Potential Threats, Fears and Strategic Analysis

Political elites, security, and analytical enterprises must figure out potential threats before they become real ones.

Recently, a scholar from the London School of Economics and the author of an Oxford University Press book on Al-Qaeda, Sajjan Gohel, wrote an article in collaboration with Senior Research Fellow Victoria Jones. In this article, their main thesis was that the Taliban is assisting the long-time terrorist group to rebuild its capacity. The question of the rising terrorism threat after the Taliban seized power and re-established the Islamic Emirate has sparked active debates. Therefore, it would be appropriate to recollect, analyse, and even rethink the Al-Qaeda story in Afghanistan. Does the organization truly have the capacity to threaten the world? The problem of analysing Al-Qaeda’s potential, the complex dynamics of Afghan social processes, and the relationship between the Taliban and their guests make theoretical research of potential threats and strategic analysis relevant.

Political elites, security, and analytical enterprises must figure out potential threats before they become real ones. The second two groups must research and prove it to the first group. Then the political establishment must decide on how much it is real and how to deal with it. Responsible statecraft and grand strategy must accumulate all possible scenarios, from bad to worse, trying to keep political reality to correspond effectively with national interests. For that, a national strategy is needed. The apparatus and bureaucracy must understand the wider picture of world political processes and potential threats. Sherman Kent wrote in his magnum opus published by Princeton University Press, Strategic Intelligence, that in the perfect grand strategy, nothing that happens can have been unexpected. He also said that strategic intelligence is “the intelligence of national survival.” But first of all, such a situation has never happened. Secondly, the history of diplomacy shows that many times great powers see threats not there where they are really situated.

Underestimation of potential threats has often occurred in international history. For example, Imperial Germany miscalculated the potential for the creation of a real alliance by the Entente of France, England, and Russia. The United States underrated the threat from militaristic Japan. Napoleon, in turn, believed for a long time that he could persuade the Russian Tsar Alexander I to refrain from active military actions against France. Imperial Russian intelligence from the mid-19th century underestimated the threat from left-wing and anarchist opposition parties, including the People’s Will and the Bolsheviks. Similar mistakes in strategy have been encountered in terrorism issues. As we can see, Israeli military intelligence miscalculated the potential of Hamas, resulting in a real tragedy with a huge number of casualties among the civilian population. The most significant underestimation of the enemy occurred on the eve of the 9/11 tragedy.

As a result of the attacks on New York and the Pentagon headquarters, about three thousand people died. UN Security Council documents in 2000 noted that the Taliban provided shelter to terrorists from the moment they came to power. The resolution also stated that “Osama bin Laden found refuge in the Taliban-controlled territories in Afghanistan.” In May 2001, the State Department presented the country’s president with a report stating that in 2000, 423 terrorist attacks were committed worldwide, 8% more than in the previous year. For the first time, the thesis emphasized that the center of international terrorism had shifted from the Middle East to South Asia, where Islamists from around the world continue to use Afghanistan for the preparation and implementation of terrorist acts. Despite bin Laden naming America as his main enemy in his speeches, sermons, and statements, the U.S. practically chose to ignore this danger.

Recently, David Ignatius wrote, “In Afghanistan, the Taliban has all but extinguished al-Qaeda.” Based on interviews, he noted that the U.S. intelligence community says al-Qaeda has reached a “nadir.” Al-Qaeda “is at its historical nadir in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its revival is unlikely,” said Christy Abizaid, the director of the National Counter-terrorism Center in a Sept. 11 statement. Its ability to threaten the United States from Afghanistan “is at its lowest point.” Al-Qaeda “has only a small number of members left in Afghanistan,” the intelligence summary continued. Moreover, Ignatius wrote that part of the bargain for the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul was that the Taliban would stop al-Qaeda from using Afghanistan as a platform for foreign operations. The CIA shares counter-terrorism information with the Taliban, the senior administration official said. At the same time, Ignatius cited a United Nations report that put the number of core al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan between 30 and 60 and the number of fighters in the country at 400.

If we consider the Taliban as a revolutionary force (which they have been since their creation and possibly until their victory in 2021), we can recall Samuel Huntington. The scholar noted that in Western revolutions, the time of terror is the late stages of the revolution; radicals resort to it after coming to power, directing it primarily against moderates and other revolutionary groups they fought against. In eastern revolutions, on the contrary, the terror is used in the initial stage of revolutionary struggle. Revolutionaries resort to it when they are weak and far from power, unable to secure support from peasants and intimidate the lower echelons of state order. In the Eastern variant of the revolution, the stronger the revolutionary movement becomes, the less inclined it is to rely on terrorism.

