Abstract: Two years into Taliban rule, what are the key choices and tradeoffs for U.S. counterterrorism strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Policymakers face the dilemma that a critical subset of counterterrorism concerns related to Taliban-allied terrorist groups may not be addressed if the Taliban become stronger; however, the terrorism threat will likely increase under a weaker Taliban regime. Concessions to the Taliban are unlikely to persuade the Taliban to curtail terrorists any more than they will of their own volition. If the Taliban do not sufficiently contain threats, the primary tool will be over-the-horizon military action. However, the current over-the-horizon approach is under-resourced and lacks a clear logic for mitigating threats. Three alternative coercive postures are possible: 1) stepped-up monitoring and occasional targeting to dissuade terrorist activities 2) a denial campaign against terrorist capabilities or 3) punishment threats to Taliban in case of terrorism against U.S. interests. Each of these postures require additional resources and also present a higher risk of Taliban retaliation, which will constrain their adoption. Finally, a new counterterrorism question is the extent to which the rising threat of the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) affects U.S. interests. The TTP’s immediate threat to the United States is ambiguous, but there are plausible pathways by which it can metastasize into a future threat for U.S. interests. Should policymakers decide to contain it vigorously, they can step up capacity-building, intelligence-sharing, and targeting assistance to Pakistan. Of these options, intelligence-sharing may offer the most upside with manageable political and legal challenges, whereas capacity-building may prove ineffective and targeting assistance presents the risk of blowback against the United States.
When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in August 2021, there was considerable uncertainty on the future of terrorist threats from the country and concern about the Taliban’s political direction. Two years after the U.S. withdrawal, some dimensions of the threat have crystallized: As a regime, the Taliban remain allied with various terrorist groups; they are also resisting the international community’s demands on moving toward a more inclusive political system while denying human rights to girls and women in the country. Among transnational threats, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK) remains the main near-term challenge for the United States.1 On the other hand, as per U.S. government assessments, al-Qa`ida has not resurgeda in the country as was widely feared, and the Taliban seem to be restricting the group while targeting ISK. Still, al-Qa`ida senior leadership appears to maintain relations with the Taliban.2 The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan’s (TTP’s) escalating campaign of violence from cross-border safe havens is also a potent threat to Pakistan.3
This is a dynamic threat landscape. The Biden administration is taking comfort in the fact that the current trajectory of threats, in particular the threat of al-Qa`ida, falls short of the worst fears on the eve of the withdrawal. The administration also appears assured by Taliban actions against ISK. Yet, it will be a mistake to write off the overall threat. Afghanistan continues to offer a range of opportunities for terrorist groups—and American visibility on those opportunities remains limited. The global environment is also permissive for terrorism. The Israel-Hamas conflict, in particular, may catalyze global jihadism, fostering new motivations and grievances fueling jihadi activities worldwide. Al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State are pivoting to exploit Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack on Israel and the civilian harm in Israel’s military campaign in Gaza since—and al-Qa`ida core and al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent have threatened attacks against the U.S. homeland, embassies, bases, and citizens.4 Policymakers should take seriously the risk of a surprise terrorist provocation from Afghanistan.
For counterterrorism strategy, this means that even if a radical reformulation of the current policy and counterterrorism approach to Afghanistan is not required, sustained vigilance and mitigation effort remains essential. However, what such an effort at vigilance and mitigation should look like is not clear. U.S. officials consistently identify terrorism and counterterrorism to be their top policy priority in Afghanistan but do not specify how they hope to manage the terrorist landscape in the near to medium-term beyond withholding normalizing the Taliban regime.5 More generally, while there is a vibrant debate6 on the U.S. approach toward Afghanistan, there is little consensus around realistic tradeoffs and counterterrorism policy choices that can help manage and reduce terrorist threats.
This analysis contributes to the debate on counterterrorism issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan by identifying the key policy choices and the dilemmas associated with those choices. To do so, it systematically answers three inter-related questions: What policies toward the Afghan Taliban are both viable and likely to reduce terrorist threats from the country? Should the U.S. over-the-horizon military approach to Afghanistan be modified, and if so, what are some options to adjust the posture? How much should the U.S. government worry about the threats facing Pakistan from both inside Pakistan and Afghanistan-based terrorist groups, and what are some options to counter those threats?
Three sets of propositions emerge. First, U.S. strategists face the dilemma that a stronger and stable Taliban regime may not be sensitive to critical U.S. counterterrorism concerns. A stronger Taliban regime may target ISK more effectively; however, stability and strength may also embolden the Taliban into ramping up their support for allied groups such as al-Qa`ida and the TTP. At the same time, a weaker Taliban regime does not solve the counterterrorism problem either; instead, the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan may only increase if the Taliban become weaker. Some analysts have argued for concessions to the Taliban, such as deprioritizing inclusion and rights concerns or lowering expectations for a Taliban crackdown on allied terrorists in exchange for action against ISK. However, it is unlikely that such concessions will influence the Taliban’s calculus on supporting terrorist groups, as that decision is not rooted in limitations, capacity constraints, or any kind of incentives those groups are offering. The Taliban will do as much counterterrorism as they want, and it is unlikely positive incentives can fundamentally change the Taliban’s calculus on their alignment with a major subset of terrorist groups in Afghanistan.
Second, the administration believes, and continues to hope, the Taliban will curtail some terrorist threats—in the words of President Biden, “I said we’d get help from the Taliban.”7 Yet, even as the Taliban fight ISK, ISK has actively plottedb attacks against U.S. and allied interests.c Additionally, some top ISK leaders identified by the administration for involvement in attacks against the United States and external plotting have neither been arrested nor neutralized by the Taliban; al-Qa`ida elements identified by the U.S. government since the withdrawal also appear to be in the country.8 Ultimately, if the Taliban do not sufficiently curtail terrorist groups and instead continue to enable some of them, the primary tool available to U.S. strategists to manage terrorism threats will be over-the-horizon military action. However, the current over-the-horizon approach is challenged due to shortfall of resources. In his 2023 hearing of Senate Armed Services Committee, CENTCOM Commander General Michael Kurilla confirmed this, noting, “In Afghanistan, the reduction in collection, analytical resources, and Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance assets means our campaign against Al Qaeda and ISIS Khorasan is challenged; while we can see the broad contours of attack planning, we lack the granularity to see the complete threat picture.”9 Additionally, the administration has not publicly outlined a theory of over-the-horizon action beyond occasional leadership decapitation efforts to deliver justice to terrorist leaders—and the publicly observable dimensions, such as frequency of kinetic strikes relative to the number of targets and the level of surveillance activity in country, suggest no clear political or military logic for mitigating threats.d
If policymakers want to improve the military approach to reducing threats, the over-the-horizon approach can be adjusted by adopting one or a combination of three coercive approaches.
1) Detection posture: Monitoring of and use of force against detected terrorist activities to dissuade the Taliban from providing support and leaving space for terrorist activity. To signal credible monitoring, publicize detected activity, and carry out occasional strikes.
2) Denial posture: Threats of and use of force specifically against transnational plotting capabilities specifically to limit the opportunities and resources necessary for transnational terrorism. To signal, political leadership will publicly communicate intent to target those engaged and assisting in plotting activity while publicizing detected activity on plots through disclosures and sanctions.
3) Punishment posture: Threat of retributory attacks against the Taliban in case of terrorism against U.S. interests to dissuade the Taliban from providing support and leaving space for terrorist groups, communicated by the political leadership publicly.
It is challenging to predict whether these counterterrorism postures individually or in combination will influence the Taliban’s calculations given their high threshold for pain and costs. But the Taliban’s desire to ensure their sovereignty over Afghanistan, protecting leadership, and minimizing domestic political backlash suggests sensitivity to military pressure. At the same time, to be effective at coercing the Taliban, the adopted posture must be well-resourced, which will require an increase in CENTCOM’s budget but without substantially offsetting the Department of Defense’s Integrated Deterrence-related spending. They should also be paired with appropriate signaling measures, such as public threats, declassified intelligence, pre-positioned assets and carefully executed use of force. Policymakers should also be mindful of the risk of Taliban retaliation under each posture, which is significant.
Finally, the rising threat of the TTP has unclear implications for U.S. interests. It is defensible to argue that the group does not currently pose a threat to U.S. interests because of its local focus and that no action is therefore currently required. It is also defensible to argue that the group is on a trajectory to pose a future threat to U.S. interests both by gaining power to target U.S. interests much like in the past as well as seriously destabilizing Pakistan, and that preventive action is therefore needed. If policymakers determine that the TTP poses a threat to U.S. interests, they can step up capacity-building, intelligence-sharing, and targeting assistance to Pakistan. However, capacity-building to shore up Pakistan’s political and security response will face steep challenges, and targeting assistance will present the highest risk of blowback against the United States; intelligence sharing will encounter both political and legal challenges, but those are likely to be surmountable.
This article proceeds in three parts. First, the article describes the policy debate on how the U.S. government can best obtain better counterterrorism outcomes from the Afghan Taliban. Second, the article discusses the current over-the-horizon posture, the three possible adjustments to it, and the resource and risk tradeoffs associated with each of the adjustments. Third, the article evaluates the implications of the TTP’s threat to Pakistan for the United States and the viability and politics of options available to counter the TTP. The author draws on a combination of open-source materials and consultations on counterterrorism issues with the analytic community.
