Abstract: This article provides a survey of how former governing elites saw the violent extremism problem in Afghanistan before the August 2021 Taliban takeover, based on interviews in Kabul between 2019-2020 and remotely in 2021. The survey identified six key takeaways that highlight the complexity and challenges of tackling violent extremism there. First, the concept of countering violent extremism was misunderstood in the Afghan context and risked creating a backlash. Second, universities, and particularly religious faculties, were seen as recruiting grounds for extremists. Third, an integrated network of mullahs, mosques, and madrassas were seen as fueling violent extremism, with progress depending on getting an internally driven critical mass to preach moderation. Fourth, sectarian violence was a drawcard for violent extremists, and the exploitation of sectarian faultlines was a dangerous factor. Fifth, militant groups’ weaponization of social media for radicalization and recruitment had become a mounting challenge, including violent extremists gaining free intelligence on who to target based on individuals’ public profiles and posts. Finally, returnees from Pakistan linked to the extremist mullah, mosque, and madrassa network were perceived to be vulnerable to radicalization and recruitment by militant groups. Although the Taliban claimed victory a year ago, it would be a miscalculation to accept Taliban rule over Afghanistan as permanent. It is thus vital to review how Afghans saw the violent extremism problem set and to consider recommendations on what can now be done to respond to the new security dynamic and threats emerging from Afghanistan under Taliban rule.

Without an Afghan partner on the ground, not much can be done to restrain the rising tide of violent extremism in the current environment in Afghanistan. The so-called “Taliban caretaker” government has done little to assuage concerns that Afghanistan’s new rulers are enabling an environment of violent extremism. More than half of the Taliban’s 33-member cabinet appointed in September 2021 appear on U.N. or U.S. terrorist sanctions lists.1 Among the individuals sanctioned is the Taliban’s caretaker prime minister, Mullah Hassan Akhund, who served as foreign minister and then deputy prime minister during the Taliban’s previous rule from 1996 to 2001. Similarly, the United States has listed the Taliban’s interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, head of the Haqqani network, as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist (SDGT) with a US$10 million reward for information that directly leads to his arrest in connection with attacks targeting Americans.2 These appointments have poured cold water over any hope that the Taliban could be partners in countering violent extremism in Afghanistan.

The Taliban’s victory has stimulated violent extremist groups within Afghanistan’s shifting terrorism landscape, which features an array of actors including al-Qa`ida, Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), and the Pakistan-focused Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). The U.S. exit and the unraveling of the Afghan government has left behind a dangerous environment in which violent extremism can grow virtually unchecked. As the Taliban have never eschewed links with foreign terrorist groups, there is growing concern that organizations pledging allegiance to the Taliban will pose a renewed threat in Afghanistan. Among the immediate beneficiaries, Taliban rule has provided an enabling environment for al-Qa`ida to regenerate itself and reorient its local, regional, and global objectives. Indeed, al-Zawahiri’s death in a U.S. missile strike in Kabul’s upscale neighborhood of Sherpur in late July underlined that al-Qa`ida continues to operate under the Taliban’s protection. According to the White House, “senior Haqqani Taliban figures were aware of Zawahiri’s presence in Kabul.”3 In addition, al-Qa`ida affiliates such as al-Qa`ida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) stand to gain from the Taliban’s ascendance.4

This article provides a survey of how former governing elites saw the violent extremism problem in Afghanistan before the August 2021 Taliban takeover. Taken at face value, the focus on how Afghanistan’s previous governing class viewed the violent extremism problem might seem irrelevant in a world in which violent extremists have taken over Kabul. However, Taliban rule over Afghanistan will likely not last forever, and it is necessary for moderate Afghans and the international community to take stock of previous challenges in Afghanistan so they can learn lessons for the future.

This article begins by outlining the author’s research design and methodology, before presenting the findings. Finally, in light of the findings, the concluding section provides recommendations for future policymakers on what should guide an effective countering violent extremism (CVE) strategy in Afghanistan if and when the Taliban eventually lose power. And more pressingly, it suggests measures the United States and its allies can take to mitigate the most pernicious effects of violent extremism stemming from Taliban rule.

Research Design and Methodology
The former Afghan government commenced work on a draft CVE strategy between 2018 and 2019, but the effort did not gain traction and the strategy never materialized. The strategy was in development when the author was stationed in Kabul as a senior executive of a research organization. The fieldwork associated with this research encompassed 33 semi-structured interviews conducted in person between 2019-2020 in Kabul and virtually in 2021 (before the Taliban takeover) with national stakeholders in Kabul based on their experiences of tackling violent extremism, which was supplemented by a snowballing process to identify additional interviewees. These included national government officials representing the dual wings of the then National Unity Government, security and intelligence officials, senior advisors and practitioners across ministries, and representatives from civil society organizations.a One of the interviews was conducted in 2022 in a location the author cannot disclose.