Modern Islamic terrorism is a network phenomenon. It has no single center, headquarters, or base. Despite common authorities and some unified aspects of ideology, terrorist organizations also lack unified leaders. Certain groups among Islamists will seek to expand the horizons of the conflict, whether it is in Palestine or Afghanistan. For example, Elisabeth Kendall shows in her work the Houthis’ eagerness in Yemen to broaden the conflict beyond just being an Israel problem to being a global one. Certain circles in the Taliban leadership will also seek to expand the scope of their power and extend beyond Afghan territory. For instance, during the first Emirate’s tenure, the Taliban expressed support for radicals in Russia’s Chechnya during a period of intense military conflict.

Where the Afghan state and society develop depends entirely on the Taliban. As long as the international community restrains it, my theory, I believe, will remain relevant. The most important political actor in Afghan politics is the Taliban. All other Islamist groups depend on the will, intentions, and strategies of the Pashtun radical movement. Understanding the Taliban’s intentions requires a thorough analysis of four aspects of Afghanistan’s reality: The first concerns the social structure and social forces of Afghan society at the current stage. What is the underlying social reality of the reincarnated but unrecognized emirates? What role do tribal social structures and relations with international terrorists play? Secondly, there are certain differences in the economic motives of the Taliban’s actions. An insurgent revolutionary movement fighting for power through terror and the ruling political party have different motives.

Third, there is the evolving ideology of radical organizations. What is the ideological basis of the Taliban today? What determines their actions? What is the main model of their politia? Fourth, what is the influence and degree of “control” over radical movements by their mentors, sponsors, and creators? Foreign policy and grand strategy seem, in the first instance, to deal with other states, especially powerful ones. Is it possible to rely on the sponsors of the movement and agree with them on the non-extension of rules and regulations beyond the boundaries of a particular zone? Will dialogue and pressure on the Pakistani military to end its policy of loyalty to all Taliban activities have a positive impact? With the tragic Mumbai attacks of 2008 in mind, do the more radical forces within the Pakistani military have any intention of using local or international Islamist forces against their adversaries, primarily India?

Sajjan Gohel and Victoria Jones wrote that “some have underestimated the threat that al-Qaeda poses today. Others fail to grasp the degree of infiltration al-Qaeda has achieved within the Taliban administration at both the local and national levels. Al-Qaeda is carefully recalibrating, recruiting, training, and networking—both with the regime in Afghanistan as well as other regional affiliates.”

Nothing like that is happening today. Considering the current state of affairs, there is no opportunity to talk about the active role of al-Qaeda in the unrecognized Emirate en masse. The Taliban hold power with an iron hand and do not seek to involve foreign parties in the political process. The Taliban authorities are its leaders. I agree that sometimes it’s better to identify potential threats and hazards and raise the alarm early. This could be an important tool to attract the attention of the international community. From this perspective, the idea of talking about a growing and imminent threat seems logical and even useful. Today, neither international organizations nor major powers pay enough attention to Afghan politics. However, al-Qaeda’s position in the unrecognized emirates is extremely weak. Given the presence of dozens of terrorist organizations within Afghan territory, their influence on the political process is almost zero. Another question is what they are doing and why the de facto authorities represented by the Taliban are not putting enough pressure on them. And another question is that there were also few representatives of al-Qaeda when the 9/11 terrorist attack was organized. So, the number doesn’t really matter. Taliban policies matter a lot

Of course, the Taliban regime is a strict religious dictatorship that systematically oppresses and persecutes national and religious minorities. Under such a regime, social and economic development is difficult to achieve. But that’s not the point. And counter-terrorism is not suitable for fighting to transform such a system. It can be said that the international community still has not developed a comprehensive strategy to deal with the Taliban emirate. In short, we should not overestimate threats that do not exist, at least not yet. In Russian, there is a parable about a grey wolf. A boy in the village loved to play around, shouting about the grey wolf. Peasants from his village immediately came to him, but there was no wolf. The villagers were tired of this pampering. When the wolf approached the boy, and he started screaming, no one helped him.

Georgi Asatrian
Georgi Asatrian
Georgi Asatryan, associate professor, Lomonosov Moscow State University and Plekhanov Russian University of Economics.