Bedlam in Afghanistan and Pakistan


Following former Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan’s arrest, Pakistan has been thrown into turmoil. This explosion of political unrest, coupled with the Afghan Taliban regime’s support for terrorists, has grave implications for international security.


Afghanistan and Pakistan are sinking deeper into disarray, and the United States bears a significant share of the blame. As long as this long-troubled region remains mired in turmoil, Islamist terrorism will continue to thrive, with grave implications for international security.

Begin with Afghanistan. In the nearly 22 months since the US abandoned the country to the Pakistan-backed Taliban militia, a terrorist super-state has emerged. Beyond committing atrocities against the Afghan people and re-imposing medieval practices, including reducing Afghan women’s status to that of chattels, the Taliban has sustained cozy ties with al-Qaeda and several other terror groups.

As a leaked Pentagon assessment reports, Afghanistan has become a safe haven and staging ground for al-Qaeda and Islamic State terrorists planning attacks on targets in Asia, Europe, and the US. This should come as no surprise. The Taliban regime’s cabinet includes a veritable who’s who of international terrorists and narcotics traffickers, and it was in Kabul last year that an American drone strike killed al-Qaeda leader and United Nations-designated global terrorist Ayman al-Zawahiri.

While the Islamic State may be seeking to expand its international operations from Afghanistan, it is al-Qaeda’s alliance with the Taliban that poses the greater long-term international threat. When the US withdrew suddenly from the country, it not only abandoned its allies there, but also left behind billions of dollars’ worth of sophisticated American military equipment, in addition to several military bases, including the strategically valuable Bagram airbase. The Taliban is now the world’s only terrorist organization with its own air force, however rudimentary.

In a 12-page document issued last month, President Joe Biden’s administration sought to shift the blame for the Afghan fiasco onto Donald Trump, claiming that Biden’s “choices for how to execute a withdrawal from Afghanistan were severely constrained by conditions created by his predecessor.” But, while the Trump administration undoubtedly cut a terrible deal with the Taliban, it was Biden who – overruling his top military generals – made the choices that triggered Afghanistan’s descent into chaos and facilitated the Taliban’s swift return to power.

US policy toward Pakistan has also been deeply misguided. It is thanks to a longstanding partnership with the US that Pakistan’s military and its rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency have been able to use terrorism as an instrument of state policy against neighboring countries. The Trump administration seemed to recognize this, and pledged to keep Pakistan at arm’s length until it ended its unholy alliance with terrorist organizations.

But the Biden administration has reversed this policy. Even though Pakistan played an integral role in enabling the Taliban – which the ISI helped create in the early 1990s – to defeat the US in Afghanistan, the Biden administration helped the Pakistani government stave off debt default last year. Soon after, the US unveiled a $450-million deal to modernize Pakistan’s US-supplied F-16s (which it values as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons). The US then helped Pakistan get off the “gray list” maintained by the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force, the inter-governmental agency combating terrorist financing.

Today, Pakistan is facing profound political instability, rooted in a skewed civil-military relationship. Pakistan’s military has long been untouchable. It has ruled directly for 33 years. And when not technically in power, it has insisted on a pliant civilian administration that defers to the generals’ de facto leadership. Pakistan’s military, and its intelligence and nuclear establishment, have never answered to the civilian government. On the contrary, since 2017, two prime ministers have been ousted after falling out of favor with the military.

But supporters of one of those prime ministers, Imran Khan, are now mounting the first direct challenge to the military’s authority since Pakistan’s founding 75 years ago. Following Khan’s arrest on corruption charges earlier this month, mass protests erupted across Pakistan. Demonstrators stormed military properties, including the army headquarters and a major ISI facility, and set ablaze a top army commander’s home.

As the political crisis unfolds, Pakistan continues to teeter on the brink of default. It is being kept afloat by short-term loans from allies, until it can convince the International Monetary Fund to restart a suspended bailout program. This gives the international community leverage to force change in the country.

It is developments at home, especially the unprecedented anti-military protests, that have the greatest potential to force a rebalancing of civilian-military relations. But the military will not go down without a fight: the creeping shadow of military rule has already led to mass arrests, with the chief of army staff announcing trials under military law of civilians charged in the recent violence. The military could declare a state of emergency, in order to give itself carte blanche to stifle dissent, or it could stage another coup. The conflict could also erupt into civil war – ideal conditions for international terrorist forces to thrive.

For now, Pakistan remains a hub of terrorism and is contributing significantly to Afghanistan’s destabilization. Unless the nexus between Pakistan’s military and terrorist groups is severed, the situation in Afghanistan will not improve, and the battle against international terrorism will not be won.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2023.

Biden’s Dangerous Embrace of Pakistan


The Biden administration could have used Pakistan’s economic crisis to compel the country to sever its longstanding ties to terrorist groups. Instead, the US continues to protect and reward it, putting short-term geopolitical considerations ahead of long-term interests.

By Brahma ChellaneyProject Syndicate

The United States rarely learns from its mistakes, because it suffers from what the late political scientist Hans Morgenthau called “strategic narcissism.” Each US president seems to believe the world is waiting for American direction and devises policies based on this flawed assumption.

For example, President Joe Biden seems determined to repeat past blunders by resuming America’s coddling of Pakistan. Successive US presidents have failed to appreciate that America’s longstanding partnership with Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency has allowed Pakistan to institutionalize terrorism by employing armed jihadists in low-intensity asymmetric warfare against neighboring countries. For example, Pakistan has always sought to colonize Afghanistan by installing a regime that would do its bidding, so the ISI created the Taliban in the early 1990s. With the Taliban back in control after the ISI engineered America’s humiliating defeat in Afghanistan, Pakistan has gotten its wish.

Pakistan itself has become an extremist mecca that hosts multiple United Nations-designated terrorist entities. The US found al-Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden – the mastermind behind the worst terrorist attack in American history – living next to the Pakistan Military Academy. Other 9/11 plotters – including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, al-Qaeda’s third in command, and Abu Zubeida, the network’s operations chief – were also captured in Pakistan. And yet, despite its terrorist ties, Pakistan’s politically powerful military, including its ISI, has managed to get off scot-free.

On the recent 21st anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Biden pledged to continue monitoring and disrupting terrorist activities “wherever we find them, wherever they exist,” while noting that it took “ten years to hunt down and kill Osama bin Laden.” Yet, disturbingly, Biden has reversed the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump, to keep Pakistan at arm’s length until it ended its unholy alliance with terrorist organizations.

Biden could have taken advantage of Pakistan’s desperate need for an International Monetary Fund bailout to compel it to sever its links with state-backed terrorist groups. Instead, his administration recently helped the country stave off an imminent debt default by securing the IMF board’s approval for the immediate disbursement of a $1.1 billion aid package.

This is not the only leverage over Pakistan that the Biden administration has been reluctant to use. With American and Chinese support, Pakistan is close to exiting the “gray list” of the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the Paris-based inter-governmental agency combating terrorist financing and money laundering. The fact that Pakistani authorities have not addressed the reason their country was placed on that list in 2018 – tolerating terrorist financing – appears to matter little. In fact, Pakistan should have been placed on the FATF’s most punitive “black” list, a status that usually invites Western sanctions. But American troops were fighting the Taliban at the time, and the US, seeking to moderate Pakistan’s approach to Afghanistan, successfully lobbied against it.