Part One: Counterterrorism Policy Toward the Afghan Taliban
The debate on policy toward the Afghan Taliban revolves around the nature of the Taliban regime—whether it is pragmatic, extremist, or divided—and implications of the Taliban’s internal political character for a range of policy outcomes, including counterterrorism.10 In these debates, an important strand across key arguments points to a stark trade-off for U.S. counterterrorism interests. It suggests that given the extremist nature of the Taliban, U.S. policy priorities, including counterterrorism, are likely to be undermined by a stable and/or stronger Taliban regime.e Some analysts have challenged this framing and argued that concessions to the Taliban are necessary for progress on issues of concern to the international community, including counterterrorism.11 There are two main types of arguments advocating concessions. One argument is that current U.S. policy prioritization, like political inclusion and rights for girls and women, impedes progress on other issues like counterterrorism, and so policy needs to drop the focus on inclusion and rights.12 Second, some analysts argue that to persuade the Taliban to cooperate against ISK and other international terrorist threats, the U.S. government needs to lower the bar on what it expects the Taliban to do against allied terrorist groups.13
CT Goals and Taliban Regime Strength
The view that U.S. counterterrorism goals are incompatible with a stable and strong Taliban regime is rooted in the belief that the Taliban are an extremist movement, joined at the hip with various terrorist groups, which consistently privileges “fidelity to their hardline ideology over the possibility of legitimate membership in the international community.”14 This view implies more stability and strength will embolden the Taliban into implementing their hardline ideology as well as their support of allied terrorist groups, which will undermine U.S. interests in a more profound way. A key implication of this view is that isolating the Taliban is essential for managing terrorism threats in addition to realizing goals related to inclusion and human rights.f
Concerns that a stronger and more stable Taliban regime will provide greater opportunity for terrorists and incubate terrorist threats are well-founded. For one, despite their repeated stated commitment to not allow their territory to be used by terrorists against other countries, the Taliban remain supportive of several terrorist groups in the country, providing them both sanctuary and material assistance. This includes al-Qa`ida senior leadership and al-Qa`ida’s South Asia arm, al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS); anti-Pakistan groups such as the TTP and the Hafiz Gul Bahadur group; Central Asian militants with political aims against Uzbekistan and Tajikistan such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad (KTJ), and Jamaat Ansarullah; and the anti-China Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP).15 g
The Taliban’s policy of supporting the range of these terrorist groups is not borne out of weakness or capacity constraints. The Taliban are a formidable political movement, and their top leader, Hibatullah Akhundzada, appears committed to the agenda of implementing an Islamic Emirate that protects his interpretation of the religion, prepares an army, and wages jihad.16 The Taliban also appear to align with the aspiration of their allies against their respective adversaries, even if they do not partake in their acts of violence at every turn, at least directly. The Taliban view jihadi foreign fighters as political dissidents with legitimate political causes who deserve their support. There is the possibility that the Taliban see allied groups as a source of leverage for their own regional security and broader foreign policy objectives, though evidence on this being a motivation remains thin. Nevertheless, the Taliban see advancement of jihadi ideas through social and education policies as one of the main projects of their statehood.17 A stronger and more stable Taliban regime may thus lean into these logics and be emboldened into supporting various armed groups in the country instead of backing off from them.
At the same time, even if concerns about a stable and strong Taliban regime fostering terrorism are valid, the policy decision on how to deal with the Taliban depends on what the alternative to the Taliban’s current trajectory will look like and their implications for terrorism and counterterrorism. There are two alternative scenarios to consider: either a weaker, more isolated Taliban regime or a scenario in which the Taliban lose power.
When it comes to counterterrorism concerns, a weaker Taliban regime can only be a better outcome if weakness compels the Taliban to distance from terrorist groups and does not result in a strengthening of ISK or other terrorist groups. One mechanism by which this can happen is if the weakening shifts the internal balance of power within the Taliban toward those who are more pragmatic in their engagement with the outside world and more receptive to international counterterrorism concerns. It is unclear if a weaker Taliban regime will move in such a direction.
Instead, it is arguably more likely that upon weakening, the Taliban leadership may move closer to terrorist groups. Research on political violence suggests that amid the turmoil of a civil war, political elites have incentives to move toward more extreme positions as opposed to pragmatic or moderate ones.18 Political moderates can also face the “dilemma” that if they voice their pragmatic positions, they may be discredited by their hardline rivals.19 There is precedent for the Taliban moving closer to terrorist groups in the face of internal turmoil. In 2015, when the then Taliban leader Mansoor Akhtar, assessed by various analysts at the time to be relatively pragmatic, faced an internal political challenge from within his movement, he was quick to seek help from al-Qa`ida and break from the tradition of not acknowledging al-Qa`ida’s pledge of allegiance by publicly doing so.20
Moreover, in the case of Taliban weakening to a point of fragmentation, the political consequences will be highly unpredictable and may well be dangerous. In theory, Taliban regime fragmentation will provide an opening to pro-Western opposition in Afghanistan to reemerge, but given the weakness of Afghan opposition, the more likely outcome is that it will create a crisis of state authority in the country and pave the way for civil war. Such a return to conflict would create much greater space for terrorist groups such as ISK and Taliban-allied terrorists such as al-Qa`ida and the TTP. As a result, terror threats in Afghanistan may easily end up increasing. Given that, analysts and policymakers who believe that weakening the Taliban regime can advance U.S. counterterrorism priorities need to make the case for why and how such an approach will alleviate terrorism risks from Afghanistan.
Concessions, Normalization, and Counterterrorism
The other end of this debate suggests that in order to obtain counterterrorism assurances and help from the Taliban, in particular against ISK, the U.S. government should offer concessions, such as reducing the priority accorded to human rights concerns, dropping the demand of making Afghan politics more inclusive, and backing away from the demand of a Taliban crackdown against their allied terrorist groups.h According to this view, the Taliban have shown some flexibility on counterterrorism issues, such as by agreeing to restrain al-Qa`ida and demonstrating the will and ability to counter ISK in Afghanistan.i In contrast, political inclusion and social policies in the country are much more central to their domestic political standing. There have been signs of debate and differences among Taliban elites on some of these social issues and how to approach them, with some leaders dissenting from the hardline positions. However, Taliban emir Hibatullah Akhundzada has not budged on these issues, and dissenting leaders have mostly backed off from pushing their case. As a result, the Taliban remain firm on the issues of political inclusion and social policies in the country and appear unlikely to change those due to American or broader international pressure.
This perspective has two implications. First, the argument suggests that more pressure on the Taliban over rights and inclusion will likely lead to the Taliban digging in further and making it harder for even pragmatic leaders to cooperate on counterterrorism.21 Second, if the U.S. government wants more help and cooperation on counterterrorism, in particular against ISK, they have to offer a more normal relationship to the Taliban, including potential recognition.22
In this author’s view, this perspective is correct in seeing Taliban intransigence on political inclusion and denial of rights for women and girls for what it is: a domestic political issue of premium importance from which the Taliban are unlikely to back off. Yet, it is unclear what kind of further movement by the Taliban is possible on counterterrorism issues (beyond the limited covert exchanges) should the United States or the international community look the other way on rights and inclusion, including by offering normalization.
On al-Qa`ida, for instance, the Taliban do not appear open to breaking from the group in exchange for concessions. In July 2022, the government of Uzbekistan organized an international conference and hoped that at the conference the Taliban would break from al-Qa`ida.23 The Uzbek government initially seemed confident of securing such an agreement, but in the end, the Taliban appear to have refused further discussion on al-Qa`ida and shortly after al-Qa`ida leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was located and targeted in Kabul. Ever since, the Taliban have not indicated that they are open to breaking from or denying haven to al-Qa`ida and other allied groups should the United States concede on political inclusion and human rights concerns.
It is also important to note that the Taliban do not need incentives to target ISK. Their crackdown against ISK is rooted in self-preservation.24 The Taliban see ISK as the main opposition to their rule and legitimacy in the country. Thus, the Taliban are likely to counter ISK irrespective of where the U.S. government stands on inclusion and human rights.
It is also unlikely that U.S. concessions in the form of deprioritizing political inclusion and human rights issues can help forge trust and create cover for joint counterterrorism activities, such as strikes against ISK and a counterterrorism finance system to counter the hawala system. Part of the problem will be on the side of the U.S. government. U.S. domestic law prohibits U.S. personnel from engaging or conspiring in assassination directly and indirectly under Executive Order 12333, also referred to as the assassination ban.25 Such assassinations include killings in violation of the laws of war, including collective punishment practices—which the Taliban, by targeting the country’s salafi population for ties to ISK, are complicit in.j Given how deep-seated security sector pathologies driving civilian harm tend to be, it is unlikely that the U.S. government’s deprioritizing political inclusion and human rights concerns on gender issues will lead to the Taliban adhering to the laws of war for the sake of enhanced counterterrorism cooperation.
On the side of the Taliban, it is plausible that some in the group might be motivated to partner or collaborate with the U.S. government to degrade ISK but that motivation may be trumped by competing considerations. Taliban leader Akhundzada continues to frame the Western world as a long-term adversary, and thus, the appearance of working with the United States, in particular against ISK, is likely to be unacceptable to a core group of the Taliban’s elites, key rank-and-file and supporters, and Taliban-allied terrorist groups. In case of public exposure of cooperation, ISK is also likely to exploit the optics of U.S.-Taliban cooperation to sow divisions in the Taliban. The risk of internal political turmoil and the concern over broader U.S.-Taliban counterterrorism cooperation among Taliban allies may prevent Taliban leadership from going beyond the limited covert information exchanges that have taken place between the CIA and the Taliban.k
Besides political inclusion and human rights issues, another concession implicit in some policy suggestions is that the U.S. government should require less of the Taliban in terms of counterterrorism against terrorist groups allied with the Taliban. This view suggests that pressuring the Taliban into not providing any kind of safe haven and material support to al-Qa`ida among other allied groups hurts American ability to get the Taliban to go after ISK. A core assumption of this view is that the Taliban face an insurmountable domestic political challenge in distancing themselves from jihadi groups, who effectively constitute a key part of their political constituency.26 According to this view, the Taliban also view ISK as positioning to capitalize on any fissures in Taliban ties with their jihadi allies, such as the TTP. Thus, Western pressure on the Taliban to go after Taliban-allied groups risks cohesion stresses and political problems, which further restricts the limited space for cooperation against ISK.
