Soft Targets in Post-Election Afghanistan

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 23

President Hamid Karzai’s announcement that terrorism had been defeated in his country may return to haunt him and his administration, but there is no denying the magnitude of the success against terrorism in Afghanistan that was embodied in the results of the recent election. The level of violence associated with the election proved to be much less than that found in many more stable countries. Moreover the post-election visit to Kabul of Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharref brought renewed promises of repressing cross-border terrorism. [1]

The major terrorist threat – remnants of Taliban, al-Qaeda, Hezb-i-Islami and others in a loose, largely Pakistan based coalition – apparently realized that they lacked the strength to make a significant impact on the election and decided not to disrupt it. It may also reflect an increasing overlap between terrorist and criminal activity that makes violent action without material profit unappealing. However, despite Karzai’s claim, terrorism in Afghanistan has not been decisively cowed by recent set-backs but is rather searching for new and softer targets while awaiting changes that would facilitate a broader reach.

Targeting Foreigners

That new “soft target” is the non-military foreign presence in Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul. Witness the two suicide bombings in Kabul’s famous Chicken Street bazaar apparently targeting either foreigners or Afghans that are working with them. The kidnapping of three United Nations election workers on October 28 and their subsequent release in November made anti-foreigner violence the main post-election news from Afghanistan.

These actions were part of a trend – albeit limited in scope – of increasing violence against foreigners in Afghanistan. The 2003 toll of 14 foreigners killed was exceeded in the first half of 2004. The non-fatal attack on the Danish Committee for Aid to Afghan Refugees’ (DACAAR) Herat office on October 23 was typical of a wave of other attacks occurring there, in Kabul and in Jalalabad, including rocket attacks and attempted suicide bombings. [2] Not all the outcomes are as fortunate. In the past year, the deaths of five employees of the French NGO Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) led that group to withdraw from Afghanistan. However, these previous attacks were largely motivated by crime, as in the deaths of 11 Chinese construction workers in northern Afghanistan in June 2004, or, in the case of two MSF workers who were apparently caught up in local political violence.

The UN workers kidnapping differed in its targeting of individual unarmed foreigners. While those claiming credit attempted to legitimate kidnapping through Islamist rhetoric – something new in Afghanistan – reports that large ransoms were offered suggests the motivation may have been largely criminal. This also raises questions about the motivation of the larger cross-border terrorist threat: without rupees from Pakistani supporters, how many of them would melt away?

It is significant that the organization which claimed the kidnapping is a splinter group that had not been heard of before. The Taliban Jamiat Jaish-ul-Musulman (Army of Moslems of the Taliban Society) is led by Mullah Sayid Mohammend Akbar Agha, reportedly a former member of the Taliban and, before that, the Hezb-i-Islami party of Younis Khalis. According to the Afghan press, this organization is composed of Pashtun elements and is part of the anti-Kabul opposition that operates principally from Pakistan. [3]

Targeting UN or aid workers is an explicit embrace of al-Qaeda methodology as demonstrated in Iraq. It is also an explicit challenge to traditional Afghan values inasmuch as they champion al-Qaeda’s vision of a universal jihad. The unwillingness of Afghans to fight and die for al-Qaeda was evident in 2001. There is now even less sympathy for terrorism in the service of jihad.

The action itself is alien to the strongly-felt national traditions of hospitality to visitors and of Islamic strictures on the treatment of women. This has led to universal condemnation of the kidnapping by the former king, ulema, and political figures. [4] Moreover the Taliban leadership denied that the kidnappers had any connection to them. Afghans were reminded that they did not resort to kidnapping non-combatants even in the 1979-89 war against the Soviets. [5] A number of Afghans even offered themselves as substitutes for the kidnapped aid workers. [6]

As an ideological statement to publicize anti-Kabul terrorism, the kidnapping was a total failure, though as a potential money-making activity, it made more sense. The willingness to use jihadist rhetoric to justify economically motivated action may be repeated in other areas in the future – particularly in narcotics cultivation.

Potential for Future Terrorism

Yet terrorism inside Afghanistan could be revived. There are principally two problems that can transmute into terrorist threats. One is the cultural resentment felt by some Afghans towards the foreign presence. Afghan opinion, ranging from reasoned newspaper editorials to a near-infinite number of bazaar rumors, has cataloged in detail the life of excess and wealth lived by the foreign aid workers in the midst of poor Afghans. [7]

Rumors of behavior contrary to Afghan standards have led to violent action against NGOs in the past, such as the sacking of the World Vision facility at Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar in 1990. Nor are Islamic NGOs exempt; the same 1990 riot would have sacked a Saudi facility except for its armed employees. Underlying this action was a current of resentment and economic hardship that provided a motivation for the widespread looting.

There have been attempts to use this resentment to ignite armed opposition to Kabul. Recently, Maulavi Younis Khalis exhorted Afghans to armed resistance against the foreign presence, citing what he described as the evil cultural influence of these groups that promoted not imperial domination but “obscenity, vulgarity and an ideology of disbelievers” and that “…the main objective of the allied forces is to put the next Afghan generation on an obscene and vulgar path.” [8] Despite his political significance in the 1970s and 80s, Khalis has been in poor health for years and carries little authority even in his native Nangarhar province. It is unlikely that this will be a major source for future terrorism in Afghanistan, but cultural resentment is a potential flashpoint that needs to be watched, especially in the context of the long-standing goals to expand the ISAF (International Security Assistance Force) presence beyond Kabul. Keeping a low profile has been an important factor in the success of foreign forces in Afghanistan post-2001.

More serious is the threat posed by the booming narcotics industry. Afghanistan is now the world’s largest opium producer and some estimates point to half the GDP deriving from this source. This has increased the pressure on the U.S. and its European allies to take strong action against opium production. However, if – as has been rumored in Kabul – the anti-eradication campaign is to start next spring and involve the use of air-applied herbicides, then the farmers and agricultural laborers who have come to depend on this crop might be forced into the hands of the terrorists, literally in self-defense of the only available source of income and employment in much of rural Afghanistan, where an unreconstructed infrastructure makes marketing alternative crops problematic. While Afghanistan is not Colombia, a poorly directed counter-narcotics campaign can provide the grassroots support that the terrorist-narcotics nexus currently lacks. Again, economic motivation – agricultural laborers picking up Kalashnikovs to defend their livelihood – is likely to prove more significant than ideology.

These two paths are certainly not the only way terrorism in Afghanistan may evolve in response to the setback of the successful presidential election. Terrorists may be looking to the parliamentary elections, currently scheduled for next April, to return some of their allies to power. Despite President Karzai’s optimism, the U.S. needs to boost its counter-terrorism efforts both inside Afghanistan and in relation to cross-border terrorism originating from Pakistan.

David Isby is a Washington-based author and defense and foreign policy analyst.


1. The Kabul Times, 9 Nov 04, p. 2.

2. Herat Sada-i-Jawan radio report, 24 Oct 04.

3. See, among others, Erada (Kabul), 2 Nov 04.

4. On the former king, Kabul television broadcast, 11 Nov 04, 0230 GMT. On the broad-based nature of the condemnation, Eslah (Kabul) editorial, 9 Nov 04. Radio Afghanistan, 7 Nov 04, had condemnations of the kidnapping by many political figures.

5. Mojahed (Kabul), 3 Nov 04.

6. Bakhtar News Agency (Kabul) report, 6 Nov 04.

7. See editorial in Arman-i Melli (Kabul), 10 Nov 04.

8. Daily Times (Pakistan), 19 Nov 04.