Twenty years after the Al Qaeda terrorist attacks against U.S. civilian and government infrastructure, what have we learned? Did two decades of countermeasures against this new internationalized form of terrorism make us more informed, prepared, policy-savvy, wise? Has the recent U.S. exit and restoration of the Taliban, despite their UN -designated status as a terrorist organization since 1999, given pause to scholars and human rights defenders about the effectiveness of the global counterterrorism regime, now firmly entrenched in the U.N. system? For today’s undergraduate students—many not yet born on 9/11—what durable security policies are to be gleaned from an event that we insist we must “never forget”, even as eerily-familiar hospitable conditions for terrorism return to Afghanistan?
Some argue that the humbling exit of the United States and NATO coalition partners from Afghanistan marks a fitting end to the post-9/11 wars and its conceits—small footprint forces, nation-building under fire, winning hearts and minds by counterinsurgency strategy. My sense is that this exit marks a more important beginning: our unwitting entry into a new era of competitive warfare—with Afghanistan representing the opening salvo of a new era of global infrastructure and supply chain wars. A window into this process is already open if one tracks the restored Taliban government’s diplomatic recognition, or Chinese-built belt and road networks, including deep-water ports in South and Central Asia, with plans to cut across Afghanistan, or even recent EU strategic engagement plans in the Indo-Pacific.
With shifts in warfare, then, the question is whether the current fate of Afghanistan signals the exhaustion of once-heady projects; not only building stable and secure post-conflict government institutions, but the prospect of the international community working together in ways framed by the rules-based liberal international order. Either way, international terrorist organizations have proved they can be utilized as fully-integrated proxy actors. Going forward, human rights-compliant counterterrorism measures will face headwinds, as realignments among competitors favor governments seeking new economic alliances (and revamped supply chains), rather than shared norms and values.
Can international law and human rights norms keep up or make the jump to this new, supply chains-based theater?
The Role of International Law in Combating Terrorism
The devastating attacks of 9/11 shocked the conscience of the world. Almost immediately, UN Security Council resolutions 1368 and 1373, adopted unanimously on 12 and 28 September 2001, condemned the attacks as a threat to international peace and security, reaffirmed the inherent right of individual and collective self-defense, and mandated binding measures under Chapter VII of the Charter to criminalize support for terrorism and coordinate actions to prevent future attacks.
Henceforth, the bureaucratic counterterrorism apparatus grew exponentially. As part of resolution 1373, the UN Security Council established the first dedicated Counter-Terrorism Committee (CTC) and Executive Directorate (CTED), to strengthen both national and multilateral counterterrorism efforts. Under the UN umbrella, since 1963, stakeholders — states and organizations — had already developed 19 counter-terrorism instruments covering civil aviation hijacking to assassinations and dirty bombs. This, despite a lack of consensus on a universal legal definition of terrorism.
Since 9/11, dozens of terrorism-related UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions were issued and adopted, if not always implemented by individual states (as is their prerogative). A coherent official Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy was devised around four pillars: conducive conditions, preventive measures, state capacity, and rule of law and human rights compliant antiterrorist approaches. In 2017, yet another terrorism agency was formed, the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism (UNOCT), with five subsidiary units and 43 Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force entities. Unlike the Security Council’s CTC, focused on assessing member states’ needs for technical assistance, the UNOCT’s work convenes expert meetings, regional conferences, and develops guidance documents, such as the 2018 Reference Guide for Developing National and Regional Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) Action Plans. Still other offices, like the UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, take on some obligations outlined in the four strategic pillars to report on the human rights impact of UN policies aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism.
These efforts are net gains in the global security law and policy space — even if they tend toward the bureaucratic and aspirational. (Such critiques of the UN system are the subject of repeated reform efforts, including by current UN Secretary-General Guterres).