The implication of this view is the U.S. government needs to accept that the Taliban will always provide some kind of haven, even support, to allied terrorist groups, including perhaps al-Qa`ida. The best outcome then is that in exchange for more moderate expectations on counterterrorism focused on one key terrorist group, ISK, the Taliban will compel their allied groups based in Afghanistan to not attack Western and regional countries and cooperate against shared threats like ISK.
The problem with a bargain that settles for the Taliban’s assurances of restraining allied militants is that it will be challenging to trust or enforce for the U.S. and other governments. It is unclear, for instance, what steps and guarantees short of a crackdown might give confidence to any government, in particular the United States, that the Taliban are restraining their militant allies in good faith and the risks remain manageable. Even before the 9/11 attacks, Taliban leaders privately insisted to U.S. officials that expelling al-Qa`ida from Afghanistan was difficult but that they were going to restrain it—an assurance that ultimately did not hold up.27 The Taliban have also provided assurances to Pakistan on the issue of the TTP; however, the TTP’s violence has only grown over time.28
If the United States remains as concerned as it is about Taliban’s allied terrorist eco-system, U.S. counterterrorism priorities are likely to become more challenged as the Taliban become stable and stronger. In case U.S. concern about ISK significantly grows relative to Taliban-allied terrorists, a stable and/or stronger Taliban regime able to fight ISK more effectively may prove to be more desirable. On the other hand, a weaker Taliban regime is also unlikely to advance U.S. counterterrorism priorities; if weakening the Taliban creates a crisis of state authority in the country or paves the way for a civil war, that will create additional risks. Concessions to the Taliban in a bid to empower pragmatic leaders in the Taliban or alleviate the challenge of working with the international community are also unlikely to change this dynamic. The Taliban’s calculus on counterterrorism is, to a significant degree, insulated from incentives by outside powers.
Part Two: Over-the-Horizon Military Action
Since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, the Biden administration has asserted that over-the-horizon action is part of its overall counterterrorism approach.29 Yet U.S. counterterrorism targeting tempo in Afghanistan has dropped to the lowest point in 20 years. Since the U.S. withdrawal, there has been one drone strike in Afghanistan (against al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri in July 2022). According to CENTCOM, until March, it had carried out two other “non-kinetic” actions30—which possibly is a reference to aerial shows of force or cyber actions—but no other targeting actions.
This limited targeting tempo is not because of diminished threats from Afghanistan. The administration continues to assess a growing ISK threat of external attacks from Afghanistan compared to the pre-withdrawal period.31 In his 2023 Senate hearing, CENTCOM Commander General Kurilla noted a high risk of ISK attacks enabled from Afghanistan against U.S. citizens, allies, and partners in Europe and Central Asia and lower risk of attacks against the U.S. homeland.32 The Biden administration relies on the Taliban to curtail at least some of the terrorist threats—and observes that Taliban crackdown against ISK has become more effective. However, despite the Taliban targeting some ISK operatives and the United States and the Taliban collaborating against ISK, top ISK leaders still remain at large. One of those leaders is the emir of ISK, Shahab al-Muhajir, who sanctioned the August 2021 attack at the Hamid Karzai Airport in Kabul airport during the U.S. military evacuation. Additionally, the U.S. government has detected the presence of al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operatives in Afghanistan,33 l who have the support of the Taliban.
One explanation for the low targeting tempo of last two years, despite these persistent threats, is that the current posture is constrained by limited surveillance resources and the resulting lack of intelligence in Afghanistan to locate high-value targets, such as ISK leader al-Muhajir. Indeed, since the U.S. military drawdown from Afghanistan, the U.S. government’s intelligence resources inside the country stand considerably reduced. CENTCOM Commander General Kurilla has publicly noted that intelligence collection capabilities in support of over-the-horizon mission are deficient in human sources, technical collection, and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets.34 Kurilla has emphasized the shortfall in available ISR resources, noting that they are spending most of their time in “transit”—most likely a reference to the long travel time between military bases in the Middle East via Pakistani airspace into Afghanistan. He has also noted the ISR coverage degradation is greater than 80 percent compared to the pre-withdrawal period.35 Such a degradation in ISR coverage not only diminishes imagery-based intelligence collection but also signals and communication intelligence collection through sensors hoisted on ISR platforms. Kurilla has also indicated gaps in analytic capabilities required to process the available intelligence due to redirection of analytic talent under the 2022 National Defense Strategy. The net effect is that the U.S. military “lacks the granularity to see the full picture,” which possibly precludes the timely detection of threats and, in case where threats are located, their reliable targeting.36
The low targeting tempo may also be driven by restrictive policy on counterterrorism action outside of areas of active hostilities under the Biden administration’s international counterterrorism strategy. The new strategy, formulated in 2022, narrows the scope of military action in support of counterterrorism operations, raising the bar on unilateral military action and the approval required for kinetic activity to unspecified imminent level of threat.37 Moreover, both the U.S. military and the CIA are required to obtain advance permission from the president to target terrorists.m
The ongoing level of resourcing and policy restriction may also intend to reinforce the administration’s political goal of not exacerbating tensions with the Taliban.38 The administration appears to want tensions with the Taliban and the broader conflict in Afghanistan to not be a distraction amid intensifying strategic competition with China and Russia. A higher tempo of operations in Afghanistan will likely bring greater domestic political attention on Afghanistan and raise uncomfortable questions about the U.S. withdrawal in 2021 and whether Afghanistan is once again a safe haven of international terrorists—conversations that the administration prefers to avoid.
Adjusting the Over-the-Horizon Approach
Senior U.S. officials have noted that the United States retains the capability to use force over-the-horizon, citing the strike against al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri in July 2022 as evidence of that.n However, beyond the general claim of possessing such a capability, the administration has not publicly outlined a concept of operations or a doctrinal approach of how the over-the-horizon approach can protect U.S. interests. For instance, it is not clear what the end-state of the current approach is beyond occasional leadership decapitation, which a large body of research shows is ineffective against mature, older groups.39 Partly for that reason, in over-the-horizon campaigns over the last decade, the United States moved beyond a decapitation-centric approach and outlined relatively concrete logics of limiting terrorist capabilities, such as degrading the transnational terrorist network (Pakistan) and disrupting the external plotting capability (Yemen).o It is possible that the administration has similar logics of how the ongoing military approach can reduce threats, but the publicly observable dimensions of the over-the-horizon approach, such as the frequency of kinetic strikes relative to targets in the area of operation, the level of surveillance activity in the country, and the communication approach accompanying the over-the-horizon mission, do not indicate a clear logic for mitigating threats.
How can the current posture be adjusted? To exert more pressure on and mitigate the terrorist threat from Afghanistan, one set of options involves moving the over-the-horizon approach toward an explicit coercive approach. As Alexander Downs has argued, “[Coercion] utilizes force — or threats of force — to propel a target to take an action, or to stop taking an action it has already started.”40 In the context of Afghanistan, such a coercive approach can seek to prevent terrorism by combining threats and actual use of force to compel the Taliban to restrain and limit the activities of its terrorist allies and also act against ISK. Doing so requires identifying a specific target set, adequate resources, and clear and credible signaling measures, which are discussed in the next section.
Will such a coercive approach be effective? The outcome of any coercive exercise depends on the coercer understanding the target’s “fears, vulnerabilities, and interests — as well as its willingness to endure pain on behalf of those interests.”41 In line with that, analysts argue that coercive efforts against the Taliban are likely to fail as they have a high threshold of pain, having proven insular to military pressure as an insurgency and even now remain resistant to external pressure. This is an important argument against a coercive approach resting on military tools, and thus, it is challenging to confidently say whether these counterterrorism postures individually or as a combination might work. However, the Taliban, as a state actor, appear more vulnerable to targeting pressures. By repeatedly asking for the names of their top leaders to be dropped from U.S. “blacklists” and complaining about aerial surveillance in country, the Taliban indicate a desire to alleviate such risks.p The Taliban also seek to project sovereignty and security over Afghanistan, protect their leadership and stabilize their regime, and worry about domestic political backlash in case of American targeting—goals that are likely to be compromised by calibrated military pressure. This suggests there are pathways to bring pressure on the Taliban.
Policymakers can choose one or a combination of three different types of coercive postures to mitigate threats from Afghanistan: 1) monitoring of and use of force against detected terrorist activities in Afghanistan to dissuade the Taliban from providing support and leaving space for such activity (detection posture); 2) threats of and use of lethal and non-lethal actions against specific transnational terrorism plotting capabilities to limit the opportunities and resources necessary for transnational terrorism (denial posture); 3) threats of punishment against the Taliban in case of terrorism against U.S. interests to dissuade terrorists and the Taliban engaging in undesirable behavior (punishment posture). In addition to their distinct logic of coercion, each posture also purports to hold different targets at risk, presents different resourcing choices, involves unique set of signaling measures, and generates varied risks of Taliban retaliation. These dimensions are discussed for each posture individually and summarized in Table 1 (see Appendix).