Nothing better illustrates Biden’s embrace of Pakistan than the $450-million deal unveiled this month to modernize the cash-strapped country’s US-supplied F-16 fleet, despite the risk that it might harm America’s close strategic relationship with India. For decades, the US had armed Pakistan to the teeth, a role subsequently taken over by China as a maneuver against India. The F-16s were given to Pakistan as a reward for its serving as the staging ground for the covert US war against the Soviet forces occupying Afghanistan in the 1980s, when Pakistan also launched its nuclear-weapons program clandestinely. Pakistan’s four active F-16 squadrons remain central to its air-warfare plans against India; in fact, some were involved in a February 2019 skirmish across the Line of Control in Kashmir.

The US justified the deal by disingenuously claiming that equipping Pakistan’s F-16s with cutting-edge avionics would advance counterterrorism. But the move – announced without warning India, which was hosting senior US officials at the time – will likely renew skepticism toward the US among Indian officials. Biden has said nothing about China’s 28-month-long frontier aggression against India, and his State Department chose to remain neutral by urging the two powers to find “a peaceful resolution.” By strengthening Pakistan – China’s client state – the F-16 deal further imperils US-India relations.

Biden’s enthusiastic re-engagement with Pakistan dismisses those who called on the US to punish Pakistan for its pivotal role in the Afghanistan debacle. Far from imposing sanctions or adding Pakistan to the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, his administration has championed the country as a “major non-NATO ally,” a status conferred on 17 other countries as well – but not India.

This approach should not come as a surprise. The US did not impose sanctions on Pakistan even after it aided and abetted the Taliban’s killing of American soldiers. Instead, the US treated Pakistan as a gatekeeper of its geopolitical interests in the region. America’s weakened position following its Afghan fiasco has only increased its dependence on the ISI, which continues to facilitate the Biden administration’s outreach to the Taliban.

The recent assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul by an American drone strike would not have been possible without US access to Pakistani airspace, which explains Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s commitment to “expanding the US-Pakistan partnership.” But at the heart of this partnership is a Faustian bargain whereby the Biden administration condones Pakistan’s harboring of known terrorists and eases sanctions on the brutal Taliban regime, despite its close ties with al-Qaeda.

The Biden administration’s reluctance to learn from previous US failures ensures that short-term geopolitical considerations will continue to drive American foreign policy, despite the long-term strategic damage to America’s interests. Biden’s approach will nurture a major hub of international terrorism and jihadism, allowing Pakistan to set regional fires while pretending to be a firefighter.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

The Afghan Abyss


The Taliban regime is behaving as expected, turning the country into a breeding ground for international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and mass migration. There is no justification for attempts by US President Joe Biden’s administration to engage with it.

By Brahma Chellaney, Project Syndicate

In the year since the United States’ disgraceful abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the country has gone down precisely the path any logical observer would have predicted: a medieval, jihadist, terrorist-sheltering emirate has been established. The US will incur costs for betraying its Afghan allies for a long time to come. But nobody will pay a higher price than Afghans.

The geopolitical fallout of America’s humiliating retreat from Afghanistan – after President Joe Biden followed through on the withdrawal commitment of his predecessor, Donald Trump – is still growing. By exposing the US as a power in decline, the withdrawal gave a huge boost to militant Islamists everywhere, while emboldening Russia and China. It is no coincidence that, not long after the fall of Kabul, Russia began massing forces along Ukraine’s borders, and China sent a record number of warplanes into Taiwan’s self-declared air defense identification zone.

But things are much worse in Afghanistan. Women and girls have lost their rights to employment and education, with many girls subjected to sexual slavery through forced marriages to Taliban fighters. Taliban death squads have been systematically identifying and murdering those who cooperated with US forces. Torture and execution have become commonplace. Afghanistan’s Hindus and Sikhs – descendants of those who withstood the medieval-era conversions to Sunni Islam by the country’s Arab conquerors – have been fleeing to India to avoid slaughter.

The regime’s cabinet is a veritable who’s who of international terrorists and narcotics kingpins. Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is responsible for Afghanistan’s internal security and preventing the country from becoming a safe haven for international terrorists, is the leader of the ruthless Haqqani network. The US has designated him a “global terrorist” and placed a $10 million bounty on his head.

Not surprisingly, the Taliban continues to shelter known terrorists, as the recent Biden-ordered assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in central Kabul showed. While Biden was quick to take a victory lap after al-Zawahiri’s killing, the assassination hardly reflects well on him. A year ago, when ordering US troops to beat a hasty retreat, he claimed that the US no longer had any interest in Afghanistan, because al-Qaeda was already “gone.” (No matter that, just weeks earlier, a United Nations Security Council report had shown that al-Qaeda militants were fighting alongside their Taliban associates.)

Compounding the danger to Afghanistan and its neighbors, the US left behind $7.1 billion worth of weapons in its chaotic withdrawal from the country. According to a recent Pentagon report, the US has no plans to retrieve or destroy the equipment, despite recognizing that the Taliban has already “repaired some damaged Afghan Air Force aircraft and made incremental gains in its capability to employ these aircraft in operations.”

In short, Biden’s decision to overrule his generals and withdraw from Afghanistan – a month before his own target date of September 11 – has created a security and humanitarian nightmare. And Biden is nowhere near finished making foreign-policy blunders in Afghanistan.

After Kabul’s fall, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared that the US would judge its future engagement with the Taliban-led government based on “one simple proposition”: whether it helps the US advance its interests, including “seeing that women’s rights are upheld,” delivering humanitarian assistance, and pursuing counterterrorism. But even though the Taliban has failed on all three counts, the Biden administration is gradually easing sanctions on the regime.

At the UN, the US spearheaded a resolution providing for a humanitarian exemption to the sanctions imposed on Afghanistan. The US Treasury Department’s General Licenses, aimed at facilitating the provision of humanitarian relief, now allow financial transactions involving the Taliban and the Haqqani network. And the US is currently negotiating with the Taliban over the release of $3.5 billion of Afghan central-bank reserves.

Meanwhile, the US refuses to target Haqqani or other leading terrorists in Kabul. Yes, al-Zawahiri was assassinated, but, contrary to the Biden administration’s narrative, he was not all that influential. He was largely retired, living with members of his extended family in a Kabul house under Haqqani’s protection.

What’s next? Will the US now reward Pakistan – one of America’s 18 “major non-NATO allies” – for opening its airspace to the drone that killed al-Zawahiri? True, Pakistan reared the Taliban and engineered the US defeat in Afghanistan, but now it wants an early International Monetary Fund loan dispersal to help it avert a debt default.

Likewise, will the US now continue to pursue the release of Afghanistan’s central-bank reserves to the Taliban, despite its indisputable harboring of terrorists and establishment of an oppressive and violent Islamic state? The Biden administration defends its engagement with the Taliban by speciously contending that the top terrorist threat in Afghanistan is the Islamic State-Khorasan. But ISIS-K has relatively few members, no state sponsor or Afghan allies, and controls no territory.

The Biden administration seems committed to striking a kind of Faustian bargain with the Taliban. But to what end? The Taliban’s political power and Islamist ideology make it a critical link in the international jihadist movement. And its rule is threatening to turn Afghanistan into a breeding ground for international terrorism, narcotics trafficking, and mass migration. There is no justification for engaging with it.

Through its precipitous and bungling withdrawal from Afghanistan, the Biden administration handed Islamists worldwide their greatest victory. But the war in Afghanistan is hardly over. As the Taliban’s self-styled emir, Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, recently declared, “This war never ends, and it will continue till judgment day.”

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2022.