The interviews allowed the author to inductively identify six counter violent extremism challenges perceived among Afghan officials and civil society leaders, which are outlined below. The methodology has limitations due to its reliance on policy and practitioner interviews carried out in Kabul, which gives a snapshot of elite opinion confined to the capital at a specific period of time. In addition, using respondents’ perceptions as a primary source has some constraints, including potential respondent bias, representation limitations particularly related to gender inclusivity, and the reality that perceptions are only perceptions. The measures taken to offset these limitations include triangulation of data, in-country analysis, running a pilot,b and consequently modifying the qualitative interview tool based on the pilot’s results by changing the sequencing and phrasing of questions. To diversify opinion, some interviewees were selected based on their experiences working at the provincial level to ascertain views from the ground up. Despite the limitations of speaking to mostly state representatives, the perspectives conveyed in this article offer practical insights from then-serving Afghan government officials dealing with the problem of violent extremism.

1. The concept of CVE was misunderstood in the Afghan context, and labels such as “extremist” or “violent extremist” risked creating a backlash.
The interviews made clear that the notion and terminology of “extremism” and “violent extremism”c are loaded, problematic in the Afghan context due to the historical baggage that accompanies it. Interviewees noted that violent extremism is an alien term, lacked clarity, risked creating sweeping categorizations of individuals and organizations, and that its use may backfire against moderate forces or international actors, particularly if the terms are seen as attacking Islam.

Then-serving officials in the Office of the National Security Council (ONSC) noted that labels such as “extremist” and “violent extremist” tended to encounter significant resistance.5 The ONSC officials stated that mullahs (they meant many, not all) were a primary source of the problem of amplifying violent extremist ideologies, but also had the potential to be a part of the solution if they engaged more with the themes of “non-violence” and “co-existence.” Labeling mullahs as extremists or violent extremists was seen by interviewees as counterproductive with the potential to cut off a critical resource that a government needs to promote unity. A former member of the Afghan High Peace Council shared a similar view: that as the Taliban used religion as a political tool against the state, categorizing clerics as violent extremists would play into the Taliban’s hands.6 Echoing these views, a former deputy minister stressed that CVE needed to be ‘Afghanized’ because “if you can’t explain CVE to the president, how would you explain CVE to a mullah in Kunduz?”7 His point underscores that for any CVE strategy, appreciating the context and having local buy-in are vital ingredients.

But that is easier said than done. Despite the consensus against using imported terms unsuited to the Afghan context among the interviewees, the interviewees struggled to find an alternative phrase that reflected the country’s CVE challenges. One serving minister at the time defined violent extremism as “when a person does not like dialogue and looks to impose their ideas in a violent manner.”8 A director of a civil society organization preferred the description of “using fundamental beliefs to carry out physical acts of violence,”9 and similarly, a deputy minister said that violent extremism is “the violent suppression of others that hold different views.”10 There remained broad agreement that violent extremists believe that the only way to achieve their goals is through the violent transformation of societies and that violent extremists eschew dialogue and justify targeting civilians or individuals based on their ideological beliefs, which sanction the use of force.

Several interviewees stressed that extremism is a relative term, and a binary distinction (extremist or not extremist) is not helpful. As a whole, they argued that a more accurate way to view extremism is to see it on a continuum, where individuals and groups would slide up or down depending on their messaging and actions. A continuum would allow the identification of non-violent but exclusionary groups, extremists that support violence, and violent extremists that use physical violence in pursuit of an objective. A vital point to note is that extremists may not use violence themselves, but their endorsement of violence casts them as enablers of violent extremists. Or in other words, extremists should not be called non-violent if they facilitate, advocate, and/or provide logistical support or financial resources to enable acts of violence.

Extremist mullahs are a valuable case in point in identifying the links between extremism and violent extremism on a continuum. Mullahs who refrain from violent activities might still be considered violent extremists if they provide ideological indoctrination, religious justification, and a steady stream of recruits to violent extremist groups. Some interviewees familiar with the workings of madrassas drew attention to problematic preaching, religious education, ideological indoctrination, military training, and deployment occurring in many of them. The first three problematic areas are intrinsically linked and cannot be seen in isolation from each other. For example, certain mullahs in the madrassas preach and promote extremist narratives, including demonizing others. The message articulated to students in these religious schools is that they can kill people from other faiths, including Shi`a, and anyone else who is straying from their rigid interpretation of religious teachings. Officials from the now-disbanded Ministry of Women’s Affairs said that women are seen by certain mullahs as “strange creatures” that are expendable, and commented that the “first step towards extremism for mullahs is to fight against women’s rights and to use sharia to suppress women,”11 such as by denying them education, limiting their mobility, or restricting their employment opportunities.