Under this approach, coercive effects are sought primarily through credible monitoring efforts.42 The logic behind the approach is that “potential transgressors are less likely to transgress if they believe they are being watched.”43 Such beliefs can be influenced through a robust signaling approach to influence both the Taliban and the terrorist groups into believing that they are being monitored. It is possible that some elements of this posture are being implemented under the current over-the-horizon posture. However, what distinguishes the proposed posture is its resource levels, which are higher compared to the current level, and public signaling features, which are absent in the ongoing approach.
A detection approach requires regular monitoring of geographies where terrorist groups are generally active. An intensive posture can be intended for “real-time, persistent situational awareness in key geographic areas,” which requires orders of magnitude increase in various surveillance resources, including drone orbits for Afghanistan.44 A cost-effective approach can aim for periodic monitoring cycles with visible increase in surveillance activity from the current level to monitor different parts of the country. In both cases, the U.S. government will be able to supplement its collection of communication and signals intelligence through sensors on ISR platforms. In case the U.S. government is not already gathering Afghanistan’s cellular network, such a collection effort may also be required.
To credibly signal that terrorist activity is being monitored, the U.S. military needs to communicate that monitoring of the terrorist activity in the country remains underway and that there is no place for terrorists to hide. Such statements can be validated by declassifying details on detected terrorist activity, similar to the declassification of information of Russian activities in Ukraine. Other measures to improve the credibility of monitoring include persistent visible surveillance as well as limited strikes against terrorist activity in country. A proximate regional base to fly drones from will improve monitoring by reducing ISR degradation in transit times and in turn signal the credibility of the detection posture.
One of the main constraints on realizing such a posture is the availability of funds and policymaker interest and attention. The level of resourcing outlined above would require an increase in CENTCOM and the intelligence community’s budget for the over-the-horizon mission, redirection of some pre-existing capabilities (such as MQ-9s) and induction of new ones (such as alternate airborne ISR platforms and armed overwatch aircraft, among others), as well as investment of political capital to negotiate basing with a regional country. Amid the resource needs for intensifying strategic competition, such additional demands for a counterterrorism mission will be met with considerable policymaker skepticism. At the same time, the ongoing level of resourcing for the over-the-horizon posture appears relatively affordable and with space for spending increase. For example, U.S. CENTCOM and AFRICOM CJTF-Horn of Africa’s total budget has decreased from around $50 billion for FY2021 to around $20 billion for FY2024 (requested)—a fraction of which is likely devoted to the over-the-horizon mission in Afghanistan.q Moderate spending increases from this level to support additional capability and security cooperation expenses to implement an improved even if sub-optimal posture is difficult but not impossible—and that too without offsetting the Department of Defense’s major program priorities related to Integrated Deterrence. Nevertheless, it requires policymakers to trade resourcing both in cost and capability as well as attention from some other priority.
The other constraint to such a posture is the risk of Taliban retaliation. That risk is likely to be higher than the risk of the current posture but not acute. While the Taliban have complained about U.S. surveillance flights over Afghanistan and the strike against al-Qa`ida leader al-Zawahiri in their dialogue with U.S. diplomats, they have not specified a clear public response to either the surveillance activity or the threat of occasional strikes in the country—which suggests that the Taliban have not determined a threshold of surveillance and kinetic activity beyond which they will engage in retaliatory action.45 Still, it is possible that as surveillance activity over Afghanistan expands under a detection posture, the Taliban clarify the acceptable threshold of ISR activity beyond which they will retaliate against the United States. And they may not view occasional strikes to signal credibility of monitoring as merely a limited defensive action.
A denial posture requires threats of strikes and actual strikes against key terrorist leaders involved specifically in plotting activities and any Taliban leaders who might be assisting those terrorists. The logic of doing so is that it will dissuade terrorists from plotting and the Taliban from supporting, allowing, or letting those involved to plot from the country. A denial posture requires bringing monitoring and, at times, targeting pressure against specific nodes of terrorist groups engaged in transnational operations and plotting (including al-Qa`ida and ISK) as well as against Taliban leaders and operatives enabling terrorists in the country (like Taliban leaders known to have supported al-Qa`ida, such as Sirajuddin Haqqani).r
The resource requirements for such a posture are likely higher than the current level of resources but not necessarily higher than the detection posture. A denial posture requires an increase in intelligence and surveillance resources to identify and then locate key leaders and operatives involved in transnational operations and plotting. In order to bring the targeted surveillance against the accurate nodes within terrorist groups and the Taliban leadership assisting and supporting terrorists, higher levels of human intelligence resources in addition to signals and imagery intelligence through ISR platforms are likely required to locate the leaders and operatives. Such precise information generally requires diligent and sustained efforts at infiltrating terrorist networks. The aggregate level of ISR resources may end up lower than what might be deployed as part of the detection posture.
Under this posture, the U.S. military needs to sustain significant pressure against terrorist leaders and operatives involved in transnational plotting in order to limit the opportunities available to them for transnational terrorism. Washington also needs to convey to the Taliban not only privately but also through public statements the details on detected plotting activity. Other measures to improve the credibility of denial efforts include persistent surveillance of terrorist nodes suspected to be involved in plotting as well as occasional lethal and non-lethal actions against them. Lethal actions can include strikes against terrorists engaged in plotting or the facilities being used by them to plot terrorist actions. Non-lethal actions can include offensive cyber actions against the terrorists’ command-and-control infrastructure.
Much like the detection posture, this posture will be constrained by the availability of funds and, in turn, policymaker skepticism to devote additional resources and attention. However, if we assume ISR-related increases to be the biggest expenses in additional resourcing, the spending increase for a denial posture from the current level may be lower than what might be required under a monitoring posture. Still, ramping up human intelligence capabilities in support of the posture may prove to be harder—not for reason of cost but for how scarce such capabilities are and their relative importance in other theaters relevant to strategic competition priorities.
The risk of attacks to a denial posture, including Taliban retaliation, is high, which may constrain the adoption of the posture. Taliban leadership reportedly worries about American targeting.46 While such sensitivity is indicative of the coercive potential of a denial posture, it also creates the risk of a spiral of escalation. One possibility is that after strikes and non-lethal actions disrupting plotting activities, the Taliban, instead of backing off from assisting terrorist groups in the country, would escalate attacks against U.S. interests through direct or proxy means. Similarly, terrorist leaders of al-Qa`ida and/or the Islamic State involved in live plots may act preemptively and expedite their plots upon becoming a focus of persistent U.S. surveillance.
A punishment posture requires the U.S. government to credibly threaten retributive punishment in the form of major damage to the Taliban leadership and/or infrastructure in case of attacks against the United States or U.S. interests. The logic of doing so is that such punishment threats will dissuade the Taliban from supporting and materially assisting their allied terrorist groups and also compel the Taliban to take limit space for terrorists in the country.
A punishment posture does not require a visible increase in surveillance activity or human intelligence resources for coercive effect. However, it requires the threat of punishment to the Taliban—that in case of an attack, there will be major consequences for the Taliban and their leadership—to be credible. This may be achieved in one of two ways. First, it can be obtained through explicit and credible messaging that in case of a major attack from Afghanistan, military consequences will follow. American political leadership will have to affirm such threats publicly, signaling to the Taliban that by making a commitment before the American public to punish them, they have “tied their hands” and will have to hit back in case of terrorist activity from Afghanistan because that is a promise made before the American public. Second, credibility of the posture can be conveyed by signaling “sunk costs”—for example, by pre-positioning assets at bases closer to Afghanistan, either in Pakistan or Central Asia, and making it clear to the Taliban that the United States remains both resolved and optimally positioned to strike against them.47 For now, the U.S. government has not signaled availability of such basing access, possibly because it lacks access for such basing in the region.s
The resource requirements and the operating costs of a punishment posture will be significantly lower than detection and denial postures. In case the threat of punishment is reinforced with sporadic shows of force through manned or unmanned aircraft over Afghanistan, it may be more resource intensive than the current posture. The main cost of a punishment posture is likely to be the political capital required to negotiating a basing arrangement for pre-positioning assets closer to Afghanistan; that may also require a one-time investment to develop a base. In addition, the risk of Taliban retaliation against the United States as well as the country that will agree to host a U.S. military base, possibly Pakistan or a Central Asian republic, may be significant. The Taliban may look to coerce that country into closing down such access to the United States by targeting it through attacks via allied terrorist groups. However, pre-positioning of assets near Afghanistan is not vital to the credibility of the posture, so long as the U.S. government has reliable air space access into Afghanistan.
Part Three: The Threat to Pakistan
Pakistan faces an increasingly formidable threat from the insurgency of the TTP.48 This threat is driven by the safe haven and support the Taliban are providing the TTP, as well as an expanding cadre of fighters who have relocated to Pakistan from Afghanistan over the last two years.49 It is also a function of Pakistan’s historical support for the Taliban as an insurgency, which created space for the TTP to operate, and longstanding governance challenges along the country’s western border, which sustain the group. A fundamental question on this threat is: To what extent is the TTP a counterterrorism challenge for the United States? And what should U.S. response strategy be to the TTP’s growing threat? There are three possible views on the nature of the TTP threat with varied implications for the United States and the kind of policy effort required in response.