Leverage water treaty to tame Pakistan’s terrorism


Brahma Chellaney, The Times of India

One paradox in Asia stands out: China, by occupying water-rich Tibetan Plateau, dominates Asia’s water map, yet it refuses to enter into a water-sharing treaty with any neighbour. But water-stressed India has a water-sharing treaty with each of the two countries located downstream to it — Pakistan and Bangladesh. And each of these treaties has set a new principle in international water law.

The 1996 Ganges treaty set a new standard by guaranteeing Bangladesh specific cross-border flows in the critical dry season. And the 1960 Indus treaty with Pakistan still remains the world’s most generous water-sharing arrangement, in terms of both the sharing ratio and the total volume of cross-border flows.

Under this treaty of indefinite duration, India foolishly reserved 80.52% of the aggregate water flows in the six-river Indus system for Pakistan, with that arch-nemesis securing 90 times greater volume of water than Mexico’s share under a 1944 pact with the US.

In fact, the treaty effectively partitioned the rivers in the Indus Basin, with India’s full sovereignty rights limited to the three smaller rivers in the lower section and Pakistan bagging the bigger rivers of the upper basin. It remains the world’s only water pact embodying the ‘doctrine of restricted sovereignty’ in which the upper riparian state defers to the interests of a downstream state.

To make matters worse, only four of the six Indus-system rivers originate in India; the other two start in Tibet, with China free to reengineer cross-flow flows.

Against this background, the Indus treaty remains a millstone around India’s neck. India should be seeking to mitigate the burdens of a treaty that carries no benefits for it but which emboldens Pakistan’s sponsorship of cross-border terrorism. Pakistan repays India’s unparalleled water generosity with its self-avowed “War of a Thousand Cuts”.

How can India allow its water largesse to be repaid with blood? A feckless India continues to shore up the treaty, including by sending a 10-member delegation to Pakistan for a Permanent Indus Commission meeting from March 1. For the first time in the commission’s history, female officers (all from India) will participate.

The commission’s meetings can be suspended, as they have been in the past, but India clings to the treaty’s letter and spirit, even as Pakistan flouts international norms without incurring any costs. In fact, by failing to build sufficient storage, India allows unutilized waters from its meagre share to flow to Pakistan as a continuing bonus.

Other world powers have dumped binding accords at will. One of Russia’s grievances contributing to the present crisis with the US, with Ukraine as the theatre of Russian invasion, has been Washington’s unilateral termination of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (which was of unlimited duration) and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. China has demonstrated its contempt for bilateral pacts through its current border aggression against India and by its 2017 withholding of data from India on upstream river flows.

A scofflaw Pakistan wants rights without responsibilities. It demands eternal Indian water munificence while its military sustains export of terrorism to India. Leveraging the Indus treaty to help reform Pakistan’s behaviour offers India a bloodless path.

Pakistan’s use of state-reared terrorist groups could be invoked by India under international law as constituting reasonable grounds for withdrawal from the treaty. The International Court of Justice has upheld the principle that a treaty may be dissolved by reason of a fundamental change of circumstances.

But without withdrawing from the treaty, India can seek to balance the scales by invoking its treaty rights to enforce Pakistan’s responsibilities. For starters, it should condition further consultations and information exchanges, including on project-related design data, to Pakistan’s verified severing of ties with terrorist groups. Keeping its Indus commissioner’s post vacant for some years would effectively suspend riparian consultations with Pakistan. Given India’s proverbial red tape, such a vacancy will be easy to explain.

India’s approach should be to speak softly but carry a big stick. It should shun meaningless hyperbole and let its actions speak for themselves. India, however, must make clear that it has no intention of turning off or even restricting water flows to Pakistan. Indeed, India doesn’t have the hydro-infrastructure to limit river flows. The issue is about ending Pakistan’s roguish actions.

Building basin leverage can serve as a potent instrument in India’s arsenal against Pakistan.

The worst option for India is to continue hewing to its present approach by mechanically bearing all the burdens of the treaty without any tangible benefits accruing to it. Instead of advertising that its bark is worse than its bite, an imaginative India should work to remake the terms of the Indus engagement.

The writer is a geostrategist.

Regional consequences of Biden’s Afghan debacle

(AP Photo/Evan Vucci)


Afghanistan represents more of an American political capitulation to a terrorist organization (the Taliban) than a U.S. military defeat. By overruling his military generals, who forewarned that a precipitous American withdrawal would facilitate Taliban’s conquest, U.S. President Joe Biden has sent Afghanistan back in time, to the “dark age” of terrorist rule.

The greatest costs of Biden’s blunder are being counted in Afghans tortured and killed, girls sexually enslaved through forced “marriages” to Taliban fighters, and women and girls losing their rights to education and equality. The damage to America’s international credibility and standing pales in comparison to the costs ordinary Afghans are paying for the biggest U.S. foreign-policy disaster in decades.

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan is the greatest jihadist victory in modern times. It is an unprecedented boost for jihadists everywhere, from Europe to Africa and Asia. It will inspire other terrorist groups, thus promising the rebirth of global terror.

The regional impact is already apparent. For example, there has been a spurt of terrorism in the Indian-administered part of disputed and divided Kashmir and increasing seizures of Afghan-origin heroin in India, which is located between the world’s two main opium-producing centers — the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran “Golden Crescent” and the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos “Golden Triangle.”

Pakistan has effectively gained proxy control of Afghanistan by masterminding the Taliban’s conquest of that country. The Taliban, along with their special forces, the Haqqani Network, are a wing of the Pakistani “deep state.” The Haqqani Network chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who now serves as Afghanistan’s interior minister, is a deputy leader of the Taliban. Even before the Taliban formed their government, the head of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency reached Kabul, as if to advertise that the real boss had stepped in.

Pakistan’s celebrations, however, are unlikely to last long. An unstable, economically bankrupt and terrorist-ruled Afghanistan will likely exacerbate violent jihadism in Pakistan, whose ethnic and sectarian fault lines have already made its future uncertain.

Pakistan’s military, meanwhile, has expanded its role from strategic matters to economic management, with its commercial empire valued at more than $100 billion. Its domineering role ensures a weak civilian government. As former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has said, the military has progressed from being a “state within a state” to becoming a “state above the state.”

It is Pakistan’s military that has long reared terrorist groups because it employs terrorism as an instrument of state policy against neighboring countries. Ironically, the U.S. has long served as Pakistan’s top aid donor. General Hamid Gul, a former chief of Pakistan’s military spy agency, once boasted that, when history is written, it will be recorded that, “The ISI, with the help of America, defeated America.” That boast came true when Kabul fell to the Taliban on August 15.

Given Afghanistan’s strategic location at the crossroads of Central, South and Southwest Asia, it is no surprise that the greatest geopolitical fallout from Afghanistan’s security and humanitarian catastrophe is being felt in the region extending from Russia and China to the Middle East. The void opened by America’s humiliating retreat has given greater strategic space for an assertive China in particular to expand its strategic footprint.

China, with its long-standing ties to the Taliban, including supplying weapons via Pakistan, has taken the lead in portraying the U.S. as a declining power whose ditching of the Afghan government demonstrates that it is an unreliable partner for any country. After Kabul’s fall, China’s victory lap included a state-media warning to Taiwan that the U.S. would abandon it too in the face of a Chinese invasion.

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan helps China in other ways, too. Given that Pakistan is a Chinese client, the U.S. defeat paves the way for China to make strategic inroads into Afghanistan, with its substantial mineral wealth and location between Iran and the Pakistan-India belt. China has sought to achieve this by offering the Taliban the two things it desperately needs: international recognition and economic aid. Beijing has been demanding that Washington unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets.