2. Universities were recruiting grounds for extremists and religious faculties were particularly problematic.
According to the interviewees, extremist groups and their supporters used university campuses to expand their support base. The Taliban, ISK, and other extremist groups including Hizb-ut-Tahrir, Jamiat-e-Islah, and Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin actively recruited individuals from university campuses nationwide. Religious faculties on university campuses advocating violence has been a problem gaining prominence for some time, like when in July 2019 Afghanistan’s intelligence service arrested Kabul University lecturers and students on charges of planning attacks for ISK.12 These individuals were accused of masterminding bombings at a wrestling club, on a bus carrying government employees, and at the national airport in Kabul that killed dozens of civilians.13 A then-serving senior official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs noted that “religious faculties at Kabul University are bases for recruitment for ISK and other violent extremist groups,”14 and likewise, a group of women officials from the Ministry of Women’s Affairs characterized a provincial university as a “University of Daesh” because of the extent of recruitment and extremist activities taking place on campus.15 A former senior official at the Independent Directorate of Local Governance warned that ISK was recruiting from public universities in Kabul, Nangarhar, and Kandahar and that the religious faculties served as fertile ground for recruits.16 Such views are consistent with research studies that indicated a worsening problem of extremist groups finding space to ideologically flourish on university campuses.17

Some problems at the universities were structural, including the lack of critical or scientific thinking (a challenge made worse by four decades of conflict). When it came to extremist groups’ recruitment on campus, salient issues were their manipulation of pre-existing ethnolinguistic and political divisions and the exploitation of economic and social differences.

3. Mullahs, mosques, and madrassas were fueling violent extremism, and progress was seen as depending on getting a critical mass to preach moderation.
Besides the reforms needed in higher education, the wider conflict environment also served violent extremists well, due, according to the interviewees, to the highly charged political milieu, the normalization of violence, a surfeit of extremist clerics, and a network of madrassas over which there was virtually no oversight. According to the interviewees, many of Afghanistan’s mullahs magnified violent extremist ideologies. Mullahs and the mosques and madrassas they preach in are central to Afghan life. Through these institutions, extremist mullahs of different ideological orientations actively recruited cadres, raised funds, and provided intelligence, logistics support, and cover to the different violent extremist groups that they backed.18 A former senior official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs characterized madrassas “as the foundation for recruitment”19 for the Taliban and noted that it would be hard to find a single violent extremist group that did not recruit from madrassas. This view was also shared by a female minister who argued that “madrassas should not be promoted”20 by the Afghan government, politicians, clerics, or mosques, and suggested that alternatives to religious schools were needed, even if it took time. The then-minister emphasized the need for patience, political will, and sustained collaborative effort instead of attempting quick fixes that would present a significant risk and generate a hostile response against even the best-intentioned efforts.

The scale of the challenge was described as immense. Officials in the now-defunct Office of the Chief Executive highlighted that Afghanistan at the beginning of this decade had at least 2,500 madrassas in the country, based on data they collected between 2019 and 2020. An estimated 2,000 were private, and more than 1,000 of these were not registered with the government.21 A former defense official painted a picture of students in a typical madrassa as “ammunition waiting to be lit up” because the narratives attendees were exposed to justified physical violence.22 A separate official in the Office of the Chief Executive estimated that of the 130,000 mosques operating in the country, only around 30,000 were registered, which limited government oversight.23 While the figure of 100,000 mosques operating freely could not be independently verified, problems still abounded with the 30,000 registered mosques, as a significant number of imams on the former government’s payroll were said to be playing a ‘double game.’ An official in the former government’s Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation who had spent long stints in the provinces stated that extremist mullahs actively recruited people to conduct violent acts and were prolific indoctrinators, which guaranteed a steady stream of vulnerable but dangerous people to fight the Afghan government and their fellow citizens.24

The interviewees saw the majority of Deobandid and salafie mullahs as problematic because they were perceived to be creating and disseminating narratives that presented the then Afghan government as a legitimate target. Religious clerics of both schools were accused of sanctioning violence against the then Afghan state. According to the interviewees, the message articulated by many mullahs to the students enrolled in madrassas or attending mosques was that the Afghan government was “un-Islamic,” and it was their “religious duty” to fight it without question.

Conversely, one takeaway from the interviewees was that mullahs, madrassas, and mosques had the potential to play critical roles in countering violent extremism inside Afghanistan. As noted above, ONSC officials stressed that mullahs had the potential of being part of the solution if they spoke the language of “non-violence” and “co-existence.” Given how deeply integral mullahs, madrassas, and mosques are to Afghan society, a key takeaway from the interviews was that progress was dependent on a critical mass of these religious institutions turning against violent extremism. A year into Taliban rule, the worry is that violent extremism is only becoming more entrenched within many of Afghanistan’s religious institutions.

