - Hekmatyar and the larger Taliban resistance appears to be personal, as Hekmatyar was one of the major mujahideen warlords against whom the Taliban fought between 1994 and 1996. Though Hizb-e-Islami - Hekmatyar had previously engaged in talks with the Karzai government (and, most recently, with the National Unity Government), and even though it has been less aggressive in its attacks on U.S. and international forces, the group does appear to be responsible for several attacks targeting Afghan government officials, including assassination attempts against President Karzai in 2007 and 2008.45 Furthermore, 2015-2016 bore witness to some of the deadliest attacks against civilians attributed to the Haqqani network, including an attack that August that killed 43 and wounded more than 300, and an even deadlier attack that left more than 60 dead and some 300 wounded in April 2016.46 

Islamism and Society: 

Located at the crossroads of the Middle East, Central Asia and South Asia, Afghanistan is divided by geography and ethnicity. The central section of the country is bisected by the Hindu Kush mountains (impassable except through the Salang Pass), while the southern section is divided from Pakistan by the mountainous FATA region and consists of semi-mountainous and arid regions tapering into full desert along the Iranian border.

Ethnically, the estimated 15 million Pashto-speaking Pashtuns of Afghanistan comprise about 40 percent of the population, dominating Afghanistan’s south and east along the Pakistani border. Dari-speaking Tajiks make up an additional 25-30 percent of the population and are located in the northeast and along the Iranian border to the west. Significant other minorities include the Uzbeks (approximately 9 percent) located along the border with Uzbekistan to the north, and Hazaras (approximately 9 percent) located in the central mountainous region. A number of other minorities, including Turkmen, Aimaks, Pashais, Kizil Bashis and Baluchis, comprise the rest of the population.47 Although there is a substantial Shi’ite population in Afghanistan, mainly made up of ethnic Hazaras, it has traditionally not been prone to violent Islamist activity.

In general, Sufism – a less rigid, more mystical variety of Islam - has held a central place in Afghan society. There are three major Sufi orders: the Naqshbandiyya (which tends to be closer to mainstream Sunnism), the Chishtiyya (associated with India) and the Qadiriyya (which is pan-Islamic). The Tajik population has traditionally had a close cultural relationship with the Sufi heritage of Persia, though they are not Shi’ite, while the Pashtuns have been more influenced by the reformist Sunni Deobandi movements originating in India and Pakistan.

Before the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, Afghanistan was largely ruled by a semi-secular elite that was either pro-western in its orientation or, later, pro-communist. Afghanistan has traditionally hosted a weak central government more adept at resisting foreign attempts at domination than actually ruling the country. The efforts of reformist rulers such as King Amanullah (1919-29), who sought to establish a strong, liberal regime, were overwhelmingly unsuccessful.48 Starting in the 1950s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) established close relations with Afghanistan and gradually built up the local Communist party, an effort that culminated in the overthrow of the Afghan last monarch, King Mohammad Zahir Shah, in 1973 and the establishment of a Communist-dominated regime there five years later. This regime based its power upon the Pashtun Durrani tribe (in opposition to the traditional cultural domination of the Tajiks), but was quickly beset by popular opposition. The USSR came to the aid of the Afghan Communist regime, invading the country in 1979 to bolster it. After the initial invasion, the Soviets remained and became embroiled in a bloody, protracted fight against the U.S.-backed Islamist opposition or mujahideen fighters (based out of Peshawar, Pakistan) before ultimately withdrawing in 1989.

Although the conflict ended in defeat for the USSR, Afghanistan’s Islamist mujahideen were unable to adequately exploit the Soviet Union’s withdrawal and instead fell to fighting amongst themselves.  The period between 1992 and the rise of the Taliban in 1994-96 was characterized by the Balkanization of Afghanistan. Tribal, jihadi and local Islamist leaders were in a frenzy for territory, carved out separate fiefdoms throughout the country and attacked Kabul at will. The ethnic-tribal conglomeration that had been forcefully put together by the Afghan kings in the late 19th century fell apart when central rule collapsed. Separate Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara mini-states were created in the north and west of Afghanistan, while the Pashtun lands in the south and the east fell into chaos. The Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara strongholds were ruled over by strongmen or “warlords” such as Ismail Khan and General Rashid Dostum, who brought a modicum of stability to their regions. During this period, the country’s dependence upon the illicit drug trade grew immensely. 