One definite loser from America’s Afghanistan debacle is India, whose security risks coming under siege from the Pakistan-China-Taliban coalition. India, one of the largest aid donors to Afghanistan, had a big presence in that country, but its diplomats and civilians were among the first to flee.

Since last year, India has been locked in military standoffs with China along their long Himalayan border following furtive China incursions across the frontier. But if India now faces a greater terrorist threat from across its western borders, it will have less capacity to counter an expansionist China.

When the Taliban was previously in power, from 1996 to 2001, it allowed Pakistan to use Afghan territory to train terrorists for missions in India. Its return to power thus opens a new front for terrorism against India, which may be forced to shift its focus from the intensifying military standoffs with China in the Himalayas. Simply put, Afghanistan’s fall is likely to strengthen the anti-India axis between the Taliban’s sponsor, Pakistan, and Pakistan’s main patron, China.

Meanwhile, thanks to the Taliban’s defeat of the world’s leading power, radical Islam is again on the march, a development that carries security implications even for Western countries. The Taliban, for its part, is turning Afghanistan into a narco-terrorist state. According to a recent UN Security Council report, the production and trafficking of poppy-based and synthetic drugs remain “the Taliban’s largest single source of income,” contributing “significantly to the narcotics challenges facing the wider international community.” The criminal profits from this trade lubricate the Taliban’s terror machine.

The Taliban’s “Islamic emirate” is likely to serve as a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world. The Taliban regime’s cabinet includes a who’s who of international terrorism, including some of the world’s most-notorious narcotics kingpins. The U.S.-led global war on terror, which was already faltering before Biden took office, may not recover.

Brahma Chellaney, author of nine books, is Professor of Strategic Studies at the independent Center for Policy Research in New Delhi and a Richard von Weizsäcker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

The Narco-Terrorist Taliban

By allowing the Taliban to enrich and sustain itself with drug profits during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US contributed to its own humiliating defeat at the hands of a narco-terrorist organization. But it is not too late for the US to start targeting the Taliban as a drug cartel through its federal courts.


The strategic folly of US President Joe Biden’s Afghan policy has been laid bare in recent weeks. First, the country came back under the control of the Pakistan-reared Taliban. The announcement of the interim government’s composition then dashed any remaining (naive) hope that this Taliban regime would be different from the one the United States and its allies ousted in 2001. Beyond the cabinet including a who’s who of international terrorism, narcotics kingpins occupy senior positions.

Afghanistan accounts for 85% of the global acreage under opium cultivation, making the Taliban the world’s largest drug cartel. It controls and taxes opioid production, oversees exports, and shields smuggling networks. This is essential to its survival. According to a recent report by the United Nations Security Council monitoring team, the production and trafficking of poppy-based and synthetic drugs remain “the Taliban’s largest single source of income.” So reliant is the Taliban on narcotics trafficking that its leaders have at times fought among themselves over revenue-sharing.

The Taliban is hoping to expand its drug income as much as possible. Since its takeover, prices of opium in Afghanistan have more than tripled. In India – which is situated between the world’s two main opium-producing centers, the Pakistan-Afghanistan-Iran “Golden Crescent” and the Myanmar-Thailand-Laos “Golden Triangle” – seizures of Afghan-origin heroin have increased. As the UN Office on Drugs and Crime warns, the economic crisis Afghanistan currently faces will only increase the appeal of illicit crop cultivation for local farmers.

The problem extends beyond opioids. In recent years, Afghanistan has drastically expanded its production of methamphetamine. The appeal lies in the fact that meth offers producers a higher profit margin than heroin, owing to lower overhead costs and inexpensive ingredients, especially now that its chemical precursor, pseudoephedrine – a common ingredient in cold medications – is being produced locally.

Last year, the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction warned that Afghanistan’s meth industry could soon be as large as its heroin industry. While the Taliban was not yet in control of Kabul at the time, it controlled the majority of Afghanistan’s small, clandestine meth labs.

The Taliban uses several smuggling routes to move opiates. It moves output to Western Europe via the Caucasus and the Balkans, and from there all the way to North America. With the help of the Tajikistan-based terrorist group Jamaat Ansarullah, it also uses a northern route to Russia. The southeastern route, which snakes through Pakistan, is enabled by Pakistani security officials, who cooperate with the Taliban and smuggling syndicates, known locally as “tanzeems,” in exchange for bribes.

In 2008, a Taliban drug trafficker was recorded boasting that most of his product ended up abroad. “Good,” he gloated. “May God turn all the infidels into dead corpses. Whether it is by opium or by shooting, this is our common goal.” With the Taliban channeling profits from drug sales directly into its terror machine, the connection between Islamist violence and drug trafficking could not be starker.

This is not exclusive to the Taliban; Islamist groups like Boko Haram, al-Shabaab, and al-Qaeda are also linked to drug trafficking. But not all terrorist groups are on board with this approach. As a 2020 UN Security Council report points out, the Islamic State-Khorasan – ISIS’s Afghan arm – opposes the drug trade.

This is one reason why the outfit is an enemy of the Taliban, despite the two groups’ longstanding personal relationships, common history of struggle, and shared belief in violent Islamism. In fact, when ISIS-K had control of the Afghan border province of Nangarhar, it blocked the Taliban’s trafficking routes into Pakistan. The link was restored only when the US and Afghan government forces smashed the ISIS-K stronghold there.

This highlights the failure of the US – and the West more broadly – to recognize the complex but clear links between drug trafficking and Islamist terrorism. Had the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan been followed by a US campaign to arrest and prosecute Taliban leaders for their narcotics-trafficking activities in American courts, the group’s appeal among fundamentalist Muslims might have been severely diminished.

Such a plan was proposed in 2012. In a 240-page memo, the US Drug Enforcement Administration and several Justice Department officials recommended prosecuting 26 senior Taliban leaders and allied drug lords for criminal conspiracy. A similar approach worked in Colombia, and helped to force the narcotics-funded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) to make peace with the Colombian government in 2016, after 52 years of guerrilla war.

But successive US presidents refused to use this strategy against the Taliban, which was a strategic mistake with costs that are only beginning to be revealed. By allowing the Taliban to enrich and sustain itself with drug profits during the 20-year war in Afghanistan, the US contributed to its own humiliating defeat at the hands of a narco-terrorist organization.Sign up for our weekly newsletter, PS on Sunday

It is not too late for the US to start targeting the Taliban as a drug cartel through its federal courts. After all, Afghan-origin opioids have resulted in high rates of drug addiction and deaths around the world, from the US and Europe to Africa and Asia. And, given Afghanistan’s economic woes, the Taliban has a strong incentive to ramp up production and trafficking.

By highlighting the nexus between Islamist terrorism and the global narcotics trade, US indictments of the Taliban’s drug kingpins would help to build multilateral cooperation to crush the group’s primary source of income, such as by blocking shipments and seizing illicit profits, often parked in banks and real-estate investments abroad.

If the US does not lead an international effort to tackle Afghanistan’s opioid and meth production, the Taliban’s power – and ability to commit atrocities – will only grow, and its narco-state will serve as a haven for al-Qaeda and other violent jihadist groups. As matters stand, the world can expect a major surge in international terrorism and drug overdoses in the months and years ahead.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

A Crippling Blow to the Global War on Terror

The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, the greatest jihadist victory in modern times, will give rise to a terrorist super-state that serves as a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world. The US-led global war on terror, which was already faltering before President Joe Biden took office, may not recover.