4. Sectarian violence was a drawcard for violent extremists, and the exploitation of sectarian faultlines was a dangerous additive in an already combustible environment.
The interviewees cautioned that sectarian identities had sharpened due to over 40 years of conflict, which various actors had exploited with lethal effect. Reflecting on the sectarian faultlines, a senior-ranking female official under the then government in Kabul’s provincial administration noted that sectarian identities had amplified, to the detriment of democratic values, human rights, and the government.25 The Taliban’s momentum, she added, was likely to inflame sectarian identities, particularly if the Taliban continued to persecute minorities such as members of the Hazara Shi`a community. Similarly, a former senior defense official noted that the Taliban justified violence against minorities by mixing religion with Afghan traditions, giving an “Islamic flavor” to these traditions to justify violence.26 As attacks against ethnic Hazaras and other minorities continued to rise, this upward trend in violence appears to have created incentives through which other groups could burnish their credentials to be seen in a favorable light in the eyes of the Taliban.27 Moreover, the Taliban provided protection to violent extremist groups of different origins to operate in areas they controlled or in which they exerted influence.28

In discussions with the interviewees, some reflected that the deteriorating political environment in conjunction with worsening sectarian divisions offered fertile terrain for ISK to exploit. However, an ONSC official in the then government stressed that it was an oversimplification to treat the Taliban and ISK as natural enemies.29 He noted that both groups had cooperated with each other on various occasions to challenge the writ of the former Afghan government. The cooperation between the Taliban and ISK went beyond tactical considerations and was supported by research that showed a deeper relationship.30 A then-serving official from the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG) remarked on the possibility that ISK attacks against Shi`a communities had the explicit or implicit consent of the Taliban as the Taliban had long been targeting this community. Another rationale offered by the IDLG official was that ISK-claimed attacks would insulate the Taliban from international condemnation and reputational damage as the blame would fall on ISK. This line of argument suggested that the Taliban had no desire to prevent or deter ISK attacks because they served a dual purpose of terrorizing a community without the Taliban having to do the dirty work. However, according to the official, the Taliban were only willing to tolerate such ISK activity up to a limit, not due to the issue of the protection of civilians, but rather to maintain their primacy in the competitive intra-jihadi dynamic. The risk, the IDLG official noted, was that frequent ISK attacks against Shi`a communities could encourage sectarian attacks by other like-minded peers such as the Pakistani jihadi group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi.f If such a shift toward a sectarian struggle occurred, he warned that it would push Afghanistan closer to civil war and likely draw other actors into the fray from across the region.

5. Recruitment techniques were constantly changing, and violent extremists’ use of social media had increased. Groups such as the Taliban and ISK used social media to recruit, radicalize, spread propaganda, glorify violence, and undermine the government, all of which served their objectives to capture power and spread influence.
According to the interviewees, social media platforms had become key tools for violent extremist groups to execute information warfare, implement disinformation campaigns, and promote political narratives that were designed to undercut the legitimacy of the then Afghan government and its international partners. The messages these violent extremists spread promoted hatred and division, justified violence, facilitated recruitment, and radicalized their target audiences.31 Afghanistan’s violent extremist groups had invested significant resources to cultivate a strategic presence across multiple platforms, including YouTube channels, Facebook, and Twitter, as well as the messaging platforms WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal.32 The media messages were creatively packaged such that literate and illiterate users could intuitively navigate through a steady stream of fresh content from different parts of the country. The reach of violent extremists’ strategic messaging vastly benefited from Afghanistan’s investment in digitization, which resulted in an explosion in mobile phone and internet connectivity, particularly in urban areas.

Interviewees acknowledged that tackling the presence of violent extremist groups on social media platforms had received far from the necessary attention.33 This lack of attention worked significantly to the advantage of the Taliban, ISK, and others who exploited the vacuum and created highly effective messaging. A director of a think-tank contrasted how Taliban and ISK fighters used social media, noting how the Taliban justified violence for nationalistic reasons such as freeing the country from “foreign occupation” or fighting “injustice.”34 By contrast, ISK’s online messaging showed that its fighters were motivated to kill any Afghan or foreigner in the name of its so-called caliphate without understanding why. A human rights official noted that despite their varying objectives, both the Taliban and ISK claimed that only they could deliver justice.35

Interviewees also noted that the Taliban and ISK used social tools to identify and assassinate their opponents in the former government. As former public officials, military personnel, journalists, and human rights activists, among others, posted their opposition to the Taliban on social media channels, it provided free intelligence to the Taliban and other violent actors to identify and capture or execute their targets.