The Taliban (“the students” in Farsi) first appeared in Pakistani madrassas (schools of Islamic learning) in 1994, portraying themselves as a movement of youth dedicated to eliminating anarchy and chaos.49 This tribal-religious movement spread into Afghanistan among the Pashtuns living in the country’s war-torn south, where mujahideen-turned-bandits preyed on the common people. In response, a group of religious students, or Talibs, united under a local mullah named Omar and created vigilante groups. These then moved through the Pashtun south, disarming mujahideen groups and enforcing strict sharia law. By 1995, the Taliban had conquered most of the Pashtun south and had begun to move against Tajiks in the northeast.

Until 1997, the movement appeared invincible, capturing Kabul in 1996, and pushing government supporters led by then-leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, into the far northeast corner of the country. The Taliban suffered reverses in 1997 and 1998, and responded with massacres. By 2001, they controlled approximately 95 percent of the territory of Afghanistan and ruled the country with their draconian laws, including banning girls from attending schools and introducing capital punishments.

Lacking international support with the exception of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, the Taliban began to rely upon foreign radical groups like al-Qaeda for financial support. Islamist jihadi groups began gravitating toward Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s strict imposition of sharia law. Their influence was symbolized by the March 2001 destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, Afghanistan’s greatest historical site, because they were deemed to be “heathen idols.”50

When President George W. Bush demanded that the Taliban hand over Osama Bin Laden and his affiliates after the attacks of September 11th, the Taliban refused, at first believing al-Qaeda’s denials of involvement. Following the U.S.-led invasion, Mullah Omar and other Taliban leadership, owing to a strict Pashtun code of hospitality, doubled down on their relationship with the group.

Yet the Taliban and al-Qaeda do not occupy the same ideological space. The Taliban, whose roots are in the Deobandi reformist school of north India, generally differs from the global jihadis of al-Qaeda, who tend to be Arab by ethnicity and Salafi-Wahhabi in ideology.  Deobandis, for example, generally do not express the same abhorrence of Sufism and Shi’ism that is characteristic of Salafis. Nevertheless, the Taliban commanders regularly comment favorably on al-Qaeda. Former Taliban leader Mullah Dadullah famously explained: “We like the al-Qaeda organization. We consider it a friendly and brotherly organization, which shares our ideology and concepts. We have close ties and constant contacts with it. Our cooperation is ideal.”51 In August 2015, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri declared his support for the Taliban as he pledged allegiance to the new (now late) “commander of the faithful,” Mullah Mansour, maintaining their relations of reciprocity.52 

Islamism and the State: 

The central government of Afghanistan is weak and relies upon the support of both local elites (meaning traditional tribal elders and city-based elites) and foreign aid (both governmental and from non-governmental organizations). Traditional tribal support is reflected in the institution of the loya jirga, the tribally-appointed consultative body that ratified the Afghan constitution in December 2003. The government’s support for political Islam is reflected in Chapter 1, Article 2 of the Afghan Constitution, where it states: “The religion of the state of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the sacred religion of Islam.”53 In general, Islamists sought to portray the Karzai government as one that is subservient to the wishes of the United States and its Western allies, and corrupt and un-Islamic as a whole.54 Taliban propaganda, for example, routinely referred to President Karzai as the “new Shah Shuja,” a reference to the Afghan king put on the throne by British invaders in the 19th century. Although the Taliban have not been as dogmatic in their opposition to democratic elections as other radical Islamist groups, they have frequently threatened voters with violence.55 

There are, however, several Islamic parties that are either somewhat allied with the government or participate in the political process. One such example is the comparatively moderate Jami’at-i Islami, led by Salahuddin Rabbani, the current foreign minister, which participated in elections and the national political process. Other Islamists maintain an antagonistic relationship with the state, hoping in the near future to supplant it, and return the country to sharia rule. The Karzai government, during its time in office, often spoke of the possibility of reconciliation with the Taliban,56 and promulgated at least some aspects of sharia law in an effort to co-opt the Islamist opposition into the Afghan government. However, most of its overtures to the Taliban leadership yielded little to no results. 