The dominant view on the TTP among policymakers and analysts is that the TTP is not a threat to the United States.50 This view is partly rooted in a sentiment of schadenfreude. U.S. officials remember Pakistan’s efforts to undermine the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan and the country’s dangerous brinksmanship with terrorist proxies, such as the Haqqani Network and the anti-India Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Muhammed.51 But it goes beyond lack of sympathy for Pakistan’s troubles due to Pakistan’s past behavior. There are objective reasons for policymakers and strategists to view the threat of the TTP to U.S. interests as being minimal compared to the past.
In the decade after its formation, the TTP threatened the United States in several ways. For much of the period, it was fighting with the Taliban in the insurgency against the U.S. military in Afghanistan. It also targeted U.S. personnel. In December 2009, it conducted a joint operation with al-Qa`ida to infiltrate a suicide bomber at a forward base in eastern Afghanistan, which killed multiple CIA officers.52 In May 2010, the TTP attempted an attack in New York City’s Times Square, which failed.53
However, over the last few years, the TTP has not targeted U.S. personnel or citizens. The group’s messaging has distanced itself from transnational aims, claiming that it has no direct aims against the United States and is primarily focused on the local agenda against Pakistan.54 This shift and the ongoing local focus of the TTP is best summarized by Tore Hamming and Abdul Sayed in their May 2023 CTC Sentinel analysis: “Another defining feature of the TTP’s early history was its simultaneous external focus … However, under its current emir, Mufti Noor Wali Mehsud, the TTP publicly [has] disowned any transnational or regional agenda.”55
The policy implication of this assessment is that the United States should steer clear of backing Pakistan against the TTP, or at least limit its support, because it poses no direct threat to U.S. interests. A related implication is that the best way for the United States to preserve its own security is by not getting entangled in Pakistan’s fight against the TTP or, for that matter, Pakistan’s escalating confrontation with the Taliban over the safe haven problem.56 Such prioritization also comports with the Biden administration’s broader counterterrorism strategy, which seeks to ruthlessly prioritize threats relevant to U.S. interests.57
A second view on the TTP is that it remains an unpredictable medium- and long-term threat. This view holds that even though the TTP’s ongoing threat to the United States is ambiguous for now, that can easily change in the future. This may happen if there is a leadership change in the TTP, major geopolitical event, or incident that compels the TTP to rethink its aims. It is also possible that once the group gains territory in Pakistan, it may revise its currently limited aims and expand targets to U.S. citizens and interests. This view questions the assumption that growing capabilities of jihadi groups with local aims stay localized. Indeed, such assumptions have been proven wrong in the past. For example, when al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula emerged in 2009, it was viewed as a problem local to Yemen.58 Yet, the group quickly ramped up plotting against the United States and attempted several attacks. In the same period, the TTP was seen as a local threat before it went on to directly plot and target the United States. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s militant ecosystem is rife with narratives of both al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State on the importance of transnational attacks. Thus, the matter of which jihadi groups in the region, as they gain power, will threaten U.S. interests and which ones will not is not always clear and predictable.
Additionally, even as the TTP claims to have become more local in its focus, the group continues to incubate direct threats to the United States. Elements of al-Qa`ida and its South Asia affiliate, AQIS, continue to shelter behind the TTP in Afghanistan.59 This has been also pointed out in recent reporting of the United Nations Monitoring Team on al-Qa`ida and the Islamic State, and is indicated in AQIS’ propaganda output, which backs the TTP’s campaign in Pakistan.60 If the TTP gains territory in Pakistani tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan, it is plausible that al-Qa`ida and AQIS as well as other groups of foreign fighters in Afghanistan may also find a haven in Pakistan in TTP-controlled territories. More generally, there is little reason to trust TTP’s public positions. It is possible what the group states publicly reflects its true intentions, but it can also be a strategic choice to deflect U.S. pressure for now.
The policy implication of this second view is that the U.S. government should look to contain the TTP preventively instead of waiting for its threat to metastasize and become more potent.
Another plausible view is that beyond the direct threat that the TTP may pose to U.S. territories, interests, or persons, an important way in which the TTP can threaten U.S. interests is by seriously destabilizing Pakistan and becoming a regional security threat. A longstanding American priority in Pakistan has been to ensure the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons and materials and preventing them from falling in the wrong hands. In September 2022, this priority was affirmed by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Indo-Pacific Security Affairs Ely Ratner, who stated that “U.S. interest associated with our defense partnership with Pakistan … is primarily focused on counterterrorism and nuclear security.”61 Such a concern is not limited to the United States. According to the U.N. monitoring team, multiple countries are concerned that the TTP can become a regional security challenge “if it continues to have a safe operating base in Afghanistan.”62
The policy implication of this view is also that the United States should look to contain the TTP before it morphs into a bigger regional security challenge.
Options, Limits, and Tradeoffs
If U.S. policymakers conclude that the TTP does not present a threat to the United States or its interests, they will believe no major policy effort is required. Some policymakers might see counterterrorism assistance to Pakistan as buying them leverage in the bilateral relationship with Pakistan, which continues to become narrower compared to the past. If so, they might turn to some of the options discussed in the capacity building section below. On the other hand, if policymakers assess that the TTP presents an unpredictable, medium-term threat to U.S. security or see the TTP as threatening the stability of Pakistan and therefore needs to be vigorously mitigated, they can choose among or a combination of three options: capacity-building, intelligence-sharing, and targeting assistance. Among these, intelligence sharing may offer the most upside at mitigating the threat of the TTP with manageable political and legal challenges, whereas capacity building may prove ineffective and targeting assistance will present the highest risk of blowback.
This line of effort requires provision of some type of security and civilian assistance to boost Pakistani capacity to counter such threats. Civilian assistance can support governance and law enforcement capacity building in Pakistan’s northwest and security assistance can range from provision of counterterrorism hardware, such as counter-IED equipment, to training programs that improve Pakistan’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities.
However, there will be abundant skepticism of providing greater civilian and security assistance to Pakistan given ineffective efforts over a decade ago when the U.S. government was engaged in a largescale effort to support Pakistan’s governance reform and boost the country’s counterinsurgency and counterterrorism capabilities.63 Policymakers will correctly view Pakistan’s governance and security approach as an obstacle to capacity-building efforts. The country’s economy and domestic politics remain in a tailspin. Governance along the country’s northwest has deteriorated instead of improving and failed to address local grievances, which have fueled the insurgency. Pakistani state policies have also alienated local population due to coercive counterinsurgency methods and crackdowns against nationalist political actors, adding to domestic political dysfunction that benefits the TTP.
There will be other concerns, such as security assistance programs not being implemented by Pakistan. Policymakers will also be very sensitive to the possibility that security assistance intended for counterterrorism might be repurposed in military operations against India, which has happened in the past.64 And if assistance efforts require U.S. personnel to be on the ground in Pakistan, especially in the country’s northwest, the TTP can attack U.S. persons, similar to what the TTP has done against Chinese workers in the past.
Finally, policymakers will be right to question the marginal impact of assistance on Pakistan’s campaign against the TTP. Given the scale of the challenge Pakistan faces and the limited capacity-building assistance the United States may be willing and able to offer at a time of intensifying strategic competition, the impact of U.S. capacity-building efforts in mitigating the TTP’s threat will likely be minimal. Thus, even after provision of the assistance, the Pakistani government will ultimately have to manage the crisis on its own—and policymakers may view Pakistan’s leverage on the Taliban, who are backing the TTP, as much more useful than any capacity building the United States could provide.
Another option to assist Pakistani action against the TTP can be intelligence sharing. Potential information that the United States may be able to share includes intelligence on battlefield awareness, TTP leadership locations and activities captured directly and incidentally in U.S. surveillance operations in Afghanistan, and areas with civilian presence. There is ample precedence of intelligence sharing between the U.S. government and Pakistan on the TTP over the last two decades, and some exchanges might still be ongoing. When the TTP’s insurgency first emerged in the late 2000s, the United States shared intelligence, including ISR information, with Pakistan.65 Some of this was done by the CIA as part of the U.S. drone war in Pakistan.66 A different line of intelligence sharing was maintained by the U.S. military; U.S. surveillance aircraft flew into Pakistan airspace, feeding information to Pakistani intelligence fusion centers that the U.S. military helped develop.67 Other forms of technical and human intelligence were also frequently shared with Pakistan, which fed into Pakistani targeting, and allowed Pakistan to weaken the TTP.68
American intelligence would offer significant value to Pakistan on the battlefield, allowing Pakistani forces to improve its defensive posture and act more precisely in offensive actions against the TTP. As such sharing will not be visible by dint of being covert and targeting actions are unlikely to be attributable to the United States, the risk of retaliation against the United States is likely to be minimal. However, it is unclear if the two sides are interoperable enough for meaningful intelligence exchanges. U.S.-Pakistan intelligence-sharing mechanisms have significantly diminished over time, partly due to distrust in the relationship over Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban.69 Still CENTCOM appears to have some infrastructure in place for intelligence sharing.70 For example, in August 2023, Pakistan renewed an interoperability agreement with the U.S. military called the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement, or CISMOA, which can enable some intelligence sharing, but it is unclear if that will be sufficient for sharing of ISR data.
