With a massive inventory of American and Nato weaponry now in their control, the Taliban are the world’s most lethal terrorist group. They are also currently in possession of an entire state. Given that they have yet to explicitly cut their ties to global jihadism, the Taliban’s rise to power is a grave threat to Afghanistan’s immediate neighborhood and beyond.
By some estimates, at least $230 million of American inventory alone now is in Taliban hands. This includes weapons, ammunition, vehicles, drones and planes. A further $19 million worth of equipment allocated to the Afghan police now is in Taliban hands. Videos circulating on social media have shown Taliban militants posing in front of American Black Hawk helicopters and Brazilian-made AN-29 ground attack planes. Apart from this, the former government also had Russian-designed Mi-17 helicopters.
It seems that at least for the more advanced weaponry, such as planes, the Taliban lack the technical know-how in terms of operation or maintenance. Yet this does not preclude the fact that ideologically aligned foreign jihadis possessing such capabilities may offer their services. Or that the Taliban may sell some of the excess inventory to jihadi outfits on the international black market. This will fuel terrorism in the region and beyond in much the same way that Libya’s civil war fuelled Islamist terrorism in the Sahel.
Indeed, if social media chatter is anything to go by, jihadi cyberspace erupted in celebration when the Taliban rolled into Kabul. Jihadi groups like the Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham in Syria spoke of the Taliban’s victory as an example worth emulating. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula praised the Taliban for “emancipating” Afghanistan. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, also known as the Pakistani Taliban, has already sworn allegiance to its Afghan counterpart. After entering Kabul, the Taliban freed 5,000 prisoners from the city’s Pul-e-Charkhi prison, whose inmates included Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters.
Reports cite Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed terrorists in Kabul. Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Al Qaeda’s leader since 2011, is said to be living in Afghanistan under Taliban protection. Al-Zawahiri pledged allegiance to Hibatullah Akhundzada, the Taliban’s leader, in 2016. Curiously, the pledge of allegiance was not the other way round – Akhundzada pledging allegiance to the Al Qaeda chief. Both the Taliban and Al Qaeda are today not just joined by ideology but also by matrimonial links. In addition, there are 10,000 foreign fighters in Afghanistan from various countries, including those allied with ISIS.
As the Taliban consolidates their rule over the next few weeks and months and stamp out any dissent in the areas under their control, they are likely to reveal their true self. Indeed, outside of Kabul, the Taliban have been true to form. Reports from smaller towns near the border with Pakistan speak of killings of civilians. In Kabul, on the other hand, the Taliban have promised respect for the rights of women, minorities and individuals associated with the former regime. This schizophrenic behavior may be down to either schisms within the Taliban or a strategy to gain international recognition, unfreeze funds and stop the flight of human capital.
Western analysts have surmised that American withholding of funds to the Taliban will moderate their behavior. This thinking is flawed. Before it came to power, the Taliban was well-funded through heroin smuggling, mining, real-estate speculation, extortion and taxes. Moreover, analysts also miss the point that a country can be both a hub for global terrorism and one that can operate as a “normal” state. Pakistan, in which Osama bin Laden was discovered in 2011 living less than a mile away from a military academy, is one such example.
States such as Iran, Russia and China are willing to cut individual deals with the Taliban to ensure they do not suffer jihadi blowback. In return, they may help the Taliban out. Iran, for example, has begun supplying the Taliban with fuel in return for the dollars the Taliban earn from their illicit drug smuggling and mining.
For countries unwilling or unable to strike such deals with the Taliban, the omens look very grim. It is no coincidence that Baghdad will play host to a regional summit at the end of August, which will be attended by nearly all the states of the region – Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait – and the EU. The Taliban’s rise in Kabul and the threat of global jihadism will have concentrated minds in regional capitals.
Even as America has promised to conduct “over-the-horizon” attacks via drones should the threat of terrorism emanate from Afghan soil, it has not spelled out what its definition of such a threat is. Moreover, as America increasingly shies away from its historic role as net guarantor of security in the region, two things are clear: The Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan is a grave threat to the Middle East; and the countries of the area will have to look for a regional solution to the emerging threat.
Dnyanesh Kamat is a political analyst who focuses on the Middle East and South Asia. He also consults on socio-economic development for government and private-sector entities.