New Threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Taliban’s Capacity, Tehrik-i Taliban, and ISIS-Khorasan

Authors: Mahmut Cengiz, Asma Ul Hussna Durrani, Andrea Quinn

The world was stunned by the Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan. The former Afghan government’s military was four times larger than the Taliban’s, but the world saw how the Afghan military surrendered to the Taliban in a short time. Overlooked or at least underestimated were the Taliban’s small but fierce army of fighters committed to the cause, its extensive financial resources, and logistical support from like-minded countries in the region. It appears that the Taliban will continue to strengthen its military and increase its financial resources for as long as it rules the country, thereby creating an ongoing threat to the future of not only Afghanistan but also the region and the Western world. Moreover, ISIS-Khorasan, a franchise group representing ISIS in the region, has increased its attacks in Afghanistan. ISIS-K was one of the deadliest terrorist organizations in the world in 2019, and its attacks in October 2021 show that ISIS-K will be a threat in the region. On the other hand, Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP), referred to as Pakistani Taliban and based along the Afghan-Pakistani border, has been another active group in Afghanistan and Pakistan. The TTP are actively involved in terrorist attacks in both countries and has provided training programs for the Taliban in Afghanistan and targeted former Afghan military in the eastern provinces of the country bordering Pakistan.


The mujahedeen who fought against the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan inadvertently and unknowingly opened a door to the Taliban to enter in post-occupation Afghanistan. These mujahedeen fighters were trained in camps funded by Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Western countries. When the war ended in 1989 and Soviet troops had been withdrawn, the Western world turned a blind eye to these fighters despite their efforts to end Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Undeterred by the snub, the mujahedeen fighters began moving to other jihadist regions in the world, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, to join wars where Muslim communities were facing government persecution.

With both the Soviet Union and the mujahedeen now out of Afghanistan, the country experienced a full-blown civil war. Two years later, a militia called the Taliban started getting attention from the world. Many of its members had studied in conservative religious schools in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan. Some of the militia members had previously fought as mujahedeen against the Soviets. Eager to spread its ideology, the Taliban saw an opportunity in Afghanistan. The Afghan people were fed up with clashes, an ethnic war, and overall lawlessness in their country. Marching north from Kandahar and through other provinces along the way, the Taliban eventually seized the capital, Kabul, in1996. The Taliban immediately declared Afghanistan an Islamic Emirate and started imposing its strict interpretation of Islamic and sharia law.

After the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania, the United States was determined to find the mastermind behind the attacks, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, who was hiding in Afghanistan with acquiescence from the Taliban. The Taliban demanded that the United States provide solid proof that bin Laden was behind the attacks and did not hand over the alleged perpetrator. That action prompted the United States to organize a multinational military campaign consisting of more than 100 states. The joint forces invaded Afghanistan and, within a couple of months, the Taliban was forced out of power and a new interim government was established. Three years later, Afghanistan had a new constitution, and Hamid Karzai was elected as president. The United States had backed the new Afghan leader from the start, but that support was not enough to end clashes between the Taliban and the Afghan government. The Taliban simply regrouped and worked to drive foreigners out of the country and eventually reinstate the Taliban as the country’s ruler. With the U.S. withdrawal of its troops from Afghanistan at the end of August 2021, the Taliban finally was able to realize its goal. In the interim, however, clashes between the Taliban and the U.S.-backed Afghan government resulted in the killing of more than 40,000 Afghan civilians, at least 64,000 Afghan military and police, and more than 3,500 international soldiers. U.S. efforts over two decades to create and develop a democratic nation in the region, ultimately failed to produce the desired results.

Afghanistan today is deeply unstable and one of the poorest countries in the region with a per capita GDP of around $550. It also is the most corrupt country (see Corruption Perception Index); hosts the most-violent terrorist organizations, including the Taliban, TTP, and ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) (see Annex of Statistical Information); harvests and produces more opium than any other country in the world (see United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime); and has a criminality score of 7.08 on a scale from 1 to 10, ranks first of eight countries in Southern Asia, third of 46 countries in Asia, and seventh among the 193 countries in the index (see Global Organized Crime Index 2021).