The American-led global war on terror, launched 20 years ago after the September 11, 2001, attacks against the United States, was already faltering before President Joe Biden took office. Now it may not recover from the blow delivered by Biden’s historic blunder in facilitating the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan. The flag of the world’s deadliest terrorists – responsible for killing over 2,000 US soldiers since 2001 – will fly above Kabul on the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

By empowering the Taliban, Biden has empowered all violent Islamist groups, thus making the rebirth of global terror highly likely. And by betraying one ally – the Afghan government – he has made other American allies feel that the US could abandon them, too, when the chips are down.

The greatest jihadist victory in modern times will soon give rise to a terrorist super-state – a haven for transnational fanatics and a magnet for violent Islamists from around the world seeking training to carry out attacks back home. The Taliban’s “Islamic emirate” will lay the foundation for an international caliphate of the type sought by the late al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and the hijackers who carried out the 9/11 attacks.

Whereas the short-lived “caliphate” of the Islamic State (ISIS) filled a political vacuum in northern Syria before expanding into Iraq, the Taliban’s emirate has resulted from the defeat of the world’s mightiest power. The Taliban’s triumph will thus give the international jihadist movement an unprecedented boost, including for enlisting new recruits, with consequences that will play out for many years. The war on terror, which extends from the Middle East and southern Europe to Africa and Asia, will become increasingly difficult as its fronts multiply.

This comes at a time when America’s accelerating imperial decline is already weakening its capacity to impose its will on other countries, thereby encouraging China’s global expansion. Biden, continuing his predecessor Donald Trump’s policy of military retrenchment, recently committed to ending the US combat mission in Iraq this year.

The US has expended huge resources in its war on terror, waging counterterrorism operations in scores of countries. According to a recent report from Brown University’s Costs of War project, America’s post-9/11 wars, including efforts to secure its homeland, have cost about $8 trillion and caused an estimated 900,000 deaths, including of civilians and humanitarian aid workers. But they have yielded no enduring results.

The main reason is that America has long forgotten the lessons of 9/11, including the need to shun the path of expediency. As a result, the politicization of the war on terror has prevented a concerted ideological onslaught on violent jihadism.

Biden, for his part, is drawing specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists, in a bid to obscure both the significance of the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and his administration’s outreach to it. For example, he claims that “ISIS-K terrorists” are “sworn enemies of the Taliban” without acknowledging that the Taliban – like al-Qaeda and ISIS-K – are sworn enemies of the free world. Likewise, Biden was quick to absolve the Taliban of responsibility for the recent terrorist bombing at Kabul airport by pinning the blame on ISIS-K, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the US is ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the new regime in Kabul.

But the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS-K share a common ideology and commitment to violent jihad, with their members commingling and even moving from one group to another. As the Pentagon has acknowledged, the victorious Taliban have released thousands of ISIS-K prisoners. And according to a recent United Nations Security Council report, “the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned.”

Meanwhile, the State Department has sought to spin a myth by claiming that the Taliban and their special forces, the Haqqani Network, “are separate entities.” In fact, the Taliban and the Haqqani Network are a wing of Pakistan’s “deep state.” The network’s chief, Sirajuddin Haqqani, is a deputy leader of the Taliban. And the arrival in Kabul of the head of Pakistan’s rogue Inter-Services Intelligence agency even before the Taliban formed their government highlighted that the real victor in Afghanistan is Pakistan, which has virtually gained proxy control of its neighbor.

Yet, underscoring the geopolitics behind the war on terror, the Biden administration is unlikely to punish Pakistan, a “major non-NATO ally,” for engineering America’s humiliating rout in Afghanistan. Instead, it is relying on Pakistan and another long-time sponsor of jihadists, Qatar, to establish a relationship with the theocratic dictatorship in Kabul.

The US has come full circle by ceding control of Afghanistan to the same organization that gave bin Laden the base from which to plot the 9/11 attacks. Those attacks resulted from America’s troubling ties with Islamist groups since the 1980s, when President Ronald Reagan used Islam as an ideological tool to encourage armed resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders, including the Haqqani Network’s foundercut their teeth in that CIA-run covert war. Another veteran of that war now heads the Taliban regime – Muhammad Hassan Akhund, a UN-listed terrorist and architect of the 2001 demolition of the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan.

But within a decade of 9/11, the US returned to training jihadists and funneling lethal arms to them in regime-change wars, such as in Syria and Libya, with the CIA’s $1 billion secret war to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad resulting in the rise of ISIS. And it bankrolled a renegade Pakistan as it sheltered the Taliban’s command-and-control network.

Forgetting the lessons of 9/11 has effectively derailed the global war on terror. Putting it back on track, though a daunting challenge, is essential if the scourge of violent jihadism is not to become the defining crisis of this century.

Brahma Chellaney

Brahma Chellaney, Professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research and Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin, is the author of nine books, including Asian Juggernaut; Water: Asia’s New Battleground; and Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis.

© Project Syndicate, 2021.

Biden has made the world’s deadliest terrorists great again

The U.S.-led war on terror, in the global imagination, has become associated with U.S. surveillance excesses, torture, renditions, and regime-change military interventions. America’s Afghan defeat, drenched in the blood of betrayal, is the final nail in the coffin.

Brahma Chellaney, The Washington Times

On the day the United States marked two decades since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Taliban triumphantly hoisted their flag over the Afghan presidential palace and launched their new regime in a brief ceremony. The unprecedented 9/11 attacks prompted the U.S. not only to invade landlocked, strategically located Afghanistan but also to launch a global war on terror. But now, the U.S. has come full circle by handing Afghanistan to the same terrorists responsible for 9/11.

President Joe Biden’s historic blunder in facilitating the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan has highlighted how the U.S.-led war on terror has gone astray. Over the past 20 years, the scourge of international terrorism has spread deeper and wider in the world.

Biden has earned his place in history by making the world’s deadliest terrorists — the Pakistan-reared Taliban, who killed more than 2,000 American soldiers since 2001 — great again. Historians will be flummoxed that the U.S. expended considerable blood and treasure in a protracted war to ultimately help its enemy ride triumphantly back to power.

The humiliating rout of the world’s mightiest power represents the greatest victory of violent Islamists in the modern history of jihadism, with the Taliban calling it “the most joyful day of our existence.” The triumph over the “Great Satan” is certain to inspire other Islamist and terrorist groups worldwide.

Undeterred by his Afghan disaster, Biden plans to withdraw from Iraq this year, in keeping with what he declared in his August 31 address to the nation: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” This readjustment of strategic objectives is already rattling allies — from Taiwan to Ukraine — who fear being abandoned the way the U.S. threw the Afghan government under the bus.

Afghanistan indeed may not be the last blunder of the Biden presidency. Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, wrote in 2014 that Biden “has been wrong on nearly every major foreign policy and national security issue over the past four decades.” Gates has proved right.

In fact, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, in a May 2010 letter found in his Pakistan compound after he was killed by U.S. forces, advised al-Qaeda not to target then-Vice President Biden, in the hope that he would one day become president. “Biden is totally unprepared for that post, which will lead the U.S. into a crisis,” bin Laden wrote. He too has proved correct.

Biden has ignored the lessons of 9/11. This is apparent from the administration’s outreach to the Taliban. Biden has attempted to paint the Taliban as “good” terrorists and ISIS-K, al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network as “bad” terrorists. He even claimed that “ISIS-K terrorists” are “sworn enemies of the Taliban,” ignoring the Pentagon’s acknowledgment that it was the victorious Taliban that freed thousands of ISIS-K prisoners.

