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Afghanistan 2021: An extremist ‘stammtisch’

Everybody has a favorite bar or coffee house. A place you can go to seek solace or connect with old friends. In some cases, even make new ones. In German, this regularity is called a stammtisch.

In the world of international Islamist extremism, that stammtisch might as well be Afghanistan. With the final American military asset finally taken off from Kabul, and the Taliban now the leading, the specter of a renewed threat of international extremism looms large.

For the Biden Administration, the assumption that ending the US’ longest war was going to result in a longer peace was misguided. Although the credibility of this threat is ample, the United States and its partners must take all precautions to ensure it remains faint and at distance.

The primary problem facing the US, and the Western community writ large, is that completely killing the idea of extremist terrorism against Western targets is an impossible mission. History has proven that ideas don’t die with those who promote them. Despite the deaths of Osama Bin Laden and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, their shared brand of violent extremism endures.

Unfortunately, this idea is back in vogue for many existing fanatics and susceptible new recruits, who see a chance to regroup in Afghanistan’s conservative Islamic theocracy and mountainous terrain. Extremism, and its potential for expansion, thrives in unregulated spaces as they provide an immediate advantage for ISIS-K and other upstart rivals. Consequently, the attractiveness of this idea is flourishing, forcing the West to stay vigilant and act with compulsion. To respond to this threat, both containment and destructions efforts should be undertaken in Afghanistan and the broader landscape of international extremism.   

Within Afghanistan, it is hard to accept that after twenty years of waging war against the Taliban, the possibility that a former sworn enemy will now be a tactical partner is jaw-dropping. Despite their horrendous legacy, the US is left with no choice but to explore working with the Taliban to ensure terrorist groups don’t cement a dangerous foothold in Afghanistan. By no means ideal, leaving open the prospect for cooperation, or even intelligence sharing, with the Taliban is essential if Washington wants to gain an enhanced situational awareness on the provincial and tribal level. Despite the technological capabilities of the US’ over-the-horizon military and intelligence assets, there are clear limits to this equipment where the benefits of human intelligence are irreplaceable. 

Undoubtedly, developing a partnership with the Taliban does not come without risks for policymakers. If we consider the mass evacuation at Kabul airport as the first test of cooperation, the results leave much to be desired. The successful airport attack by ISIS-K showed that, at best, the Taliban might be willing, but not capable, of offsetting insurgency threats posed by the group and others like it. At worst, it suggests that elements of the Taliban’s security detail were complacent in allowing the attack to happen and also harbors ideological sympathies for even more extremist views. What is to say that some Taliban foot soldiers are already engaged in a game of duplicity with their superiors? 

Most concerning regarding the dynamic between Taliban and ISIS-K, is that the latter could instrumentalize the rivalry to promote itself as the only authentic Islamist camp within the country. As a byproduct, ISIS-K can encourage potential first-time lone wolf actors to act abroad, to prove their worthiness, before traveling to Afghanistan.

Despite dispatching ‘the Great Satan’ from the country, the Taliban seek international recognition and, by default, must engage diplomatically with Western nations and institutions.  This fact alone taints the Taliban’s pureness among the most hardcore segment of Islamists who can champion themselves as the true deliverer of Allah’s will. 

With the United States having little to no leverage left with the Taliban, dangling the prospect of restarting paused disbursements from the World Bank could compel the Taliban’s hierarchy to get serious about addressing homegrown terrorism. Although reducing a rival and strengthening your position should be motivation enough for the Taliban, geopolitical logic is not enough. If the US had followed the old Soviet proverb “Trust, but verify” from the Cold War, today it would be “Aggressively audit and assume lying” with the Taliban.

Should the United States need more stick than carrot to compel the Taliban, pockets of armed resistance in the Panjshir Valley could help.  The celebrity around self-declared acting Afghanistan President, Amrullah Saleh, as well as youthful rebel leader Ahmad Massoud – son of the famed mujahedeen leader Ahmad Shah Massoud – are well known, and they have made their Taliban disdain public. 

While the resistance in the Panjshir Valley remains a work in process, should the Taliban disregard their anti-terrorism responsibilities, the US could begin to provide material and intelligence assistance to bolster their capabilities. The leaders of the Taliban must understand there is a price to be paid for disregarding their mandate, and that the West will carry through on its threats to cause governance disruption.

Finally, based on the risk-reward ratio of high-value targets, America must reserve the right to surgical intervene on the ground, to deliver decapitation strikes to individuals or cells. 

Outside of Afghanistan, the United States must explicitly communicate to hardened Islamists and wannabes that either considering foreign attacks or traveling to Afghanistan is futile. This in practice means double-down on supporting African, the Middle East, and Asian nations with both COIN operations and removing safe-havens. These operations should avoid civilian blowback, to ensure no material for future recruitment campaigns. A longer-term anti-terrorism goal should focus on international development policies for distressed denizens that would make accepting Islamist offers less attractive. 

Avoiding the installation of an extremist stammtisch in Afghanistan is impractical. As ideas ebb and flow with popularity, and live forever, localizing and degrading the threat should drive security decision making. People are creatures of habits. As extremists arrive at their Afghani stammtisch, the West should make sure it’s less than usual.

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