6. Returnees from Pakistan linked to madrassas were perceived to be more radical than others and to present a threat to the security of communities in which they had been resettled.
Returnees from Pakistan who had spent time in Pakistani madrassas or were linked to them were regarded as more extreme than returnees with similar profiles from other countries. Many Pakistani madrassas were known to support Taliban goals and promote a puritanical worldview utilized to groom and provide cadres to the Taliban and other violent extremist organizations. This model had stretched back to 1975 when Saudi money fueled a rise in Pakistani madrassas, which then exploded on the back of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.36 Due to the intrinsic links between Pakistani madrassas, the Taliban, and the Pakistani military establishment, returnees from Pakistan that had linkages to madrassas were considered by interviewees to be a high-risk group that threatened the security of the communities in which they were resettled. Interviewees saw the returning Pakistanis as security threats as they were perceived to be more likely to be ideologically extreme, host the Taliban, and provide the Taliban with logistics or intelligence support. A then serving provincial governor echoed these concerns, noting that returnees from Pakistan who had spent time in madrassas had been “brainwashed by extremism,” and their return to the community would have adverse consequences.37 A then serving official with extensive experience in the provinces argued that the Taliban and ISK easily recognized returnees who had ties with religious seminaries and sought them out, as they were easy targets for recruitment.38

Some interviewees believed most, if not all, returnees from Pakistan to be a security threat due to the time they had spent across the border. Although many of the returnees from Pakistan had never joined violent extremist organizations nor had links to madrassas, a set of interviewees regarded adult male returnees as a security risk regardless of their background. This problematic generalization extended from the interviewees’ views that returnees had been brainwashed by extremists in Pakistan. However, a significant flaw in this argument is that it recycles a specific elite view that all returnees from Pakistan are extremists, which is dangerous and also incorrect. Such a stance risked making the task of CVE much harder because it misdiagnosed the problem set and had the potential to encourage a punitive approach against an entire category of people, risking driving them toward radicalization.

Another source of concern for the interviewees was Afghans who had returned from oil rich Gulf countries animated by salafi ideologies.39 Officials from the then Office of the Chief Executive stated that salafi thinking had seeped deep inside Afghanistan, leading to a puritanical and exclusionary expression of religious identity among many. An official from the previous Kabul provincial government agreed and also pointed to Iran’s influence, which he said had sharpened the feeling of separateness in some sections of the Shi`a community in Afghanistan, increasing sectarian tensions. Such ideological polarization meant that tensions could spill over into violence and sectarianism with little advance warning. Moreover, according to the interviewees, the normalization of violence over four decades of conflict had had the adverse effect of disputes turning violent quickly and gaining a sectarian dimension.40

Taliban fighters patrol on the back of a vehicle along a road in Kandahar, Afghanistan, on March 15, 2022. (Javed Tanveer/AFP via Getty Images)

The former Afghan government failed to counter violent extremism in Afghanistan, and the problem set is only getting worse under Taliban rule, particularly as many violent extremist groups operate unchecked and do so under the new regime’s protection, as evidenced by al-Zawahiri relocating to Kabul before his death. Acknowledging the freedom with which these groups operate in Afghanistan, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team noted in a recent report that “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom there than at any time in recent history.”41

This article’s findings indicate that the notion of CVE is unsuited to the Afghan context as labels such as “extremist” or “violent extremist” cause misunderstanding and can easily backfire.

With the Taliban in power, the extremist mullah, mosque, and madrassa network, as well as universities, will likely become even more fertile ground for extremists. There seems little prospect of moderate mullahs or religious figures or schools openly speaking the language of moderation because contesting the Taliban’s narrative comes with lethal consequences. The new environment thus raises the question of what can be done in the future to tackle violent extremism inside Afghanistan, given the significant structural hurdles, two decades of war fatigue, and a disastrous withdrawal. Although the political reality in Afghanistan has fundamentally shifted, the interviews offered valuable lessons about what the CVE approach in Afghanistan should be, if and when the Taliban regime is removed from power. Based on the author’s fieldwork and interviews, these lessons stand out:

1. Due to Afghanistan’s significant variances across ethnolinguistic, religious, and cultural practices, crafting a single unified CVE strategy would be detrimental to the desired outcome. Rather than attempting to build a singular CVE strategy, future CVE programs should be decentralized and developed on a provincial basis since each program must consider the local grievances and complexities of the target groups and communities in that province.

2. Future programs and practitioners backing a CVE strategy must have a long-term horizon. This point regarding the time horizon is vital for sustained funding, which should also allow Afghan practitioners to run and lead programs with minimal interference (including from fly-in fly-out consultants who do not properly understand context) in order to build local institutional knowledge and capacities, and propose local solutions to local problems.

3. Future programs and practitioners should work with Afghan civil society. Afghans trusted civil society organizations more than the former government, and due to their credibility, civil society groups are in a better position to undertake impartial and universal pedagogical reform. Such future reforms include updating curricula and textbooks used in public and private universities and schools to promote critical inquiry and scientific thinking in order to gradually diminish ideologically oriented education that has enabled violent extremism to grow in the country.