Like the administration’s attempt to portray the new Taliban as more enlightened than the old Taliban, Biden’s specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists have been part of his public-relations campaign to soften the blow from his handover of mineral-rich Afghanistan to an Islamist militia that is a wing of the Pakistani “deep state.” Indeed, extending its good-terrorists-versus-bad-terrorists hypothesis, Team Biden has sought to court the Taliban as America’s new partner to help contain the “bad” militants, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken saying publicly that the U.S. is ready to work on “counterterrorism” with the Taliban.

A key 9/11 lesson was that the viper reared against one state is a viper against others. Drawing distinctions between those who threaten U.S. security and those who threaten others is a sure recipe for counterterrorism failure, as terrorist cells and networks must be targeted wherever they exist on a sustained basis in order to achieve enduring results against the forces of global jihad.

Team Biden is intentionally ignoring the fact that the Taliban are closely entwined with other terror groups. A recent United Nations Security Council report said, “the Taliban and al-Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Haqqani Network. The triumphant Taliban have not only refused to utter a critical word about al-Qaeda but also now claim there is “no proof” that bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. 

The Taliban and the Haqqani Network are not “two separate entities,” as the State Department claimed, but closely integrated, as the lineup of the new Cabinet ministers in Kabul shows. And, although Biden sought to insulate the Taliban from the Aug. 26 Kabul Airport bombing by quickly pinning the blame on ISIS-K, the fact is that ISIS-K has little relationship with the ISIS founded by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Rather, as part of Pakistani intelligence’s deception operations to build plausible deniability in terror attacks, ISIS-K draws its cadres largely from the Taliban’s special forces — the Haqqani Network.

The world today is reaping the bitter fruits of a geopolitics-driven war on terror, which, in the global imagination, has become associated with U.S. surveillance excesses, torture, renditions and regime-change military interventions. Afghanistan is set to become a haven for international terrorists under a regime stacked with U.N.-listed or U.S.-designated terrorists, including the prime minister, who was instrumental in the 2001 destruction of two giant, sixth-century Buddhas in Bamiyan.

America’s Afghan defeat, drenched in the blood of betrayal, resulted from ignoring the lessons of 9/11, including the importance of not coddling states that bankroll or sponsor transnational terrorism. And the U.S.-led war on terror, instead of containing terrorism, has generated greater international insecurity. It is not too late for the U.S. to absorb the lessons from national policies that gave rise to Frankenstein’s monsters.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).

Lessons Unlearnt

America has always fought its war on terror selectively, and now Joe Biden has delivered a victory for global jihad

 Brahma Chellaney  | OPEN magazine

Taliban Spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid makes his first-ever public appearance at a press conference in Kabul, August 17 (Photo: Getty Images)

THE UNPARALLELED TERRORIST attacks of September 11th, 2001 in the US gave birth to the American-led global war on terror. Nearly 3,000 Americans died in the unprecedented 9/11 attacks. Yet, two decades later, it is apparent that the war on terror has been remarkably ineffective, as the recent terrorist takeover of Afghanistan highlights.

Much before US President Joe Biden’s blunder in enabling the Taliban’s conquest of Afghanistan, the war on terror had already gone astray. Over the past 20 years, the number of terrorism-related casualties has increased globally. Terror has spread geographically, with new regions being battered by the scourge of violent extremism. And national expenditures on combating terrorism, from North America and Europe to Asia, have risen sharply.

In fact, it has been in the period since 9/11 that India has suffered a series of major terrorist strikes. The terrorist assaults on the state legislature of Jammu and Kashmir and the Indian Parliament occurred within weeks of 9/11. The 2008 Mumbai massacre was India’s equivalent of 9/11, affecting the Indian psyche more deeply than any other attack.

Globally, the past two decades have largely been a wasted period in combating the menace of terrorism: Instead of containing terrorism, the war on terror has generated greater insecurity in several parts of the world, including Europe, Africa and Asia. “The war has been long and complex and horrific and unsuccessful,” in the words of Brown University’s Catherine Lutz, who has been tracking the costs of America’s counterterrorism operations across the world.

What explains the failure of the US-led war on terror to achieve tangible results? Simply put, the war’s increasing politicisation has effectively stymied any possibility of achieving lasting success.


The US under successive presidents has turned the war on terror into a geopolitical instrument to advance narrow interests, instead of focusing on rooting out all terrorist groups wherever they exist. It is this approach that has led to the US defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan. This defeat was drenched in the blood of betrayal: America ditched its ally—the elected Afghan government—and got into bed with the world’s deadliest terrorists (the Taliban), culminating in its humiliating rout.

The only way to combat terrorism is through vigorous, proactive and pre-emptive actions, without seeking to differentiate between good terrorists and bad terrorists. Also, talking tough but doing little in action only emboldens terrorists and their sponsors.

The US, unfortunately, has never adopted a forward-looking approach to containing international terrorism. It has been more concerned about protecting its own interests, including its homeland, than about winning the larger war against terrorism. It has entered into deals with terrorist groups operating against its own regional allies and partners.

Yet it has long maintained the pretence that it does not negotiate with terrorists. In 2008, then US Vice President Dick Cheney even declared, “We don’t negotiate with evil; we defeat it.” But while regurgitating the line that “we don’t negotiate with terrorists,” the US has quietly done the opposite in practice, as President Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban and the Biden administration’s current outreach to that militia underscore.

The February 2020 Doha deal between the US and the Taliban showed that Washington not only negotiates with terrorists, but also clinches an agreement with much fanfare.

Even before the Doha deal, the US traded three leading Taliban terrorists, including Anas Haqqani (son of the Haqqani network’s founder), for two captured Westerners in November 2019. Likewise, in 2014, it freed five Taliban leaders from Guantánamo Bay in exchange for the release of a captured US Army sergeant. The late American Senator, John McCain, had called the five released detainees “the hardest of the hardcore.”

Despite America’s obsession with counterterrorism, it has always waged its war on terror selectively. It has shielded client nations even if they have bankrolled or sponsored transnational terrorism, and gone after countries that have defiantly stood their ground against Washington.

This is apparent from America’s list of state sponsors of terrorism, which today includes only four countries—Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Syria. These four have been targeted for geopolitical reasons. Such has been the arbitrariness that the US identified Cuba out of the blue as a state sponsor of terrorism in January this year, after earlier dropping Sudan from its list.

A Taliban member points his gun at protestors outside the Pakistan Embassy in Kabul, September 7 (Photo: Reuters)

The main financiers of violent Islamists, by Washington’s own admission, are US allies (Saudi Arabia and the other oil sheikhdoms). In fact, President Trump once called Saudi Arabia “the world’s biggest funder of terrorism.” And another US ally, Pakistan, has long served as the main international sanctuary of Al Qaeda and other transnational terrorists like the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Toiba.

Thanks to WikiLeaks disclosures, we know that US officials have privately acknowledged that the terrorism problem is largely tied to American allies. Yet successive US governments have employed the war on terror as a geopolitical tool, instead of focusing on reining in America’s renegade allies.

Given the number of U.N.-listed terrorists that the Taliban have appointed as ministers, can there be any doubt that helping this terrorist regime to gain international acceptability will be disastrous for counterterrorism?

Pakistan’s shadowy Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, as a tacit or overt sponsor of violent extremists and terrorist groups, has long acted as the enabler of transnational terrorism. No other intelligence agency in the world has promoted international terrorism to the extent ISI has done over more than four decades.