The Taliban’s Military and Financial Capacity

The Taliban’s quick takeover of Afghanistan was facilitated by the organization’s extensive military, financial assets, and its ability to mobilize its fighters quickly. At the time of the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan, the Taliban had 85,000 full-time fighters and training camps across the country while the Afghan military had more than 300,000 soldiers. Mere numbers, however, do not tell the whole story. Perhaps what the western world either did not realize or did not take into account is that while the number of Afghan soldiers was nearly four times greater than the number of Taliban fighters, those Taliban fighters were responsible for a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2011 and 2012. During that period, the number of terrorist attacks rose from 421 in 2011 to 1,469 in 2012. In subsequent years, the number of Taliban terrorist attacks fluctuated, varying between 1,400 and 1,800. The number of such attacks in 2018 and 2019 were roughly the same (see graph).

The number of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2019. Source: Global Terrorism Database (Attacks between 2008 and 2017) and Statistical Annex (Attacks in 2018 and 2019).

According to the Statistical Annex Report for 2019, the Taliban were the most active terrorist group in Afghanistan, being responsible for 83.4 percent of all terrorist attacks in the country and the killing or wounding of more than 13,000 people in such attacks. The Taliban’s casualty count in 2019 was more than that of both al Qaeda and ISIS and the two terrorist groups’ affiliates combined. In terms of tactics and targets for terrorist attacks in 2019, the Taliban used shooting 44 percent of the time; land mines and improvised explosive devises 20 percent of the time; and storming and rapid assault 16 percent of the time. Most of the Taliban’s targets in 2019 were military facilities, government buildings, and the general population (37 percent, 36 percent, and 14 percent, respectively)

The Taliban’s financial capacity remains strong, even though the Biden administration froze billions of dollars in Afghan reserves after the Taliban took over the country. The action was intended to deprive the Taliban of cash; however, the Taliban has managed to generate a significant amount of revenue from its international donors, states that sponsor the organization and its involvement in various types of trafficking and smuggling, and its tax-collection system. Perhaps the most significant of these revenue sources is drug trafficking, an activity that has made the Taliban one of the wealthiest terrorist organizations in the world. According to United Nations, the Taliban in 2019 made around $1.5 billion from growing opium poppies and producing methamphetamine. Opium farming is a major source of employment in the region, generating more than 120,000 jobs for workers to harvest the crop. The farmers who hire those workers are required to pay the Taliban a 10 percent cultivation tax on their earnings. According to a 2018 UNODC report, opium production comprises up to 11 percent of Afghan economy. The Taliban also has gone to great lengths to protect the farmers who play an integral role in generating the lucrative revenue source. For example, when local farmers complained about the law enforcement and military members who were countering drug groups, the Taliban targeted those groups to curb their enforcement actions against farmers. In addition to the drug trade, mining and the trading of materials provides with Taliban $464 million a year in revenue. Illegal logging, which provides the Taliban revenue, has devastated the country’s forests, reducing the number of hectares by about 60 percent compared with the number of hectares that existed before the Soviet invasion in 1979.

ISIS-K in Afghanistan

In addition to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, ISIS-K, and TTP have been the perpetrators of terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. The Haqqani Network has close ties with al Qaeda and serves as a bridge between al Qaeda and the Taliban. Given that media sources report the Haqqani Network’s attacks under the name of the Taliban, it is unclear how many terrorist attacks have been conducted by the Haqqani Network. Nonetheless, it is known that the Haqqani Network has been active in Kabul.

ISIS-K (the Khorasan branch of ISIS) in Afghanistan should be given more attention than it has received. The group was responsible for  bombing attacks in Kabul that resulted in the killing of 13 U.S. service members and more than 170 Afghan civilians. ISIS announced the formation of its Khorasan branch in 2015 and appointed former TTP militant Hafiz Khan as its leader. The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan pledged allegiance to ISIS-K and declared that it was part of Wilayah Khorasan of ISIS. ISIS-K also recruited Taliban defectors to join its ranks. ISIS-K and the Taliban see each other as irreconcilable enemies. The enmity between the two groups has led to many clashes as they vie for supremacy. Both the Taliban and ISIS-K have been engaged in a territorial fight in Kunar province to generate revenue from illegal logging.