4. Future programs and practitioners should register the thousands of mosques and religious institutions that operate independently so they can establish a baseline and identify the challenges they are up against. Registration is not a silver bullet and will not be easy even in a post-Taliban environment due to the threat of sustained instability and violence. However, registration would be the start of a long process to identify potential entry points for intervention and pinpoint problematic individuals, institutions, or networks that need to be disrupted.

5. Where possible, future programs and practitioners should work with local communities, civil society groups, and religious leaders at the sub-national level and pilot interventions using Islamic principles and jurisprudence. For example, practitioners should collaborate with community tribal and religious leaders and reach out to the youth (potential recruits) to help them grasp the core teachings of peace and unity within Islam to mitigate narratives that call for and endorse the use of force. Programs that lack the support and endorsement of local leaders and communities risk having a limited lifespan, as do programs that roll out quick fixes.

6. Future programs and practitioners should conduct evidence-based mixed methods research to see how extremists and violent extremists use social media platforms and mobile messaging applications to promote their propaganda in the Afghan context so as to explore countermeasures and counter narratives.

7. Future programs and practitioners should partner with Afghan civil society groups where returnees settle to safeguard against violent extremists exploiting them. Practitioners should recognize that such interventions will need to be well thought out and localized, and will vary significantly across the country due to the country’s diversity and cross-border communities. The approach should include tapping into local trends, leaning on tribal structures, utilizing mosques and formal and informal educational systems, and engaging families on the need to promote moderation.

8. Future programs and practitioners need to put an end to or significantly disrupt the flow and dissemination of many Pakistani religious publications as their content is malign and harmful. For instance, the Sustainable Development Policy Institute, a leading think-tank in Pakistan, examined Pakistani school curricula and textbooks from grades one to 12 and found the materials provided “incitement to militancy and violence, including encouragement of Jehad and Shahadat.”42 Instead of using extremist materials from Pakistan, Afghan children and adults need to use indigenous books that tell the country’s story, celebrate its culture, and highlight its ethnolinguistic diversity.

The above lessons the author believes should be learned demonstrate that CVE is far from straightforward and demands a multidimensional and well-resourced approach in terms of time, money, and political will. The scarcity of each of these elements in the current Afghan context has a near nullifying effect on the willingness and ability of the United States and its allies to re-enter Afghanistan or take active measures in the foreseeable future after their strategic failure. While it is probably safe to bet that the United States and its allies will not return to Afghanistan, they can take steps to counter some of the most pernicious effects of violent extremism identified across the six findings from the interviews.

U.S. CVE strategy should focus on managing terrorist threats by keeping violent extremists weak, off balance, and under sustained pressure, rather than attempting to improbably achieve their total elimination.43 As resources for CVE are limited, U.S. strategy should aim to build stronger relations with regional partners for dealing with potential terrorist threats from Afghanistan. Given that direct intervention in Afghanistan is unviable, and so-called ‘over the horizon’ capabilities have limitations due to the full withdrawal of military forces, the United States and allied countries should consider the five recommendations below to offset violent extremist groups.

1. Although the concept of CVE was misunderstood in the Afghan context, there should be no doubt that the Taliban are violent extremists. Based on this reality, the United States and its allies should sustain political and diplomatic pressure on the Taliban regime, call out Taliban violence, sanction the regime including via the Financial Action Task Force to choke funding, and refuse to recognize the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan as any recognition risks undermining global efforts to counter violent extremism.

2. The Taliban’s victory has been a recruitment lightning rod for jihadis around the world, and this warrants an understanding of how violent extremist networks inspired by it are recruiting and advancing their agendas. To develop such an understanding, the United States and its allies should maintain high vigilance in Afghanistan and work with Afghans who have arrived in the United States and in allied states as they still have contacts in the country and because it is now a lot harder to understand what is taking place there.

3. The extremist mullah, mosque, and madrassa network that fueled violent extremism is likely to grow stronger. To offset this integrated network threat, the United States and its allies should develop strong counterterrorism ties with partners in South Asia and Central Asia and bolster their counterterrorism capacities to disrupt the flow of material support and foreign fighters to and from the region.

4. The United States and its allies should aggressively counter online extremist content, including on social media platforms by working with technology firms such as Meta and Twitter and partnering with civil society groups, academia, practitioners, and other governments to limit the proliferation of extremist content as these materials have global reach.

5. Sectarian violence targeting Afghan Shi`a under the Taliban regime has increased,44 but it was anticipated due to the Taliban’s ideological worldview that regards Shi`a as apostates. Given sectarian terrorism has the potential to be destabilizing and produce a spiral of violence, the United States and its allies should partner with local researchers on CVE in Central Asia and South Asia to better understand sectarian drivers of violence as they are proficient in local languages and have a sophisticated understanding of the violent extremist terrain.

