Terrorism In Afghanistan: Remaining Threats

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 3

The recent constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ) in Kabul, which ratified the new constitution for Afghanistan and set the stage for presidential and parliamentary elections later this year, was successfully carried out without interference from the armed opposition. The event, held under strict security, was not subject to either the long-range rocket or mortar attacks or the bombs and shooting attacks that had taken place in the past. While several terrorist incidents have taken place in Kabul in the weeks following the CLJ–most notably two suicide bombings that killed ISAF peacekeepers from Britain and Canada–terrorism overall has remained limited.

Even outside the security of Kabul, CLJ-related tasks including the selection of delegates and their transportation to and from the meeting were carried out without substantial violent actions. While this result was certainly a sign of the progress of the security situation in Afghanistan, it cannot be considered determinative. The next steps in Afghanistan’s post-war constitutional process will still have to function in the face of terrorist threats.

The security success associated with the CLJ was not surprising and, while an important victory, was not decisive. The armed opposition before the CLJ was literally peripheral, concentrating its activities on areas far from Kabul and, in large part, close to its sanctuaries in Pakistan. Although described in press reports as “resurgent” and certainly able to inflict casualties that have curtailed United Nations and non-governmental organization operations in some areas of Afghanistan, the armed opposition was unable to mount a coherent threat to the perceived legitimacy of the government in Kabul even before the CLJ. The broad support for the new constitution and the failure of opposition action to prevent CLJ participation by a significant portion of Afghanistan, defined either by geography (the opposition is limited to the southern and eastern border areas) or ethno-linguistic (the opposition is almost exclusively Pashtun) factors, further underlined the opposition’s limitations.


The armed opposition–largely divided into the Taliban, al Qaeda and followers of the veteran Afghan political leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar–have been able to respond to the CLJ with limited acts of terrorism that did not have the effect of calling the legitimacy of the process into question or even affecting the participation in it of Pashtun groups that had strong Taliban links. While tribal ties have been important to the opposition’s ability to operate, in practice it consists largely of overlapping and interconnected, if disorganized, groups sharing a common manpower pool of Pashtuns from both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. It also includes other Pakistanis and foreign jihadis, many of whom have no place else to go. These all share a common source of funding and support in the Pakistani borderlands and in the ranks of Pakistani Islamic radical organizations.

The failure of these groups to interfere with CLJ legitimacy or local CLJ participation is not, however, likely to undercut their future strength. The resilience of the opposition, currently, is more indicative of the ambivalence of Pakistani policies toward Afghanistan than of the state of legitimacy of the government in Kabul or of the divisions inside Afghanistan along fault lines of ethnicity, religious practice, and cultural outlook. Terrorism in Afghanistan is due mainly to actions taken–or not taken–not by the government in Kabul, but by that in Islamabad. The external dimension of support is more important than the internal ones.

More significant as a potential blow to the opposition than its failure to act against the CLJ have been the signs of improved relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan. These signs have flowed from the results of the CLJ and a number of actions in and by Pakistan. These have included the recent Pakistan–Afghanistan governmental visits as well as agreements by both countries to release each others’ imprisoned nationals. Steps toward improvements in Pakistan-India relations are relevant too, in large part because of the historic policy of the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to embed Afghanistan policy into the larger context of the confrontation with India, an approach now shared by a number of Pakistan’s Islamic political parties and groups.

The key issue in the future of anti-Kabul government armed opposition in Afghanistan is not changes in the composition of the leadership ranks of the government there, the presence of non-governmental Afghan armed forces outside those now being formed as part of the Ministries of Defense and Interior, nor the increased legitimacy that has flowed from the successful completion of the CLJ, which will presumably increase if the presidential and parliamentary election processes are similarly carried through. Rather, the main issue is Pakistani policy towards the opposition. If Islamabad maintains policy continuity, that is, that the Taliban are a rational–if not chosen or preferred–instrument of Pakistan’s national policy in Afghanistan, then the armed opposition in Afghanistan is likely to continue to be able to exert a limited but significant threat of violence in the Afghan borderlands. This threat would probably be grave enough to limit reconstruction through deterring international and non-governmental organizations from operating there. In most cases, it is not resentment at Panjsheris and other non-Pashtuns holding power in Kabul that motivates Afghans in Zabol or Paktika to attack aid workers. Rather, it is the availability of resources and direction from Pakistan.