Before the end of the U.S. combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014, the Afghan government and the Obama administration pushed for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. In July 2013, the Taliban opened diplomatic offices in Doha, Qatar, with the intention of using the facility as a neutral base from which to enter peace negotiations with the United States and Afghanistan. Peace efforts quickly stalled when the Taliban staged a flag-hoisting ceremony thought by the Afghan government and its Western allies to have been a Taliban government in exile, and after they issued unreasonable preconditions for negotiations. While the office was quickly closed, the Doha negotiations with the Taliban have remained moribund ever since.57 Other signs of a parallel track of engagement are purportedly facilitated by Pakistan. In the summer of 2013, Islamabad released several high-level Taliban prisoners from its custody, including Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, who was the long-time second-in-command to Mullah Omar before being imprisoned by Pakistani forces in 2010. Baradar is believed to be one of the few Taliban commanders who could serve as an interlocutor in Afghan-Taliban peace talks, and was rumored to be exploring that option in 2010 shortly before his arrest.58 However, Baradar’s release has not yet yielded any significant results in kick-starting the stalled peace negotiations with the Taliban. 

In April 2014, Afghanistan held a presidential election, a protracted process punctuated by allegations of fraud and political uncertainty. In September 2014, the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, struck a power-sharing agreement and formed a unity government and created a new position of Chief Executive (the equivalent of a prime minister) for the runner-up in the vote. Subsequently, Ashraf Ghani was sworn in as Afghan president. Even though President Ghani had pitched most of his campaign around improvements in government efficiency and addressing corruption, he initially prioritized and used his political capital on negotiating with the Taliban – and, by extension their historic patrons, Pakistan - and like his predecessor, Hamid Karzai, reached out to Pakistan to facilitate the talks, overlooking the ambitious and costly nature of the gambit.59 In his first foreign trips as the president, President Ghani visited to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and China to gain support for a reinvigorated campaign in pursuit of a peace settlement with the Taliban.60 China has even hosted Taliban delegations in Beijing, including in July 2016, in support for the negotiations, but this has not yielded any tangible results as of yet.61 

As part of the peace and reconciliation campaign, Ghani’s government also established a Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG), which includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States. The QCG planned to meet several times in the spring of 2016, in hopes that Pakistan will end its “undeclared war” against Afghanistan and sincerely bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.62 However, the Taliban delegation did not attend, causing such frustration among the Afghan delegation that they demanded the Taliban be declared irreconcilable.63 It was not until April 2016, when a suicide attack outside Afghanistan’s intelligence headquarters, the National Directorate of Security (NDS), claimed 64 lives and wounded almost 350 others,64 that President Ghani appeared to fully realized that Pakistan and its Afghan proxies will continue to disregard his pleas for peace, Following the attack, Ghani addressed the nation with the boldest declaration since the 1990s, stating that Afghanistan no longer wants Pakistan to facilitate negotiations with the Taliban, and pledging that those who shed the blood of their own people for the interests of outsiders would be brought to justice. Ghani also declared that amnesty and a lenient approach would no longer define Afghan policy toward militancy, but that Afghanistan’s doors would remain open to those who wish to lay down their weapons and reconcile.65 It remains unclear, however, what the future will bring as relations continue to sour between Afghanistan and Pakistan over Islamabad’s duplicitous policy towards Kabul.