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee warned on September 28, 2021, that it is tempting to close the book on Afghanistan but noted that violent extremists had to be held at bay.45 Still, several political challenges lie ahead. First, the U.S. priority is now geostrategic competition with China and Russia, shrinking resources for countering terrorism and violent extremism. Second, the United States is cautious about loosely defined CVE operations that could get it entangled in faraway operations again. Despite these limitations, the United States and its allies should not abandon CVE. They should recognize that the threat from violent extremism itself will not disappear but can be managed to offset its most pernicious effects.     CTC

Dr. Nishank Motwani is a Mid-Career MPA candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School where he is an Edward S. Mason Fellow and Ramsay Centre Scholar. He specializes in international security, regional competition, and violent extremism. Motwani has held senior executive organizational and advisory roles in Kabul, and he has worked on regional security and political affairs for over a decade. Twitter: @NishankMotwani

© 2022 Nishank Motwani

Substantive Notes
[a] Out of 33 interviewees, 29 held official positions in the former Afghan government encompassing the National Security Council, Ministry of Interior Affairs, the De-radicalization Committee in the then Office of the Chief Executive, Afghan High Peace Council, Afghan Supreme Court, State Ministry of Peace, State Ministry for Human Rights and International Relations, Ministry of Women’s Affairs, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, Independent Directorate of Local Governance, Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, and the Kabul governor’s office. The interviewees outside of government included four directors of Afghan think-tanks. The gender distribution of the interviewees was 23 men and 10 women. The gender imbalance reflects the fact that security-centric positions are male-dominated in Afghanistan and that women are underrepresented in the workforce.

[b] The author tested the questionnaire with a cross-section of interviewees and then refined the focus of the research questions, including adding fresh questions and clarifications, based on the pilot’s results.

[c] There is no universally agreed definition of the term “violent extremism,” nor for that matter “terrorism.” However, there are a range of definitions that have been developed by states and international and regional organizations. The United Kingdom states that “extremism is defined as the vocal or active opposition to fundamental values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and the mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs, as well as calls for the death of United Kingdom armed forces at home or abroad.” See “‘Radicalization’ and ‘violent extremism,’” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, July 2018.

[d] Deobandi militant groups tend to be highly sectarian, for example denouncing Sufi shrines, and tend to view violence as a legitimate response to any actions deemed to spread disunity within the global body of Muslim believers. Christine Fair, Fighting to the End: The Pakistan Army’s Way of War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[e] Salafis reject plurality within Islam, regard Shi`a Muslims as heretics, and seek to purify Islam of innovations or practices that they believe deviate from the seventh-century teachings and practices when Islam was founded. Mai Yamani, “The Two Faces of Saudi Arabia,” Survival 50:1 (2008): pp. 143-156.

[f] Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which emerged in 1996, is a Pakistani sectarian militant group that has killed hundreds of Shi`a Muslims. It has also targeted religious and ethnic minorities, influential politicians, and Western interests and citizens. LeJ splintered from the Deobandi Sunni organization Sipah-i-Sahaba and was behind the kidnapping and killing of American journalist Daniel Pearl in 2002. The United Nations has listed LeJ as a proscribed terrorist organization under UNSC 1822 (2002) and notes that it has ties to al-Qa`ida and the Afghan Taliban. LeJ members have fought with Afghan Taliban units, and al-Qa`ida has been involved in training LeJ units. “Lashkar I Jhangvi (LJ),” United Nations Security Council, n.d.; “Lashkar-e-Jhangvi,” Mapping Militant Organizations, Stanford University, July 2018.

[g] The Financial Action Task Force (FATF) is an intergovernmental organization established in 1989 that sets international standards for tackling global money laundering and terrorist financing. See the Financial Action Task Force’s website.

[1] United Nations Security Council Consolidated List, n.d.; Executive Order 13224, Bureau of Counterterrorism, U.S. Department of State, September 23, 2001.

[2] “Sirajuddin Haqqani,” U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, n.d.

[3] “Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on a U.S. Counterterrorism Operation,” White House, August 1, 2022.

[4] Asfandyar Mir, “Twenty Years After 9/11: The Terror Threat from Afghanistan Post the Taliban Takeover,” CTC Sentinel 14 :7 (2021).

[5] Author interviews, ONSC officials in Kabul, February 2020 and virtually in May-June 2021.

[6] Author interview, a former member of the Afghan High Peace Council in Kabul, September 2019 and February 2020, and virtually May 2021.

[7] Author interview, a former deputy minister in Kabul, February 2020, and virtually May 2021.

[8] Author interview, a then serving minister in Kabul, January 2020.

[9] Author interview, a director of a civil society organization in Kabul, November 2019.

[10] Author interview, a then serving deputy minister in Kabul, February 2020.

[11] Author interview, officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul, February and March 2020, and virtually in May 2021.