ISIS-K aims to topple the Pakistani government, punish the Iranian government for protecting Shias in the region, and purify Afghanistan by punishing minority groups such as the Hazaras and uprooting the Taliban as the main jihadi movement in the country. Attacks by the former Afghan military, the Taliban, and the United States between 2016 and 2020 weakened ISIS-K. Since then, however, ISIS-K’s current leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, has rebuilt the group’s capabilities, enabling it to target key urban areas such as Kabul and perpetrate 77 attacks in the first four months of 2021—an increase from 21 attacks during the same period in 2020.

ISIS-K’s capacity to operate regionally and transnationally and its cadre of foreign fighters from Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia have made the group more threatening to Afghans and Westerners. An investigation in Germany, for example, proved the group’s capacity and prompted the German government to charge four Tajik nationals linked to ISIS-K with plotting to attack U.S. and NATO military facilities. Now that the Taliban has taken over Afghanistan, it is reasonable to assume that ISIS-K will have an opportunity to gain the support of anti-Taliban constituencies while at the same time finding it difficult to fend off well-equipped Taliban fighters whose leader holds the seat of government power in Afghanistan.

Tekrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP)

TTP is another Pashtun-aligned insurgency group and is based in Pakistan. Unlike the Taliban in Afghanistan, the TTP has officially been designated as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) by the U.S. Department of State.

TTP was established in December 2007 to combat the Pakistani security personnel and to provide support to the Afghan Taliban in combating the U.S. led NATO forces in Afghanistan. The group was formed under the leadership of Baitullah Mehsud. Like the Afghan Taliban, the central goal of TTP is to enforce their interpretation of Sharia law in Pakistan. In 2014, the Pakistan army launched a military operation called operation Zarb-e-Azb to fight the TTP militants in North Waziristan. During the Zarb-e-Azb operation, more than a thousand militants were killed. The military operation was successful in weakening TTP as the number of terrorist attacks declined drastically. However, splinter groups have joined with the TTP in the recent years which may allow for more control over the region and more cohesion under one group to carry out terrorist attacks and expand territorial control over the region.

TTP has carried out and claimed a series of deadly attacks. In December 2009, TTP targeted a U.S. military base in Afghanistan, killing seven U.S. citizens. In December 2014, TTP claimed responsibility for the Peshawar school attack that resulted in the killing of 150 people, including students. TTP holds strong ties to al-Qaeda (AQ) that relies on TTP for providing safe haven along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. After the Taliban took control of Afghanistan, the attacks on security personnel and civilians have increased in Pakistan. The South Asia Terrorism Portal reported 240 incidents that recorded 191 civilian and 190 security force members casualties in Pakistan.

On the request of Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban have mediated talks between Pakistan and TTP. Amir Khan Muttaqi, the Afghan Foreign Minister, has confirmed that the peace talks have started. In the recent talks, an agreement on a one-month ceasefire was established. The agreement requires that the group halts all violence in exchange for TTP prisoners. Afghan Taliban’s recent takeover of Afghanistan and the Doha agreement could serve to embolden other militant groups such as the TTP in Pakistan to attempt negotiations with the state to gain power. Although there is a tentative truce, and negotiations could bring a stop to insecurity in the country during this time, there has been a history of failed peace agreements in the region in past years, such as the peace negotiation in 2014 between TTP and the Pakistan government, with the agreement to end violence against the security personnel and civilians. The eight-month long peace talks were a failed effort. The major challenge in the peace talks is TTP’s inability to compromise on its ideology. In 2014, TTP agreed to Pakistan’s offer on conducting peace talks; however, the group refused to compromise on its ideology of implementing their interpretation of Shariah throughout the country.

To conclude, it should not have been a surprise to anyone that the Taliban managed to take over Afghanistan so quickly, as it clearly had the military strength and financial resources. The Taliban is an example of how it is impossible to win a war against an organization that has a strong military and vast financial resources. On the other hand, security vacuums in Afghanistan have generated a favorable ground for TTP and an ISIS franchise, ISIS-K, to pose a threat to the Taliban, Pakistan, and Western world by engaging in terrorist attacks.

Mahmut Cengiz
Mahmut Cengiz
Dr. Mahmut Cengiz is an Assistant Professor and Research Faculty with Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) and the Schar School of Policy and Government. Dr. Cengiz has international field experience where he has delivered capacity building and training assistance to international partners in the Middle East, Asia, and Europe. He also has been involved in the research projects for the Brookings Institute, European Union, and various U.S. agencies.