[1] Hashmat Baktash and Mark Magnier, “NATO disputes claim of 11 civilian deaths in Afghan strike,” Los Angeles Times, September 8, 2013,,0,5924476.story.
[2] “Civilian casualties rise by 24 percent in first half of 2014,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, July 9, 2014,
[3] “Afghanistan: Civilian Casualties Remain at Record High Level in the First Half of 2015 – UN Report,” UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, August 2015,
[4] “Afghanistan: Annual Report 2015 – Protection for Civilians in Armed Conflict,” UNAMA & UN OHCHR, February 2016,
[5] “UN Chief in Afghanistan: Do More Now to Protect Civilians – UNAMA Releases Civilian Casualty DATA for the First Quarter of 2016,” UNAMA, April 2016,
[6] Ibid.; “Afghanistan: Annual Report 2015 – Protection for Civilians in Armed Conflict.
[7] Nathan Hodge and Margherita Stancati, “Afghan Army Deaths Hit Record as U.S. Exits,” Wall Street Journal, September 20, 2013,
[8] "2,853 ANA troops killed in Action Since 2003," Afghanistan Times, October 2014,; See also Neta C. Crawford, “War-Related Death, Injury and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2014,” Costs of War, Watson Institute for International Studies, Brown University, May 2015,
[9] Azam Ahmed, “The Hardest (and Most Important Job in Afghanistan,” New York Times, March 2015,; See also Crawford, “War-Related Death, Injury and Displacement in Afghanistan and Pakistan 2001-2014.”
[10] Jessica Donati, “Afghan Casualties Mount as Foreign Forces Retreat, Says United Nations,” Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2016,
[11] Gretchen Peters, Seeds of Terror, (New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2009), 104.
[12] Vanda Felbab-Brown, “Blood and Faith in Afghanistan: A June 2016 Update,” The Brookings Institution, June 2016,
[13] “Mullah Omar: Taliban Leader ‘Died in Pakistan in 2013’”, BBC News, July 29, 2015,
[14] “Taliban Control Half of Afghanistan, Report Says,” Telegraph (London), November 22, 2007,
[15] Figures are drawn from both the official United Nations report on suicide attacks in Afghanistan (listing 123 for 2006, and 77 for 2007 [until June 30]), and the Afghanistan Conflict Monitor, listing approximately 150 for 2010. See United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, “Suicide Attacks in Afghanistan (2001-2007),” September 9, 2007,$File/Full_Report.pdf, and “Security Incidents,” Human Security Report Project Afghanistan Conflict Monitor, September 2010,
[16] For a general overview of the Afghan conflict, see Brian Glyn Williams, Afghanistan: The Longest War (Pittsburgh, PA; University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011).
[17] “Aid Worker Security Report 2015: Figures at a Glance,” Aid Worker Security Database (AWSD), n.d., 
[18] As cited in Tom Vanden Brook, “Marines Fighting Taliban Strive to Win Afghan Locals’ Trust,” USA Today, August 3, 2009,
[19] “Full President Obama Speech Text on Afghanistan,” Los Angeles Times, December 1, 2009,
[20] Kristina Wong, “Some US Troops to stay in Afghanistan after 2014,” Washington Post, September 8, 2013,
[21] Kenneth Katzman, “Afghanistan: Post-Taliban Governance, Security, and U.S. Policy,” Congressional Research Service (CRS), June 2016,
[22] Ibid.
[23] Declan Walsh and Azam Ahmed, “Mending Alliance, U.S. and Afghanistan Sign Long-Term Security Agreement,” New York Times, September 30, 2014,
[24] Ahmed Rashid, Jihad: The Rise of Militant Islam in Central Asia (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002), esp. chapter 7.
