Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Final Report

When announcing the US withdrawal from Afghanistan in April 2021, President Joe Biden identified counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan as an enduring and critical US national security interest. This priority became even more pronounced after the Taliban’s return to power in August 2021, the discovery of al-Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul less than a year later, and the increasing threat of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISIS-K) from Afghanistan. However, owing to the escalating pressures of strategic competition with China and Russia, counterterrorism has significantly dropped in importance in the policy agenda. Following 9/11, the national security policy pendulum swung to an overwhelming focus on counterterrorism, but since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, it appears to have swung in the opposite direction.
In 2022, the United States Institute of Peace convened the Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan to examine the counterterrorism challenge from the region in light of the US withdrawal and growing strategic competition. The study group is a bipartisan group of experts, bringing a range of policy, scholarly, operational, and analytical experience related to terrorism, counterterrorism, and South Asia policy issues.In meetings from 2022 to 2023, the study group assessed the terrorism threat from Afghanistan and Pakistan and its bearing on US interests, as well as reflected on lessons from efforts to mitigate terrorism risks over the past 20 years. Members then examined what the components of a well-defined and sustainable counterterrorism strategy for the region could be to effectively mitigate existing threats, especially those directed against the US homeland and its allies and partners.

The study group came to the following two major conclusions on the stakes and direction of the terrorist threat and identified options for a new strategy in light of the group’s findings.

1. Rather than considering counterterrorism as an unwelcome distraction from strategic competition, policymakers could recalibrate their focus on counterterrorism to mitigate threats and shield the strategic competition agenda.

Some policymakers perceive counterterrorism efforts, particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as a distraction from the intensifying strategic competition with China and Russia. However, terrorist groups in Afghanistan, and to a lesser extent in Pakistan, still harbor intentions and possess growing capabilities to target the United States and its interests. If terrorists succeeded in making those intentions a reality, it would not only result in the tragic loss of lives but also have significant adverse effects on America’s strategic competition agenda.

For one, a mass-casualty attack would exert significant pressure on policymakers to respond assertively, which would divert resources, leadership attention, and political capital from the current focus on strategic competition. The American public still expects the US government to take necessary measures to prevent terrorist attacks against Americans both at home and abroad.

Terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies and partners, particularly attacks originating from Afghanistan and Pakistan, would also undermine America’s alliances. Amid the 2021 Afghanistan withdrawal, Washington assured allies and partners that the United States would retain the capability to mitigate terrorist threats from Afghanistan following the military pullout. Failure to prevent attacks against the US homeland, regional interests, and allies and major partners would tarnish America’s credibility and reputation.

Additionally, terrorist attacks from Afghanistan and Pakistan against a critical partner such as India could spark dangerous regional crises. A major attack in an Indian city by a terrorist group, for example, could trigger an India-Pakistan military standoff with the risk of escalating to a nuclear exchange. Such a crisis would also significantly distract India from focusing on the challenge presented by China.

Given these stakes, the United States could consider recalibrating the focus on counterterrorism to safeguard the strategic competition agenda. Preventive investment in counterterrorism will enable a sustained focus on strategic competition.

2. Terrorist threats to US interests from Afghanistan and Pakistan are steadily rising—and Afghanistan presents growing opportunities for terrorist groups compared to the period before the US withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Terrorist groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan are persistent, and some are gaining strength in ways that threaten US and allied interests as well as regional security. The post-US withdrawal environment in Afghanistan offers terrorist groups a range of new opportunities for regrouping, plotting, and collaborating with one another. These groups are positioned to tap into the vast pool of trained militant personnel in Afghanistan and to some extent in Pakistan. The groups also benefit from the reduced US monitoring and targeting capabilities in the two countries.

ISIS-K presents a rising threat with reach beyond the immediate region, greater than during the pre-withdrawal period. The Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) terrorist group has also returned as a regional security threat. While the worst-case scenario concerning al-Qaeda’s reconstitution in Afghanistan has not materialized, that group and its South Asia affiliate continue to maintain ties with and receive support from the Taliban and to call for attacks against US citizens, allies, and partners (including India) and US interests.

The Taliban continue to support terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Despite commitments to the United States and regional countries to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven, the Taliban’s decision to host al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in Kabul and their continued provision of sanctuary and material support to terrorist groups such as the TTP suggest that the Taliban are unlikely to distance themselves in meaningful ways from their allied terrorists. The Taliban target ISIS-K and have substantially reduced the group’s violence in the country, yet in the past two years, ISIS-K has plotted attacks against regional actors and US interests, which is particularly concerning. It is not clear if the Taliban’s crackdown can alter ISIS-K’s external attack ambitions and sufficiently weaken its capabilities. The Taliban’s educational policies, such as the expansion of madrassas in the country and a revised curriculum promoting extremist ideologies, also present a counterterrorism challenge.

Terrorist groups are also attempting to destabilize Pakistan. The TTP—a group that has killed Americans and plotted attacks against the US homeland—is imposing significant losses in Pakistan from its sanctuary in Afghanistan; and, going forward, it may become a bigger threat for Pakistan and the region. At the same time, Pakistan historically has maintained relationships with anti-India terrorist groups, although it has restrained them in recent years. As India-Pakistan tensions remain high, violence by such groups against India could trigger Indian military action against Pakistan and, in turn, risk a regional war between two nuclear-armed states.

Revitalizing the US Counterterrorism Strategy: Main Policy Options

The United States can implement a new counterterrorism strategy for Afghanistan and Pakistan to address the rising terrorism threats from the region. This would not require the expansive counterterrorism posture of the past or a dilution of policymaker focus on strategic competition. The study group believes that it is possible to embed a counterterrorism approach with limited aims in the current strategic competition framework.