[12] Mustafa Sarwar, Shapoor Saber, Nusrat Parsa, and Abubakar Siddique, “Ultra-Radical Islamists Recruiting At Afghan Universities,” Gandhara, July 22, 2019.

[13] “University Lecturer in Kabul Arrested For Links With Daesh,” TOLO News, July 7, 2019.

[14] Author interview, a senior official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Kabul, March 2020.

[15] Author interview, officials at the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Kabul, February 2020.

[16] Author interview, a senior official at the Independent Directorate of Local Governance in Kabul, January 2020.

[17] Ramin Kamangar, “Religious Radicalism in the Higher Education of Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Institute for Strategic Studies, April 4, 2019; Weeda Mehran, “Radical and Active: Radicalisation among University Students in Kabul and Herat,” Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, July 2018.

[18] Reza Fazli, Casey Johnson, and Peyton Cooke, “Understanding and Countering Violent Extremism in Afghanistan,” United States Institute of Peace, Special Report 379, September 2015.

[19] Author interview, a senior official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs in Kabul, March 2020.

[20] Author interview, a female minister in Kabul, September 2019.

[21] Author interview, officials in the former Office of the Chief Executive in Kabul, February 2020, and virtually in April-May 2021.

[22] Author interview, a former defense official in Kabul, February 2020, and virtually in May-June 2021.

[23] Author interview, a senior official in the former Office of the Chief Executive in Kabul, February 2020, and virtually in April 2021.

[24] Author interview, an official at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation in Kabul, September 2019 and January 2020, and virtually in May 2021.

[25] Author virtual interview, a former deputy minister in Kabul, April 2021.

[26] Author virtual interview, a former defense official in Kabul, April 2021.

[27] Niamatullah Ibrahimi, The Hazaras and the Afghan State: Rebellion, Exclusion and the Struggle for Recognition (London: Hurst & Co., 2017).

[28] William Maley, The Afghanistan Wars (London: Red Globe Press, 2021).

[29] Author interview, a former ONSC official, February 2022.

[30] Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Shahram Akbarzadeh, “Intra-Jihadist Conflict and Cooperation: Islamic State-Khorasan Province and the Taliban in Afghanistan,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism 43:12 (2020): pp. 1,086-1,107.

[31] Niamatullah Ibrahimi, Musab Omer, and Mohammad Irfani, “Social Media and Articulation of Radicalisation Narratives in Afghanistan,” Afghanistan Institute of Strategic Studies, November 2015.

[32] Neil Krishnan Aggarwal, The Taliban’s Virtual Emirate: The Culture and Psychology of an Online Militant Community (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[33] Author interviews, officials from defense, interior affairs, then CEO’s office, IDLG, and the Kabul governor’s office in Kabul, January and February 2020 and virtually in May-July 2021.

[34] Author interview, a female director of a think-tank in Kabul, February 2020 and virtually in May 2021.

[35] Author interview, a female official working in a human rights role in Kabul, March 2020; additional interview conducted virtually in May 2021.

[36] Steve Coll, Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, 2001-2016 (London: Penguin Press, 2018); T.V. Paul, The Warrior State: Pakistan in the Contemporary World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Madiha Afzal, Pakistan Under Siege: Extremism, Society, and the State (Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2019).

[37] Author interview, a former provincial governor in Kabul, February 2020 and virtually in May 2021.

[38] Author interview, an official at the Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation in Kabul, March 2020; additional interview conducted virtually in June 2021.

[39] S.V.R. Nasr, “The Rise of Sunni Militancy in Pakistan: The Changing Role of Islamism and the Ulama in Society and Politics,” Modern Asian Studies 34:1 (2000): pp. 139-180.

[40] Author interview, a former senior-ranking official at the Ministry of Interior Affairs and the Ministry of Defence, April 2021.

[41] “Fourteenth report of the Secretary-General on the threat posed by ISIL (Da’esh) to international peace and security and the range of United Nations efforts in support of Member States in countering the threat,” United Nations Security Council, January 28, 2022; “Kabul Denies UN Report of Foreign Groups in Afghanistan,” TOLO News, February 8, 2022.

[42] A.H. Nayyar and Ahmad Salim eds., The Subtle Subversion: The State of Curricula and Textbooks in Pakistan, Urdu, English, Social Studies and Civics (Islamabad: Sustainable Development Policy Institute, 2010).

[43] Daniel Byman, “The Good Enough Doctrine: Learning to Live with Terrorism,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021.

[44] “Human Rights in Afghanistan, 15 August 2021 – 15 June 2022,” United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, July 2022; “Afghanistan: Taliban Forcibly Evict Minority Shia,” Human Rights Watch, October 22, 2021.

[45] “Hearing to Receive Testimony on the Conclusion of Military Operations in Afghanistan and Plans for Future Counterterrorism Operations,” United States Senate, Committee on Armed Services, September 28, 2021.

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