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The writer is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore
The attack on Kabul airport by Isis Afghan affiliate Isis-K provided a grim bookend for the west’s involvement in Afghanistan. An intervention that started in response to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks ended with a massacre of Americans and Afghans alike. It also highlighted the complexity of the terrorist threat in south Asia. From being driven principally by al-Qaeda, it now involves a range of different organisations posing threats that are likely to stay regional in the short to medium term but will undoubtedly create instability affecting the west in the longer term.
In many ways, the threat from al-Qaeda was fairly coherent. Osama bin Laden’s organisation used its money and resources to support the Taliban. This enabled it to establish terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan which it then used in its holy war against the west and its “apostate” supporters in the Muslim world. Other groups operating from Afghanistan’s territory focused on alternative adversaries, but operated on the same principle.
There is concern that this could happen again. It is an open question whether the Taliban will turn on organisations such as al-Qaeda that have fought and bled alongside them in their two-decade struggle against the US. But even if we assume that they find a way of containing them, this is no longer the only threat that might emerge.
While there is a certain level of hysteria around Isis-K, it has proved to be resilient and is the local affiliate of an organisation that still commands considerable sway among the global jihadist community. Whispers can be found in online chatter that people may be leaving the Levant to go to Afghanistan now that it offers itself as a propitious environment for jihad. Taken to its extreme, this could mean Isis dedicating more resources to establishing a mini-caliphate in part of Afghanistan. Or simply using violence in the region to rebuild its tarnished global brand.
However, these threats need to be kept in perspective. Security forces in the west have become much better at detecting activity that could mature into attacks on home ground. The bigger danger is regional. Pakistan in particular is likely to find its domestic problems exacerbated as local extremists draw inspiration from what the Taliban have achieved. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the country (and possibly in India, with knock-on effects for Islamabad).
Central Asia also has reason to worry. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of incidents in the region linked to groups in Afghanistan. Iran appears to be pragmatically bolstering its relations with the Taliban, but there is little love lost between Tehran and Kabul. China and Russia may be revelling in western humiliation, but recognise they are much closer to the potential threats that might spill over. Groups targeting these countries are likely to try to take advantage of the Taliban’s control (or lack thereof) and re-establish some sort of presence in Afghanistan.
The west is less at risk. This is to not dismiss the potential threat. The UK in particular has deep links to south Asia that have left it exposed to terrorist violence in the past, something that probably helps explain the MI6 chief’s recent visit to Pakistan. There are hints that terrorist groups are rebuilding their capabilities, with reports of jihadis looking to move from Syria to Afghanistan. Possible links to the UK can be found in stories of British voices being overheard on Taliban radio intercepts. But in the short to medium term the sort of atrocity New Zealand has just faced is a more likely threat: lone, undirected extremists attacking fellow citizens.
The most immediate threat from Afghanistan will be local. Be it Isis-K spreading its wings regionally, extremists using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in neighbouring countries, or groups being inspired by the Taliban’s victory to have a go at toppling their own local superpower. This poses a very different and less immediate set of threats to western security planners at a moment when interest and focus on terrorist threats is reducing.
But therein lies the key lesson that needs to be learned from the 20-year engagement in Afghanistan. If governments are not paying attention, problems can fester and suddenly strike. This happened in Iraq, when the American withdrawal in the late 2000s left behind an environment which helped brew Isis. And while it is unlikely that exactly the same narrative will play out in Afghanistan, the context is there for a terrorist problem to develop. The US and its allies may have left Afghanistan, but they cannot disengage from it.