The group proposes the aims of deterring and, when necessary, disrupting terrorist threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan that target the United States and its interests overseas as well as its allies and major partners. The study group also proposes that Washington improve its preparedness to respond judiciously to a major terrorist attack; such preparation would help minimize the diversion of resources, leadership attention, and political capital from the focus on strategic competition. These priorities would create a sustainable end state for managing the terrorist threats from the region, in contrast to broad objectives of the past, such as the defeat and large-scale degradation of terrorist groups.

The study group’s main options for policymakers to consider include the following:

Continue to publicly pressure the Taliban to mitigate terrorist threats while maintaining communication channels for counterterrorism exchanges rather than adopting a cooperative approach with open-ended incentives or a pressure campaign that isolates the Taliban entirely.

Key steps to consider:

  • Developing a public reporting mechanism to document and disseminate the Taliban’s compliance with the counterterrorism terms outlined in the 2020 Doha agreement between the United States and the Taliban.
  • Holding a meeting of regional countries to codify the Taliban’s counterterrorism commitments to each country.
  • Adding to the federal terrorism watch list, before sanctioning (under US Executive Order 13324), Taliban leaders and personnel assisting terrorists in the country.
  • Building up dedicated diplomatic and intelligence counterterrorism channels with the Taliban to convey concerns and explore the possibility of exchanges on shared threats.

Improve military and intelligence postures to deter and disrupt terrorism threats against the United States and its interests, including those that the Taliban are unwilling or unable to contain in Afghanistan.

Key steps to consider: 

  • Making policies on military action against terrorist threats in Afghanistan—policies tightened by the Biden administration through a 2022 presidential policy memorandum that governs direct action counterterrorism operations outside areas of active hostilities—less restrictive, but not to the level of a conventional war zone or the level that was available to military commanders before the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
  • Increasing military and intelligence resources dedicated to counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but still keeping them well below the pre-withdrawal level.
    • Increasing the overseas operations and security cooperation resources of US Central Command (CENTCOM) by providing additional intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft, as well as long-endurance alternate airborne ISR capabilities; and increasing counterterrorism-specific analytical capabilities consisting of analysts, linguists, and screeners and offensive cyber capabilities for over-the-horizon operations.
    • Maintaining intelligence collection on Afghanistan and Pakistan at an appropriate priority level as part of the National Intelligence Priorities Framework and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence’s reporting about critical intentions and warnings on threats and operations.
    • Expanding the US Department of State’s Rewards for Justice program for Afghanistan and Pakistan by increasing the reward money for those currently listed as well as adding ISIS-K and al-Qaeda operatives currently not covered to generate leads.

Through appropriate legal authorities, leverage an enhanced military and intelligence posture to target terrorist groups while accounting for the risk of retaliatory actions and minimizing civilian harm.

Key steps to consider:

  • Targeting with lethal action in Afghanistan those groups that are planning or involved in plots against the US homeland and interests.
  • Employing shows of force through drones against Taliban leaders and personnel assisting terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda.
  • Carrying out cyber intrusions to disrupt al-Qaeda’s and ISIS-K’s propaganda and communications.
  • After targeting a Taliban-allied terrorist leader, considering declassifying intelligence—insofar as it is practical—on the presence and identity of targeted terrorists to make the case that US actions were justified; this, in turn, could exert pressure on the Taliban to distance from terrorist groups and reduce the risk of retaliation.
  • To minimize the risk of civilian harm, controlling the targeting tempo of military operations, keeping it in line with available intelligence resources; to detect civilians in the targeting process and check confirmation bias, the US Department of Defense could create well-resourced “Civilian Harm Red Teams,” or groups of analysts that question assumptions and interpretations of information with an eye toward protecting against civilian harm.
  • Making what qualifies as legal authorities for counterterrorism operations more transparent by clarifying the executive branch’s interpretation of the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force in Response to the 9/11 Attacks and Article II of the Constitution as they apply to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Improve the counterterrorism relationship with Pakistan while taking diplomatic steps to prevent a terrorism-triggered crisis in South Asia.

Key steps to consider:

  • Offering counterterrorism-specific security assistance and intelligence to Pakistan to (1) reduce the TTP’s threat as well as to obtain Pakistani assistance on top US counterterrorism concerns, (2) secure long-term airspace access for operations in Afghanistan, and (3) leverage reliable access in Pakistan in the event of a terrorist attack contingency. Such assistance should be calibrated to reduce the likelihood that Pakistan would find the assistance useful in attacking India.
  • Communicating to Pakistani leaders that if terrorists based in or backed by Pakistan carry out attacks in India, there will be serious negative repercussions for bilateral ties.
  • Offering assistance to promote peaceful coexistence among at-risk youth; to improve social cohesion by expanding the acceptance of religious, social, and political diversity; and to deradicalize underage children.

Prepare contingency plans for handling terrorist attacks in the homeland and overseas against major allies and partners such as India.

Key steps to consider:

  • Improving intelligence collection and analysis capabilities through the National Intelligence Priorities Framework for reliably attributing responsibility for terrorist attacks from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  • Providing stepped-up travel warnings to Americans exposed to threats while traveling and living in the region.
  • Improving US leverage in Central Asia and Pakistan through assistance programs with the aim of securing emergency basing and access options for military operations.
  • Enhancing the Indian government’s confidence in the US government’s process for attributing responsibility for terrorist attacks through intelligence, investigatory exchanges, and crisis war games; and preparing US policymakers for terrorism-triggered crisis management in South Asia through regular tabletop exercises.

By implementing these measures, policymakers could better safeguard US interests in Afghanistan and Pakistan, while preserving the overall focus on strategic competition.

The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s).


Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan report cover
Senior Study Group on Counterterrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan: Final Report