Yet the US has added Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps to its list of foreign terrorist organizations but not ISI, with which the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has sustained a longstanding relationship. ISI itself is part of a major terrorism-exporting force—Pakistan’s military—which maintains cosy ties with transnational terrorist groups, including providing, as President Trump acknowledged, “safe haven to the terrorists we hunt in Afghanistan.”

Nothing better illustrates the politicisation of the global war on terror than the fact that the US government never added the Pakistan-reared Afghan Taliban to the State Department’s annual list  of Foreign Terrorist Organizations. This outfit killed more than 2,000 American soldiers between 2001 and 2021. The Taliban’s rapid conquest of Afghanistan may have brought shame and humiliation to the US, yet today the Biden administration, paradoxically, is courting this militia that is responsible for so many American deaths.

Take another example: Pakistan engineered the US rout in Afghanistan through its proxy, yet Biden is unlikely to revoke the “major non-NATO ally” (MNNA) status enjoyed by that country. Sixteen other countries, including Japan, Australia and Israel but not India, have the MNNA status, which carries security benefits under American law. Nor is Biden likely to impose any financial or diplomatic sanctions on Pakistan.

It is thus no wonder that terrorism has virtually become our new normal. After the terrorist capture of Afghanistan, the international counterterrorism challenges are bound to escalate.


Biden’s surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban and his administration’s ongoing efforts to legitimise the new terrorist regime in Kabul have unravelled whatever was left of the American-led global war on terror. Given the number of United Nations-listed terrorists that the Taliban have appointed as ministers, can there be any doubt that helping this terrorist regime to gain international acceptability will be disastrous for counterterrorism?

Even the head of the Taliban regime, Mohammad Hassan Akhund, is on the UN blacklist. In fact, Hassan Akhund oversaw the demolition of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in March 2001. And with the FBI-wanted Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister, the notorious Haqqani network—and by extension Pakistan’s ISI agency—will be in charge of Afghanistan’s internal security. So much for the talk that the Taliban have changed!

Biden, however, has defiantly refused to offer any sort of mea culpa for his Afghan surrender and instead repeatedly attempted to rationalise his precipitous and ill-planned military withdrawal, which set in motion developments beyond the control of the US or the elected Afghan government. Lost in such defiance is Biden’s admission that Afghanistan is not a one-off decision. Rather, according to him, it represents a fundamental readjustment of America’s strategic objectives under his leadership.

“This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” Biden declared in his August 31st address to the nation. The statement, reinforced by his recent pledge to withdraw from Iraq this year, raises nagging questions whether the US is faltering and retreating from its global commitments.

Biden’s Afghan disaster and new foreign-policy vision, while emboldening America’s adversaries, are likely to spur US allies to hedge, given that US objectives and resolve now seem suspect. Ukraine is worried Biden will abandon it the way he ditched the Afghan government. And Taiwan is concerned that Biden’s blunder could embolden Chinese dictator Xi Jinping to launch a lightning attack to forcibly absorb the island democracy of 24 million people. Those worries prompted Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen to declare, “It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.”

What stands out, however, is the huge victory for global jihad that Biden has helped deliver. There was no strategic or domestic imperative for Biden to order a hasty and total pullout of the US force that had been drastically cut, as he admitted, to the “bare minimum of 2,500” before his predecessor left office.

That small US force could have been easily sustained with relatively modest cost and little risk to American lives. Since the US combat role in Afghanistan ended on December 31st, 2014, Afghan soldiers, not American troops, had been on the frontlines, with the residual US force playing only a supporting role.

Yet Biden rebuffed his top military commanders’ advice and ordered all American troops to rapidly return home. Biden also ignored the report of the bipartisan Afghanistan Study Group that recommended a conditions-based withdrawal while warning that a hurried, unconditional military exit would “leave America more vulnerable to terrorist threats” and have “catastrophic effects in Afghanistan and the region.”

An unclassified version of the US intelligence community’s global threat assessment had warned in April: “The Taliban is likely to make gains on the battlefield, and the Afghan Government will struggle to hold the Taliban at bay if the coalition withdraws support.”

Biden, however, refused to listen to any advice suggesting caution or developing a transition plan for the Afghan forces, which for combat operations were highly reliant on US and NATO capabilities—from intelligence and close air support to emergency logistics and medical evacuation.

Biden’s Afghan surrender occurred just months after he took office, suggesting that this is unlikely to be the last blunder of his presidency. But the US and its Western allies are located far from Afghanistan. It is next-door India that will likely bear the brunt of the strategic fallout from Pakistan’s success in Afghanistan.

An emboldened Pakistani military establishment is bound to use its ISI agency to keep India off balance in the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir. Cadres of Lashkar-e-Toiba, Jaish-e-Mohammed and Al-Badr, which are all fronts for ISI, are likely to create greater trouble for India in Jammu and Kashmir and possibly elsewhere.

To make matters worse, the Biden administration has been drawing false distinctions between the Taliban, Haqqani network, Al Qaeda and ISIS-K. In reality, these groups are interlinked. For example, the Taliban and Al Qaeda members are tied by close personal relationships and intermarriage, and Al Qaeda has pledged loyalty to every Taliban leader since the time ISI created the Taliban in the mid-1990s, according to terrorism expert Seth G Jones.

ISI has used the Haqqani network to provide cadres to ISIS-K so as to help establish plausible deniability in terror attacks. As for the Taliban, their longstanding ties with Al Qaeda are reflected in the fact that, since Kabul’s fall, Taliban spokesmen have not only refused to utter a critical word about Al Qaeda, but also have claimed that there is “no proof” that Osama bin Laden was responsible for the 9/11 attacks.

In October 2015, US forces under General John F Campbell uncovered in Kandahar province the largest Al Qaeda base discovered anywhere in the world (75 square kilometres in size), where Al Qaeda and the Taliban were found training and operating together. According to a recent UN Security Council report, “the Taliban and Al Qaida remain closely aligned” and cooperate through the Haqqani network.

Taliban fighters after taking over the mouth of the Panjshir Valley, September 6 (Photo: Getty Images)

Against this background, the Taliban must be deterred, not emboldened. But the Biden administration, not content with having indirectly armed the Taliban with billions of dollars worth of US-made weapons, is seeking to build a partnership with this terrorist militia.

In the first ever case of a terrorist organisation acquiring an air force and sophisticated land-based capabilities, troves of US-made weapons, helicopters, planes and armoured vehicles have fallen into the Taliban’s hands. The most sophisticated weapons probably have already been transported to Pakistan for likely deployment against India. Taliban patrols are now using some of the other US-made weapons. The Taliban could transfer some weapons to Pakistani jihadists operating from Afghanistan.

Biden, seeking to blunt the torrent of bipartisan criticism at home, has bragged that he ended “the longest war in American history”. With Afghanistan now set to become a haven for transnational terrorists, the US role has merely paused. But the damage to America’s credibility and the global war on terror cannot be undone.


The Afghanistan war did not start in 2001 after the 9/11 attacks. As Columbia University’s Jeffery Sachs has explained, “The Afghanistan war started 42 years ago, in 1979, when President Jimmy Carter’s administration covertly supported Islamic jihadists to fight a Soviet-backed regime. Soon, the CIA-backed mujahideen helped to provoke a Soviet invasion, trapping the Soviet Union in a debilitating conflict, while pushing Afghanistan into what became a forty-year-long downward spiral of violence and bloodshed.”