Intelligence sharing with Pakistan will confront political and legal challenges, but those can be manageable. In the past, the U.S. government worried about Pakistan passing intelligence to its militant allies like the Haqqani Network; such concerns will apply for a broader sharing arrangement covering a range of groups but may be less acute if the focus of the exchanges is the TTP. Additionally, there will be concerns that intelligence shared with Pakistan can lead to violations of U.S. domestic law, in particular if the shared intelligence results in Pakistan actions that contravene the law of armed conflict in the form of intentional civilian harm or extrajudicial actions against combatant detainees. The most relevant restriction is the assassination ban under Executive Order 12333, which prohibits U.S. government personnel from engaging or conspiring in assassination and prohibits U.S. intelligence community personnel from indirectly participating in assassination.71 The executive order does not define assassination, but it has been interpreted to include killings that violate the law of war such as the summary execution of detainees or the targeting of civilians.72 On the other hand, intelligence sharing that contributes to precise Pakistani targeting of the TTP will not be in violation of Executive Order 12333 so long as the U.S. government determines that Pakistan is in an armed conflict with the TTP such that the law of war applies. As per the DoD’s past interpretation of the law, lawful measures by a partner force in self-defense or targeting consistent with the law of war (e.g., against enemy fighters/soldiers) do not constitute “assassinations.”73 This might explain how, a decade and more back, legal concerns over U.S. information sharing to Pakistan were navigated and the U.S. government shared different types of information, which enabled Pakistani targeting actions.
The highest form of help the United States can extend to Pakistan is targeting the TTP. From 2004 till 2018, the United States targeted leaders and operatives of the Pakistani Taliban in hundreds of strikes in Pakistani tribal areas and Afghanistan.74 These strikes led to the killing of the TTP’s top leadership, including all three top leaders of the TTP: Baitullah Mehsud in 2009, Hakimullah Mehsud in 2013, and Mullah Fazlullah in 2018.75 When the threat escalated against Pakistan in the late 2000s, the U.S. government also carried out strikes on Pakistan’s requests.76 The TTP, in turn, came to fear American surveillance and targeting pressures. In his writings, TTP chief Noor Wali Mehsud admitted that the decline of the TTP from 2011 to 2017 was due to the targeting pressure of U.S. drone strikes, arguing that the strikes greatly weakened the group.77
In line with past efforts, the United States can target the TTP in lethal action. Whereas previous targeting against the TTP was focused inside Pakistan with limited targeting in Afghanistan, this time, given much of the TTP leadership is in Afghanistan, any potential targeting effort will have to be geared toward Afghanistan. This will require expanding the over-the-horizon posture’s targets, covering the TTP in addition to al-Qa`ida and ISK. A non-lethal mode of targeting to disrupt the TTP’s operations can be cyber actions. The U.S. government can use offensive cyber actions to thwart the TTP’s command and control methods as well as propaganda, which remains prolific.78 Both lines of effort have significant potential to be effective at degrading the TTP’s capabilities.
However, under the Biden’s administration’s Presidential Policy Memo on counterterrorism, targeting decisions require an approval by the president himself, and it is unclear whether President Biden will view the TTP’s threat in Pakistan as important enough to sanction targeting and take on the risk of the TTP’s retaliation against U.S. interests—which can be significant.79 Last year, President Biden opined80 that he continues to worry about the security of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons program, but he has given no indication whether he will be willing to sanction direct action in an attempt to alleviate threats to and from within Pakistan.
Moreover, given the possibility that such targeting can invite retaliatory action by terrorists against U.S. presence in Pakistan, the cost of securing U.S. personnel and hardening the U.S. presence in Pakistan and the broader region against TTP threats will have to be ascertained. However, the United States may have to harden its security posture in Pakistan and the broader region regardless of the TTP threat given that there are various other threats, including AQIS and ISK. If targeting against the TTP takes place in Afghanistan, it will also add to U.S. tensions with the Taliban. The risk of civilian harm in any campaign of strikes in the region may also be considerable.
There is also the question of whether the administration has the legal authority for targeting the TTP, given ongoing congressional efforts to reform war authorizations.81 Over the last two decades, the administration has relied on the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (2001 AUMF), which is the main statutory authority for military action against “associated forces” of al-Qa`ida and the Taliban and later the Islamic State, to target the TTP. This justification was possibly substantiated by the TTP’s targeting of U.S. personnel in 2009 and plotting against the U.S. homeland in 2010. In recent testimony, CENTCOM chief General Kurilla observed that the 2001 AUMF remains the basis for counterterrorism operations in the region,82 but it is unclear if that still extends to the TTP. Overall, U.S. targeting of the TTP remains a challenging proposition, facing several political and legal obstacles.
A responsible counterterrorism approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan merits sustained vigilance and mitigation effort—but two years into Taliban rule, such an approach is far from straightforward. Policymakers should be clear-eyed about the challenging trade-offs in options available toward the Taliban. Military options that can enhance the current over-the-horizon posture demand increased resources and entail politically risky adjustments. Addressing the threat in Pakistan also presents substantial resourcing, political, and legal challenges.
In the face of these difficult choices, policymakers may be tempted to downplay the salience of the terrorism challenge for U.S. interests. They may point to the current level of threat, in particular that posed by al-Qa`ida, falling short of the worst-case scenarios that were feared at the time of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. However, they should remain mindful of the medium- to long-term challenge to U.S. interests if the threats continue to metastasize at the current rate, which is concerning enough. Indeed, as the terrorist attack by Hamas in Israel on October 7, 2023, demonstrates, the U.S. government’s ability to predict a surprise terrorist attack from an area with limited on-the-ground presence is weak and thus, the risk of a surprise attack is considerable.
To justify the current level of investment and the overall lack of emphasis, policymakers can also lean into the belief that terrorism and counterterrorism are inconsequential to the broader strategic competition agenda with China and Russia and need to be deprioritized to advance strategic competition priorities. Ongoing events in the Middle East clearly show that such a binary approach may ultimately prove short-sighted, as terrorism risks can present major challenges on their own and in turn come in the way of the strategic competition agenda.
Ultimately, policymakers also should remain mindful of the terrorism risk acceptable to the American people and whether they, given the lingering shadow of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, will accept reduced vigilance against the threats emanating from Afghanistan and Pakistan. Americans may not actively demand vigilance as they have in the past yet expect to be protected from the threats of violence emanating from overseas, including from Afghanistan and Pakistan. CTC
Asfandyar Mir is a Senior Expert in the South Asia program at the United States Institute of Peace.
© 2023 Asfandyar Mir
[a] According to the current director of NCTC, “Twenty-two years later, a new intelligence assessment states al-Qa`ida is at its historical nadir in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and its revival is unlikely. It has lost target access, leadership talent, group cohesion, rank-and-file commitment, and an accommodating local environment.” “9/11 Statement from National Counterterrorism Center Director Christy Abizaid,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, September 11, 2023. See also Natasha Bertrand and Katie Bo Lillis, “New US intelligence suggests al Qaeda unlikely to revive in Afghanistan, but officials warn ISIS threat remains,” CNN, September 8, 2023, and David Ignatius, “In Afghanistan, the Taliban has all but extinguished al-Qaeda,” Washington Post, September 14, 2023.
[b] According to the National Counterterrorism Center, “ISIS-Khorasan’s increased external focus is probably the most concerning development. However, the branch has so far primarily relied on inexperienced operatives in Europe to try to advance attacks in its name.” National Counterterrorism Center’s Senior Analysts, “Calibrated Counterterrorism: Actively Suppressing International Terrorism,” CTC Sentinel 16:8 (2023). According to reporting by The Washington Post, “Pentagon officials were aware in December of nine such plots coordinated by ISIS leaders in Afghanistan, and the number rose to 15 by February.” Dan Lamothe and Joby Warrick, “Afghanistan has become a terrorism staging ground again, leak reveals,” Washington Post, April 22, 2023. For more on one previous plot, see Nodirbek Soliev, “The April 2020 Islamic State Terror Plot Against U.S. and NATO Military Bases in Germany: The Tajik Connection,” CTC Sentinel 14:1 (2021).
[c] According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, ISK has attracted “Central Asian recruits and supporters from Europe despite the Taliban’s counterterrorism efforts.” “Operation Enduring Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, January 1, 2023 – March 31, 2023,” Office of Inspector General, May 2023.
[d] The Biden administration has not released an official public counterterrorism strategy for Afghanistan.
[e] According to Dipali Mukhopadhyay, “A more powerful Taliban, wrapped in unmatched glory, might make room for other extremists to flourish, just as they did in the 1990s.” See “The Taliban Have Not Moderated,” Foreign Affairs, March 28, 2022. According to Thomas Joscelyn, “We should be clear about the nature of the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate. It is an authoritarian regime that will impose its draconian laws on the Afghan population. The Taliban and al-Qaeda fought for two decades for this very purpose — to rule according to their version of sharia.” Thomas Joscelyn, “Afghanistan’s Future: Assessing the National Security, Humanitarian and Economic Implications of the Taliban Takeover,” Foundation for Defense of Democracies, October 5, 2021. According to Laurel Miller, a weaker Taliban regime presents different risks: “It is clearly in U.S. national security interests to keep Afghanistan from becoming a failed state that international terrorist groups could use as a training ground and safe haven. There is also the risk of an internationally isolated and impoverished Taliban becoming reliant on heroin sales for income, turning the country into a narco-state.” Rachel Oswald, “Work with, or Isolate, the Taliban is a Tough Choice for US,” Roll Call, November 3, 2021.
[f] According to Lisa Curtis and Nader Nadery, “Getting tougher on the Taliban would … mean working closely with the United Nations and like-minded countries to impose consequences on the Taliban for their unacceptable behavior and withholding high-level engagement with the group until its leadership pursues more moderate policies.” See Lisa Curtis and Nader Nadery, “Time To Get Tough on the Taliban,” Foreign Affairs, September 19, 2022. See also Annie Pforzheimer and Shabnam Nasmi, “Thanks to the Taliban, Afghanistan is once again a hotbed of terrorism,” Hill, July 6, 2023, and Luke Coffey, “US Has an Opportunity to Support the National Resistance Front of Afghanistan,” Hudson Institute, September 21, 2022.