That Pakistani policies toward the Afghan opposition are changing was explicitly stated by President Musharraf in his January 17, 2004, speech to parliament, his first since its election in October 2002. The speech was given largely in response to external criticism of Pakistan’s policies, especially its failure to cooperate in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and elsewhere. The day before the speech, General John Abizaid, the commander of the U.S. Central Command, had met with Musharraf in Islamabad to urge such actions. The speech appeared to have been intended for the same external audience. To demonstrate its earnestness, Musharraf’s remarks were immediately followed by an ISI raid on an al Qaeda cell in Karachi. While the members of this cell were foreigners, as had been the targets of previous raids, in the days that followed two Pashtun tribesmen were turned over to Pakistani authorities at Wana in the South Waziristan Agency, for sheltering al Qaeda members. This made a total of twenty turned over in recent months, while a further fifty-seven are reportedly being sought.

The key indication as to whether Pakistani policies are going to change and whether this is likely to affect the future terrorist threat in Afghanistan is the treatment of the Taliban leadership in Pakistan. While Pakistan has been willing to cooperate with the United States and other countries in activities against foreign, “Arab” members of al Qaeda and has promised to re-energize these efforts, there has pointedly been no movement against the Taliban in Pakistan. There have been many press reports that Taliban leadership figures lives openly in Quetta and travel widely to coordinate support with Pakistani religious radical groups. The existence of training camps for the Afghan armed opposition and other support infrastructure has also been widely reported. The well-publicized arrest and trial by Pakistani authorities of two French journalists looking to report on these camps has been seen as an explicit warning signal to the few western journalists looking at this issue.

Pakistan has offered its lack of a large scale permanent military presence in tribal areas as an explanation for its inability to limit cross-border support for terrorism in Afghanistan. This is not convincing in light of the Pakistani tradition of and capabilities for indirect control in these areas, even if these capabilities often escape the attention of Westerners who are not familiar with the long history of the use of patronage as well as armed force by the government of Pakistan. The recent use of a lashkar of tribesmen from the Malik Khel Wazirs, organized by the Pakistani political officer, to bring in the two wanted tribesmen is an example of the types of actions that had previously been conspicuous by their absence in 2001-03. The Pakistani Army has also started to operate against al Qaeda members and their local protectors in the tribal territories, actions that led to a walk-out of Islamic party members from the parliament before the January 17 speech.

If there is improvement in Pakistani policies, it is certainly not a straight line. President Musharraf has continued to repeat claims–accepted by few outside Pakistan–that Pashtuns constitute an absolute majority of the population of Afghanistan and that the non-Pashtuns constitute “a collection of minorities.” Pakistan continues to insist that the government in Kabul be Pashtun and that “minorities” not be permitted near state power except as part of an arrangement dominated by ethno-linguistic patronage politics. If the government of Pakistan still envisions such a situation as the desired end of its Afghanistan policies, it will have demonstrated that, like the Bourbons in their time, it has learned nothing and forgotten nothing.


The results of the CLJ have provided Musharraf with the chance to conduct a top-down effort to redirect Pakistani policy toward Afghanistan. Since 2001, opportunities to address Pakistan’s fundamental problems have largely slipped by. The madrassa system, the failure of civil society, and, until now, the willingness of the “Taliban culture” that has emerged in Pashtu-speaking Pakistan to provide support for terrorism in Afghanistan have all been seen as too hard for Musharraf and his government to address.

The situation that the ISI has used to justify the continuity of its pre-2001 policies toward Afghanistan has faded. The perception–widespread in the ISI even if not elsewhere–that the government in Afghanistan has limited legitimacy among ethnic Pashtuns, that it depends on a U.S. commitment that is likely to be temporary, and that the importance of the Northern Alliance leadership meant that it would inevitably be Indian dominated and hostile to the interests of Afghanistan’s Pashtun population and hence, a threat to Pakistani national interests, has had its limited grounding in reality undercut by the success of the CLJ. Whether this view is likely to persist is an issue involving the politics of Pakistan rather than those of Afghanistan. The future of the terrorism waged by the anti-government Afghan opposition depends much more on actions taken by Islamabad than those of Kabul.