With the 9/11 attacks, however, the chickens came home to roost. The attacks profoundly shook the US. But did the US draw the appropriate lessons from 9/11 and halt further training and arming of jihadists by CIA?

Then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton candidly said in an ABC News interview in November 2010 that the US was paying the price for creating Al Qaeda. “Part of what we are fighting against right now, the United States created. We created the mujahideen force against the Soviet Union. We trained them, we equipped them, we funded them, including somebody named Osama bin Laden. And then when we finally saw the end of the Soviet Army crossing back out of Afghanistan, we all breathed a sigh of relief and said, okay, fine, we’re out of there. And it didn’t work out so well for us,” she said.

Yet, less than a year after that interview, then-US President Barack Obama, with Hillary Clinton’s active encouragement, helped turn Libya into a failed state by toppling ruler Muammar Gaddafi. Obama also started an air war in Syria—his presidency’s seventh military campaign in a Muslim nation and one that consumed his remaining term in office.

Less known is that the Obama-ordered CIA covert war in Syria ended up creating ISIS, even if inadvertently. As Trump put it, “Obama and Hillary created ISIS.”

Against this background, is it any surprise that in the period since America launched the global war on terror in 2001 under Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, the scourge of international terrorism has only spread deeper and wider in the world? Jihadist forces extolling terror as a sanctified tool of religion have gained ground in a number of countries. And once-stable nations such as Iraq, Syria and Libya have become anarchic, crumbling states and new hubs of transnational terrorism, even as Pakistan has remained “ground zero” for the international terrorist threat.

The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist

The lessons of 9/11 were obvious, but successive US governments ignored them. The Biden administration is doing the same.

The first lesson is to keep the focus on longer-term goals and not be carried away by political convenience and narrow objectives. Terrorism can be stemmed only through a concerted and sustained international campaign that targets terrorist cells and networks wherever they exist and as long as they exist. The US cannot afford to draw distinctions between good and bad terrorists and between those who threaten its security and those who threaten others. The viper reared against one country is a viper against others.

A second lesson is not to turn the war against terrorism into a geopolitical battle to serve one’s strategic interests while ignoring the interests of others, including allies and strategic partners. After launching the global war on terror, President Bush used it to expand US military, diplomatic and energy interests in an unprecedented manner and position American forces in the largest array of nations since World War II—all in the name of fighting terror.

Another lesson is that the problem of and solution to terrorism are linked. Terrorism not only threatens the free, secular world but also springs from the rejection of democracy and secularism. The terrorism-breeding swamps can never be fully drained so long as the societies that rear or tolerate them are not de-radicalised and democratised.

Has Biden’s Afghanistan debacle sown the seeds of another 9/11?

© UPI Photo


President Biden’s Afghanistan blunder has spawned the greatest victory for terrorists in the modern history of global jihadism. Notwithstanding his claim in a defiant speech on Tuesday that the exit from Afghanistan will allow the United States to counter China and Russia, Biden knows that the Afghan security and humanitarian catastrophe he unleashed has weakened his hand against America’s adversaries.

In fact, the U.S. defeat and humiliation in Afghanistan, while highlighting the irreversible decline of American power, have created greater space for China’s assertive global expansion, for Russia’s geopolitical ambitions in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia and for Iran’s continued defiance. The calamitous U.S. withdrawal also threatens to destabilize the wider region extending across the Indian subcontinent.

The Taliban’s victory over the “Great Satan,” meanwhile, is inspiring other Islamist and terrorist groups across the world. By serving as an unparalleled recruiting boost, it is promising to deliver the rebirth of global terror.

Biden not only facilitated the Taliban’s sweep of Afghanistan but also is now seeking to strike a Faustian bargain with this Pakistan-reared terrorist militia. Biden kept his promise to the Taliban, including a complete U.S. withdrawal by Aug. 31, but not his word to U.S. allies in Afghanistan or to partner countries.

Historians will be flummoxed that the world’s mightiest power expended considerable blood and treasure in a two-decade-long war to ultimately help its enemy ride triumphantly back to power.

This is a watershed moment that will go down in history books as marking the beginning of the end of American preeminence. After the way the U.S. betrayed the elected Afghan government, other allies can scarcely rely on Washington to support them when the chips are down. The erosion of American credibility will cause lasting damage to the interests of the U.S. and its friends. 

America’s close partner India, with its location right next to the Afghanistan-Pakistan belt, is likely to be one big loser from Biden’s Afghan debacle. The rejuvenated epicenter for terrorism next door will leave India less space to counter an expansionist China. Nuclear-armed titans China and India have been locked in a Himalayan military confrontation for the past 16 months following Chinese border encroachments.

The void created by America’s retreat is a strategic boon for China, which will now shore up its interests in mineral-rich Afghanistan and deepen its penetration of Pakistan, Iran and Central Asia. The retreat will also embolden Chinese President Xi Jinping’s expansionism.

Indeed, Biden may have made Taiwan Xi’s next target by acknowledging, “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” The statement conveys a great deal about U.S. objectives and resolve. No wonder Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, responding to Chinese warnings that the U.S. will abandon it like Afghanistan, declared, “Taiwan’s only option is to grow stronger … It is not our option to do nothing and only rely on others for protection.” 

Illustrating his weakened position, Biden has just bowed to China’s demand to stop tracing the origins of the COVID-19 virus by announcing that the intelligence inquiry he ordered has ended, even though the probe failed to uncover the genesis of the world’s worst public-health catastrophe in more than a century. By not extending the inquiry’s 90-day deadline, Biden, in effect, is letting China get away scot-free over its cover-up of the virus’s origins.

The president could have ordered the U.S. intelligence community to keep searching for the true origins of the virus until a definitive conclusion was reached. Instead, as if to underline that he can ill-afford a crisis in relations with China at this stage, Biden has pleaded with a recalcitrant Beijing “to cooperate with the World Health Organization’s Phase II evidence-based, expert-led determination into the origins of COVID-19.” But China, as the intelligence inquiry’s declassified summary states, “continues to hinder the global investigation, resist sharing information and blame other countries, including the United States.”

Had Biden extended the term of the inquiry, it would have scuttled the ongoing effort to set up a meeting between him and Xi on the sidelines of the G20 Rome summit in October. To make matters worse, Biden’s Afghan disaster has undercut U.S. leverage to pressure China to share information relevant to determining the virus’s origins, including lab records, clinical samples and raw health data from the earliest COVID-19 cases.

The upcoming 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks should be an occasion to reflect on how the U.S., by facilitating the terrorist takeover of Afghanistan, has made its homeland and its friends less safe. The seeds of another 9/11 may have been sown.

One forgotten lesson of 9/11 is that the U.S. must not draw specious distinctions between “good” and “bad” terrorists. The Biden administration, while quick to blame a local ISIS affiliate for the Kabul airport massacre, has sought to build a partnership with the Taliban, including, strangely, on “counterterrorism,” as Secretary of State Antony Blinken acknowledges. It has also refrained from striking Black Hawk helicopters and other U.S.-made assets parked in the open at Afghan bases.

In the first ever case of a terrorist organization acquiring an air force and sophisticated land-based capabilities, troves of U.S.-made weapons, helicopters, planes and armored vehicles worth many billions of dollars have fallen into the Taliban’s hands. The terrorist capture of Afghanistan will come back to haunt U.S. security sooner or later.

Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and the author of nine books, including the award-winning “Water: Asia’s New Battleground” (Georgetown University Press).