[g] U.S. official sources, similar to the Defense Intelligence Agency, have noted as recently as 2023 that the Taliban are supporting elements of both al-Qa`ida core and AQIS while noting that the two entities are limited in capacity: “This quarter, the Taliban almost certainly provided covert sanctuary to legacy al-Qaeda members and their families residing in Afghanistan, according to the DIA … According to the most recent estimates, AQIS has about 200 members in Afghanistan.” See “Operation Enduring Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, January 1, 2023 – March 31, 2023.”
[h] According to Ahmad and London, “The United States needs to confront this radical reality with an equally radical response … Such an engagement with the Taliban’s true powerbrokers in Kandahar should require conditions … These should include guaranteeing the safety of foreign personnel who work on the ground with the Afghan people, delegating control of humanitarian aid disbursement to neutral parties, cooperating against the Islamic State, and taking credible actions to constrain, if not expel, al Qaeda. In return, the U.S. government could tie the easing of sanctions to improved behavior. But the United States would be on shaky ground demanding that Kandahar meet conditions about women’s rights and democratic ideals as a first step, given Washington’s record in overlooking such matters with partners such as Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia.” Javid Ahmad and Douglas London, “It’s Time To Recognize the Taliban,” Foreign Policy, May 23, 2023.
[i] This view is important to consider as it is reportedly espoused by parts of the U.S. government. According to David Ignatius, “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. U.S. officials say they have generally lived up to that commitment … Against the renegade ISIS-K, the Taliban has conducted a brutal but effective campaign. ‘The Taliban has intensified [counterterror] operations this year, which prompted some ISIS-K leaders to relocate to outside of Afghanistan,’ notes the declassified intelligence findings, adding that ‘Taliban raids in Afghanistan have removed at least eight key ISIS-K leaders.’” Ignatius, “In Afghanistan, the Taliban has all but extinguished al-Qaeda.” According to a 2022 declassified National Intelligence Estimate, “Thus far, the Taliban’s strictures have by and large been observed by al-Qa’ida.” “Prospects for al-Qa’ida in Afghanistan and Globally Through 2024,” National Intelligence Council, September 16, 2022.
[j] According to the International Crisis Group, “Because IS-KP members are mostly Salafis, the Taliban imposed blanket restrictions on that religious minority, inflaming tensions with its members. Following IS-KP attacks in late 2021, the Taliban partially closed down Salafi madrasas in the IS-KP strongholds of Nangarhar, Nuristan and Kunar provinces, and some farther away in Kunduz, Takhar and Balkh provinces. Some Salafi scholars and seminary teachers turned up dead with notes pinned to their bodies accusing them of being IS-KP supporters.” “Afghanistan’s Security Challenges under the Taliban,” International Crisis Group, August 12, 2022.
[k] Press reports suggest that the CIA’s information sharing with the Taliban does not include targeting data. According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, “The CIA shares counterterrorism information with the Taliban, the senior administration official said, but not targeting data or ‘actionable intelligence.’” See Ignatius, “In Afghanistan, the Taliban has all but extinguished al-Qaeda.” This might be due to EO 12333 considerations.
[l] After the U.S. government’s designation announcement, the United Nations Monitoring Team also noted AQIS leaders Osama Mehmood, Atif Yahya Ghouri, and Muhammad Maruf to be in Afghanistan. “Fourteenth report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2665 (2022) concerning the Taliban and other associated individuals and entities constituting a threat to the peace stability and security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council, May 2, 2023. Mehmood was one of the masterminds of the 2014 plot to hijack and attack U.S. and Indian navies in the Arabian Sea. See Osama Mehmood, “Operation against the American Navy by the Mujahideen: Reasons and Objectives,” Resurgence 1 (Fall 2014): pp. 8-9 and “Press Release Regarding Targeting of American and Indian Navies,” As-Sahab Subcontinent, September 27, 2014.
[m] “U.S. military and C.I.A. drone operators generally must obtain advance permission from President Biden to target a suspected militant outside a conventional war zone, and they must have ‘near certainty’ at the moment of any strike that civilians will not be injured, newly declassified rules show.” Charlie Savage, “Biden Rules Tighten Limits on Drone Strikes,” New York Times, July 1, 2023.
[n] According to Undersecretary for Defense Policy Colin Kahl, “But the other thing the President believed was that we could withdraw thousands of troops Afghanistan and still protect our vital national interests when they are threatened from something emanating from Afghanistan. And, you know, frankly, a lot of our critics didn’t believe that was possible, they didn’t think that you could do things over-the-horizon, that we couldn’t achieve, you know, counter-terrorism objectives, at least the objective of protecting the American homeland if we didn’t have thousands of boots on the ground in — in Afghanistan. That’s not what the President’s view is and I think, in the last 10 days, in the strike that was carried out on Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaida and the most wanted terrorist on planet Earth and one of the two co-planners for the 9/11 attacks, what we’ve demonstrated to Al Qaida, but also to other terrorist organizations is that we can still reach out and touch them.” “USD (Policy) Dr. Kahl Press Conference,” U.S. Department of Defense, August 8, 2022.
[o] For example, on the U.S. campaign against AQAP in Yemen, then Advisor to President Obama John Brennan noted, “Our counterterrorism approach involves many different tools — diplomatic, intelligence, military, homeland security, law enforcement and justice. With our Yemeni and international partners, we have put unprecedented pressure on AQAP. Recruits seeking to travel to Yemen have been disruptive — disrupted. Operatives deployed from Yemen have been detained. Plots have been thwarted. And key AQAP leaders who have targeted U.S. and Yemeni interest have met their demise, including Anwar al-Awlaki, AQAP’s chief of external operations.” See Rikita Singh, “Transcript of John Brennan’s Speech on Yemen and Drones,” Lawfare, August 9, 2012.
[p] The Taliban made this demand during the intra-Afghan talks before their takeover of the country in August 2021 and have since continued to raise it: “It is imperative for mutual trust that names of individuals associated with the Islamic Emirate (Taliban) be completely, and not conditionally or temporarily, be removed from black and reward lists.” Ayaz Gul, “Taliban Link Progress in Afghan Peace Talks to Delisting of Top Leaders,” Voice of America, May 5, 2021.
[q] The FY2024 request as reported by DoD Comptroller is $20.9 billion, which includes overseas operations requirements for theaters from South Asia, the Middle East to Africa. For more details on each year, see budget request documents for FY2022, 2023, and 2024. “Defense Budget Overview: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2023 Budget Request,” Office of the Under Secretary of defense (Comptroller)/ Chief Financial Officer, April 2022 and “Defense Budget Overview: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2024 Budget Request,“ Office of the Under Secretary of defense (Comptroller)/Chief Financial Officer, March 2023.
[r] Al-Zawahiri was protected by Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani: “The house Al-Zawahri was in when he was killed was owned by a top aide to senior Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, according to a senior intelligence official.” Matthew Lee, Norman Merchant, and Aamer Madhani, “Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought ‘justice,’” Associated Press, August 2, 2022. According to U.S. Special Envoy Tom West, “Ayman Al-Zawahiri was living in downtown Kabul under the shelter of the Taliban leadership and we took him out.” Fatema Adeeb, “US Accuses Islamic Emirate of Violation of Doha Deal,” Tolo News, March 5, 2023.
[s] According to response furnished by CENTCOM, the U.S. military did not have such access until second quarter 2022: “The Over-the-Horizon Counterterrorism (OTH-CT) Task Force, the DoD entity responsible for conducting counterterrorism in Afghanistan, reported no change in the operational challenges related to the conduct of that mission during this quarter. These challenges include long flying times and limited air corridors to reach landlocked Afghanistan and dependence on aviation assets to collect intelligence in the absence of robust human intelligence networks.” See “Operation Enduring Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, April 1, 2022 – June 30, 2022,” Office of Inspector General, August 2022.
 Jeff Seldin, “US General: Islamic State Afghan Affiliate Closer to Attacking Western Targets,” VOA News, March 16, 2023.
 Matthew Lee, Norman Merchant, and Aamer Madhani, “Biden: Killing of al-Qaida leader is long-sought ‘justice,’” Associated Press, August 2, 2022.
 Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming, “The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan After the Taliban’s Afghanistan Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 16:5 (2023).
 Abdul Sayed, “Al-Qaeda’s South Asian branch (AQIS) has called on Muslims around the world ‘to attack US, UK, and French citizens and interests …,’” X, October 7, 2023; Abdul Sayed, “Al-Qaeda’s central leadership issued a three-page statement …,” October 13, 2023.
 “U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan: A Conversation with Tom West,” Stimson Center, via YouTube, September 12, 2023.
 “Should the United States Normalize Relations With the Taliban?” Foreign Affairs Asks the Experts, Foreign Affairs, August 21, 2023.
 “Remarks by President Biden on the Supreme Court’s Decision on the Administration’s Student Debt Relief Program,” The White House, June 30, 2023.
 “Taking Action Against ISIS-K,” U.S. Department of State, November 22, 2021; “Press Statement: Terrorist Designation of AQIS and TTP Leaders,” U.S. Department of State, December 1, 2022.
 “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Posture of USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY24 and the Future Years Defense Program,” U.S. Central Command, March 17, 2023.