[25] Brian Glyn Williams, “On the Trail of the Lions of Islam: A History of Foreign Fighters in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 1980 to 2010,” Orbis 55, iss. 2, (2011).
[26] See, for example, Nicola Smith, “Irishman Wants To Kill For Islam,” Sunday Times (London), November 15, 2009,; Stefan Nicola, “Analysis: German Suspects In Afghanistan,” UPI, May 1, 2008,; “Dozens of Westerners Attending Terror Camps,” MSNBC, October 19, 2009,
[27] Such as Uighur radicals. See B. Raman, “Suspected Death of Yuldashev: Good News for Uzbekistan, China, Germany,” South Asia Analysis Group Paper no. 3442, October 3, 2009,
[28] “‘I Agreed to Become a Suicide Bomber,’” BBC (London), November 12, 2009,
[29] Robert Baer, “A Dagger to the CIA,” GQ, April 2010, For the suicide video, see
[30] See, for example, its online journal, Tala’i` Khurasan, at
[31] Salafi derives from the Arabic term “salaf,” meaning “the pious predecessors.” It refers to members of the Sunni Islamic sect that are strictly and fundamentally orthodox in their beliefs, advocating a return and adherence to the early version of Islam, based on Quran and Sunna.
[32] Harleen Gambhir, "ISIS in Afghanistan," Institute for the Study of War (ISW), December 2015,
[33] Ibid.
[34] Ibidem.
[35] Matt Bradley, “ISIS Declares New Islamist Caliphate,” The Wall Street Journal, June 29, 2014.
[36] Ibidem.
[37] Akhilesh Pillalamarri, “Revealed: Why ISIS Hates the Taliban,” The Diplomat, January 29, 2016,
[38] Gambhir, “ISIS in Afghanistan.”
[39] Steve Visser and Masoud Popalzai, “ISIS Claims Afghanistan Explosion that Kills Dozens,” CNN, July 24, 2016,
[40] Ibid.
[41] Ibidem.
[42] Ibidem.
[43] Ibidem.
[44] “Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party),”, n.d.,
[45] Responsibility for these assassination attempts has been disputed, and the Taliban also claimed the 2008 attempt.
[46] Felbab-Brown, “Blood and Faith in Afghanistan: A June 2016 Update”; See also Michael Pearson, Masoud Popalzai and Zahra Ullah, “Death Toll Rises After Taliban Attack in Kabul,” CNN, April 20, 2016,
[47] “Afghanistan,” Central Intelligence Agency World Factbook, June 24, 2010,
[48] Stephen Tanner, Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the war against the Taliban(Cambridge, MA.: Da Capo Press, 2009).
[49] Fahmi Huwaydi, Taliban: jundallah fi al-ma`raka al-ghalat (Beirut: Dar al-Shuruq, 2001), 9-31; For official statements, see
[50] Barry Bearak, “Afghan Says Destruction of Buddhas is Complete,” New York Times, March 12, 2001,
[51] Brian Glyn Williams, “Suicide Bombings in Afghanistan,” Jane’s Islamic Affairs Analyst, September 2007, 5,
[52] Noah Browning, Sami Aboudi and Mark Heinrich, “Al Qaeda Leader Zawahiri Pledges Allegiance to New Taliban Chief: Websites,” Reuters, August 13, 2015,
[53] The Constitution of Afghanistan, n.d.,
[54] “Taliban: Winning the War of Words?” International Crisis Group Asia Report no. 158, July 24, 2008,
[55] See “Afghanistan’s Election Challenges,” International Crisis Group Asia Report no. 171, June 24, 2009,
[56] “Karzai To Lawmakers: ‘I Might Join the Taliban,’” Associated Press, April 5, 2010,
[57] “Taliban shuts Doha HQ over ‘broken promises,” Al Jazeera, July 9, 2013,
[58] Clarence Fernandez, “Pakistan releases former Taliban second-in-command,” Reuters, September 21, 2013,
[59] Felbab-Brown, “Blood and Faith in Afghanistan: A June 2016 Update.”
[60] Ibid.
[61] Ibidem.
[62] Ibidem.
[63] Ibidem.
[64] Samimullah Arif, “Ashraf Ghani’s New Plan to Win Afghanistan’s Long War Against the Taliban,” The Diplomat, April 28, 2016,
[65] Ibid.