Why Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan Still Matters

Washington should focus more attention and counterterrorism effort on Central and South Asia before it’s too late, says USIP senior study group.

In a new report slated for release on May 14, a USIP bipartisan Senior Study Group says that Washington needs to be prepared for a rising terrorist threat in the region and, crucially, the threat this poses to the U.S. homeland. The Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan report evaluates ongoing terrorism threats from Afghanistan and Pakistan and assess options for a sustainable counterterrorism policy. Its findings identify dominant terrorist threats, stakes of the threats for U.S. interests, and policy options for the United States.Study group members Ambassador Anne Patterson, Dr. Tricia Bacon, Ambassador Michael P. McKinley, Dr. Joshua White and Dr. Brian Finucane reflect on the key findings and insights of the report.

Why is it important for policymakers to consider the insights and policy options identified in this report?

Patterson: I am one of many Americans who was deeply involved in the war on terror which saved many lives. But many of us also wonder that if due to the two-decade long focus on the war on terror, we forever lost the opportunity to successfully counter China. Unfortunately, our policy adjustment to this sentiment has overcompensated, resulting in dramatically reduced attention to counterterrorism in South Asia. Americans want to see Afghanistan and Pakistan in the rearview mirror. Even though American intelligence was able to give the Russians a stunningly precise warning about the recent ISIS-K attack in Moscow, our knowledge of threats from Afghanistan has and will continue to erode over time.

This report argues that more attention and counterterrorism effort should be focused on South Asia. It argues that stepped up, counterterrorism-focused regional cooperation can give us insights we don’t have and pressure the Taliban into curtailing space for terrorists. It argues that the India-Pakistan relationship and the China-India rivalry have complicated the counterterrorism picture in the region, increasing the potential for wider conflict triggered by terrorist violence. And it argues, alarmingly, that the U.S. is fundamentally unprepared for a terrorist resurgence in the region, including threats against the U.S. homeland. We must recalibrate our counterterrorism approach to better protect American lives and U.S. interests, prevent distractions by provocations, and shield our vital strategic competition priorities.

What are the key terrorist threats and trends in the region identified by the study group, and why is it important for policymakers to take stock of them?

Bacon: The study group identified the key terrorist threat in the region as the Afghanistan-based affiliate of the Islamic State, ISIS Khorasan (ISIS-K). Unfortunately, that threat did indeed come to fruition with the Moscow attack as the study group completed its assessment. Policymakers must take stock of the ISIS-K threat above all because the group has ambitions to directly strike the United States. ISIS-K is opportunistic and will look for ways to strike that do not require building extensive capability. Moreover, it is highly indiscriminate and thus willing to attack soft targets that even most fellow Sunni jihadist groups eschew.

Beyond the direct threat to the United States, ISIS-K’s attacks stoke regional tensions, breed mistrust between governments and distract allies from strategic competition. Concerningly, the threat from ISIS-K shows no signs of diminishing. Counterterrorism cooperation against the group has been hampered by international rivalries and mistrust. And though the Taliban has incentives to counter ISIS-K, its ability to conduct multiple attacks outside of Afghanistan demonstrates that the Taliban is either unable or unwilling to fulfill its pledge in the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement to prevent terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.

At the same time, long-standing threats in the region persist and, in some cases, have worsened. Al-Qaida and al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent are seeking to exploit the war in Gaza to rebuild their safe haven under Taliban rule. In addition, Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) has been emboldened by the Taliban’s victory. It is using its sanctuary in Afghanistan to pose a growing threat to Pakistan at a time when the country is grappling with political and economic instability. Finally, though the Pakistani security establishment has restrained anti-India militant groups in recent years, a terrorist attack in India with links back to Pakistan still has the potential to ignite a conflict between the two nuclear-armed states.

What is the study group’s assessment on the Taliban’s role in fostering and curtailing terrorist threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan and beyond, and the counterterrorism challenge presented by Taliban rule in Afghanistan?

McKinley: The debate since the fall of Kabul in August 2021 is whether Afghanistan could be a base for new attacks on the United States at home and abroad. What the study drives home is that the terrorist groupings supported by the Taliban in South and Central Asia can challenge broader U.S. foreign policy objectives. It acknowledges the primacy and importance of responding to greater international challenges like Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the conflict in Israel and Gaza, and the emergence of China but underscores that the United States can and should do more to monitor and, where feasible, counter the Taliban’s support for regional terrorism.

The report offers practical suggestions on strengthening the United States’ counter-terrorism capabilities, keeping in mind the resource constraints and challenges of working on a threat emanating from a country where we no longer have a presence. The recommendations are also timely: recent developments in the Middle East and elsewhere make crystal clear that extreme terrorist attacks can surprise even the best prepared of governments.

What kind of counterterrorism relationship with Pakistan does the study group propose, and why might such a relationship be more effective at mitigating regional terror threats?

White: It is undeniable that the United States’ attention on Pakistan has waned since the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces from Afghanistan in 2021. That is understandable given the pressing global imperatives that have resulted from China’s dramatic rise. This study group therefore sensibly proposes a set of modest recommendations for U.S. policy toward Pakistan, designed to ensure that the counterterrorism relationship — however fraught it might be — can be sustained as a way of hedging against the very real risk of heightened terrorist activity in the region focused on the United States and its partners. Part of this involves recognizing that there can be some measure of reciprocity in the counterterrorism relationship, as Pakistan struggles to deal with the violent anti-state TTP and, to a lesser extent, ISIS-K.

What are some of the policy safeguards and legal provisions proposed by the study group to make the counterterrorism approach toward the region sustainable and lawful?

Finucane: Despite recent regional attacks attributed to or claimed by ISIS, the prospects for renewed U.S. counterterrorism direct action (capture or lethal targeting) in either Afghanistan or Pakistan appear slim. If the Biden administration foresees a continued need for the use of military force for counterterrorism in this region, or more generally, the study group recommends it should work to clarify the scope of the use of Authorization for the Use of Military Force (2001 AUMF) to improve political accountability of U.S. military operations. This can be done by reforming the 2001 AUMF, which is out-of-date.

The administration should work with Congress to update and better specify groups and the locations of operations, as well as introduce a sunset provision to the 2001 AUMF. Another option, which is not mutually exclusive, is to share publicly the executive branch’s interpretation of the scope of authority under both the 2001 AUMF and Article II of the Constitution for counterterrorism direct action. In addition, should the United States resume direct action in Afghanistan or Pakistan, it should incorporate lessons learned on avoiding and minimizing civilian casualties, particularly since the tragic August 2021 strike in Kabul. The study group, for example, honed in on the importance of checking confirmation bias and interrogating assumptions on identities amid military operation.

Why Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan Still Matters