 “Should the United States Normalize Relations With the Taliban?”; Dipali Mukhopadhyay, “The Taliban Have Not Moderated,” Foreign Affairs, March 28, 2022; James Dobbin, Andrew Radin, and Laurel E. Miller, “Engage, Isolate, or Oppose: American Policy Toward the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan,” RAND Corporation, May 2022; Kate Bateman, “A Shift to Greater Engagement with the Taliban? For the United States, Greater Engagement with Afghanistan’s De Facto Authorities is the Least Bad Option,” United States Institute of Peace, October 25, 2023.
 Javid Ahmad and Douglas London, “It’s Time To Recognize the Taliban,” Foreign Policy, May 23, 2023.
 Adam Weinstein, “Keep Talking to the Taliban,” Foreign Policy, March 23, 2023.
 Antonio Giustozzi, “Slowly and Carefully, the Taliban Are Reining in Jihadists,” World Politics Review, August 2, 2023.
 Dipali Mukhopadhyay in “Should the United States Normalize Relations With the Taliban?”
 On list of groups and support and assistance by the Taliban for them, see “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities,” United Nations Security Council, July 25, 2023. On support to AQIS/AQ, the author’s consultations with interlocutors in Afghanistan suggest that the Taliban intelligence GDI manages the AQIS.
 Muhammad Israr Madani, “Inside the Taliban’s governance: Chief Justice Haqqani’s book sheds light,” Euro Islam, September 24, 2023.
 Ibid.; “‘War On Education’: Taliban Converting Secular Schools Into Religious Seminaries,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, June 25, 2022. On curriculum, see Lauryn Oates, “What Does a Taliban School Curriculum Look Like?” Diplomat, December 21, 2022.
 Barbara Walter, “The Extremist’s Advantage in Civil Wars,” International Security 42:2 (2017): pp. 7-39.
 Kerry Persen, “The Moderates’ Dilemma: Obstacles to Mobilization Against Islamist Extremism,” Stanford University, 2018.
 Asfandyar Mir, “Untying the Gordian Knot: Why the Taliban is unlikely to break ties with al-Qaeda,” Modern War Institute, August 10, 2021.
 Graeme Smith and Ibraheem Bahiss, “The World Has No Choice But to Work With the Taliban,” Foreign Affairs, August 11, 2023.
 Ahmad and London.
 Asfandyar Mir, “Al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Future of U.S. Counterterrorism in Afghanistan,” George Washington Program on Extremism, September 8, 2022.
 Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming, “The Growing Threat of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and South Asia,” United States Institute of Peace, June 7, 2023; Amira Jadoon, Andrew Mines, and Abdul Sayed, “The Enduring Duel: Islamic State Khorasan’s Survival under Afghanistan’s New Rulers,” CTC Sentinel 16:8 (2023).
 “Executive Order 12333 United States Intelligence Activities,” Department of Defense, n.d.
 “Taliban File Update: U.S. Pressed Taliban to Expel Usama bin Laden Over 30 Times Only Three Approaches in First Year of Bush Administration,” National Security Archive, January 30, 2004.
 Abid Hussain, “Taliban’s Ties with Pakistan Fraying Amid Mounting Security Concerns,” Al Jazeera, August 17, 2023.
 “U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan: A Conversation with Tom West.”
 “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Posture of USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY24 and the Future Years Defense Program.”
 “9/11 Statement from National Counterterrorism Center Director Christy Abizaid,” Office of the Director of National Intelligence, September 11, 2023.
 “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Posture of USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY24 and the Future Years Defense Program.”
 “Press Statement: Terrorist Designation of AQIS and TTP Leaders.”
 “Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing on Posture of USCENTCOM and USAFRICOM in Review of the Defense Authorization Request for FY24 and the Future Years Defense Program.”
 “National Security Memorandum/NSM-13,” National Security Council, October 6, 2022.
 “U.S. Policy Toward Afghanistan: A Conversation with Tom West.”
 Bryan C. Price, Targeting Top Terrorists: Understanding Leadership Removal in Counterterrorism Strategy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019).
 Alexander Downes, “Step Aside or Face the Consequences: Explaining the Success and Failure of Compellent Threats to Remove Foreign Leaders” in Kelly M. Greenhill and Peter Krause eds., Coercion: The Power to Hurt in International Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), p. 96.
 Tami Davis Biddle, “Coercion Theory: A Basic Introduction for Practitioners,” Texas National Security Review 3:2 (2020): pp. 94-109.
 Thomas G. Mahnken, Travis Sharp, and Grace B. Kim, “Deterrence by Detection: A Key Role for Unmanned Aircraft Systems in Great Power Competition,” Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2020.
 Fidel Rahmati, “Stanekzai accuses US drones of violating Afghanistan’s airspace,” Khaama Press News Agency, September 23, 2023; Fatema Adeeb, “US Accuses Islamic Emirate of Violation of Doha Deal,” Tolo News, March 5, 2023.
 On the deterrence value of pre-positioning assets closer to areas of operation, see Ian O. Lesser, “The mobility triad—Airlift, sealift and pre-positioning in American strategy,” RUSI Journal131:1 (1986): pp. 31-35.
 Sayed and Hamming, “The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan After the Taliban’s Afghanistan Takeover.”
 “Operation Enduring Sentinel: Lead Inspector General Report to the United States Congress, April 1, 2023 – June 30, 2023,” Office of Inspector General, August 2023.
 “Clinton warns Pakistan: ‘You can’t keep snakes in your backyard,’” NBC News, October 21, 2011.
 Joby Warrick, The Triple Agent: The Al-Qaeda Mole who Infiltrated the CIA (New York: Penguin Random House, 2011).
 “Press Release: Faisal Shahzad Indicted for Attempted Car Bombing in Times Square,” U.S. Department of Justice, June 17, 2010.
 Sayed and Hamming, “The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan After the Taliban’s Afghanistan Takeover.”
 Abid Hussain, “Taliban’s ties with Pakistan fraying amid mounting security concerns,” Al Jazeera, August 17, 2023.
 “National Security Memorandum/NSM-13.”
 Daniel Byman and Asfandyar Mir, “How Strong is Al-Qaeda? A Debate,” War on the Rocks, May 20, 2022.
 Nic Robertson and Saleem Mehsud, “Al Qaeda promises ‘war on all fronts’ against America as Biden pulls out of Afghanistan,” CNN, April 30, 2021.
 “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2610 (2021) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities.”
 Sidhant Sibal, “US has limited security partnership with Pakistan, says Pentagon official,” WION, September 22, 2022.
 “Thirty-second report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team.”
 Sameer Lalwani, “Six: Pakistan’s Counterinsurgency Strategy,” in Peter Bergen ed., Talibanistan: Negotiating the Borders Between Terror, Politics, and Religion (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 202-228.
 Helen Regan, “US looking into reports Pakistan violated arms agreement in Kashmir,” CNN, March 5, 2019.
 Eric Schmitt and Mark Mazzetti, “In a First, U.S. Provides Pakistan with Drone Data,” New York Times, May 13, 2009.
 Greg Miller and Bob Woodward, “Secret memos reveal explicit nature of U.S., Pakistan agreement on drones,” Washington Post, October 24, 2013.
 Schmitt and Mazzetti; Asfandyar Mir, “Explaining Effectiveness in Modern Counterinsurgency,” PhD Dissertation (University of Chicago, 2018).
 Adrian Levy and Catherine Scott-Levy, Spy Stories: Inside the Secret World of the R.A.W. and the I.S.I. (New Delhi: Juggernaut Books, 2021).
 Farhan Bokhari, Katrina Manson, and Kiran Stacey, “Pakistan Halts Intelligence-Sharing with U.S. after Aid Suspension,” Financial Times, January 11, 2018.
 Kamran Yousaf, “Cabinet gives nod to security pact with US,” Express Tribune, August 3, 2023.
 “Executive Order 12333 United States Intelligence Activities.”
 “Memorandum of Law: Executive Order 12333 and Assassination,” Army Lawyer, December 1989.
 Author consultation, Brian Finucane, senior adviser, International Crisis Group, September 2023.
 Bryce Loidolt, “Were Drone Strikes Effective? Evaluating the Drone Campaign in Pakistan Through Captured al-Qaeda Documents,” Texas National Security Review 5:2 (2022): pp. 53-79.
 Asfandyar Mir, “What Explains Counterterrorism Effectiveness? Evidence from the U.S. Drone War in Pakistan,” International Security 43:2 (2018): pp. 45-83.
 See also Jonathan A. Landay, “U.S. Secret: CIA Collaborated with Pakistan Spy Agency in Drone War,” McClatchy DC, April 9, 2013.
 Mir, “What Explains Counterterrorism Effectiveness?”
 Dustin Volz, “How a Military Cyber Operation to Disrupt Islamic State Spurred a Debate,” Wall Street Journal, January 21, 2020.
 Charlie Savage, “Biden Rules Tighten Limits on Drone Strikes,” New York Times, July 1, 2023.
 Johnny Hallam, Kylie Atwood, and Aliza Kassim Khalidi, “Pakistan summons US ambassador after Biden calls country ‘dangerous’ for having nuclear weapons,” CNN, July 1, 2023.
 Brian Finucane, “The House Tackles Zombie War Authorizations: Possibilities and Perils,” Just Security, August 14, 2023.
 “20230323 FC Hearing: US Military Posture & Nat. Sec. Challenges in the Greater Middle East & Africa,” U.S. House Armed Services Committee, via YouTube, March 23, 2023.
Table 1: Summary of Alternative Coercive Postures for Over-the-Horizon Strategy