Despite the limitations inherent in global governance, the net result of these UN-led efforts is greater multilateral communication and uniformity in approach: in identifying acts of terrorism, setting standards for criminalizing those acts in domestic law, tracking networked groups and mobilized foreign fighters, and enabling cross-border counter-financing, interdiction, and counter-trafficking efforts. As outlined in the 2015 Doha Declaration at the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Qatar, crime prevention, rule of law, and counter-extremism are “mutually reinforcing” aims, integrated into the wider UN agenda. In this way, the UN’s role in counterterrorism is here to stay.
Back to the Future? Afghanistan as Exemplar of Exhaustion
Yet from a regional vantage point, taking into account the recent events in Afghanistan, that sense of progress is fleeting. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan is only the most recent, dramatic example (think ISIS, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Mali, Niger, Somalia, etc.) of troubling global terrorism trendlines, with implications for human rights, regional stability, and still-opaque geopolitical interests on the horizon, and of the U.N.-led apparatus missing its mark.
Looking back in time, Afghanistan was many things: a safe haven for Al Qaeda and company by the 1990s, a protracted space for civil war and postconflict pathologies after the Soviet invasion and exit in 1989, a laboratory for low-information nation-building and counterinsurgency strategies, a site for cynical proxy wars by unsteady neighbors, and, primarily, an independent Central Asian country with a variegated warrior culture and habit for burying empires that dared enter its dispersed communities or daunting geography. In the international community’s early optimism of the Bonn Agreements of 2001, Afghanistan was also intended to be an international exemplar, reflecting, as U.S. defense policy scholars noted as late as 2011, “the best of U.S. and United Nations statesmanship” and “the effective application of military and diplomatic power”. This, even though Afghanistan’s stakeholders wished to “recreate” a state that never did quite exist in that centralized, federally-governed, rule of law way of which designers dreamed. That precipitous fall, with predicable and rising human rights abuses, raises the question as to whether the myriad international law instruments completely overlooked the conditions in the country, as did the stakeholders devising them.
The international community’s emotional and material investment in Afghanistan as a “success-story” was evident in the near constant follow-on “International Conference[s] on Afghanistan” in Berlin, London, Geneva, Paris, Mosco, The Hague, Rome—the list goes on until 2020. The investment was extraordinary: the U.S. alone spent over $3 trillion plus, not to mention the human costs of war, with Special Inspector General (SIGAR) findings vast public monies lost to graft, fraud, and corruption, as U.S. defense officials chronically misled publics. And, yet, the current fate of Afghanistan signals even larger costs: the declining political will and capability for building stable societies, as per the U.N. Charter, but also the reduced prospect of the international community working successfully in the service of the rules-based international order.
This existential angst arises in part from the bureaucratic U.N. system, as mentioned, in which various parts cannot reach or communicate with the other, particularly during crises, in ways that prompt a credibility and accountability deficit. If defense contractors and officials on the ground in Afghanistan knew the score, so did U.N. oversight teams.
In June 2021, just months before the August 31st withdrawal of U.S. troops — with feigned assurances of order and Taliban partnership — the U.N. Monitoring Team reported Al-Qaeda’s presence in “at least 15 Afghan provinces,” noting Al Qaeda’s strategic “effort to ‘lay low’ and not jeopardize the Taliban’s diplomatic position.” The report documents Taliban “relationships with Al-Qaida, ISIL-K, Jamaat Ansarullah, Jama’at al-Tawhid Wa’al-Jihad, among other known jihadist groups,” and the Taliban’s use of a “long-standing practice of denying the presence of foreign terrorist fighters in Afghanistan”.
Likewise, Afghan civil society, nurtured over the last two decades by international stakeholders and donors, were aware of the impending disaster of U.S./NATO withdrawal plans and appealed to U.N. mechanisms accordingly — Shaharzad Akbar, the chair of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, asked the Commission to use its role “to prevent catastrophe”, noting the “storm of atrocities”. Deborah Lyons, the special representative of the Secretary-General and head of the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, urged the Security Council to take “swift action,” as Afghanistan was at a dangerous turning point to prevent a crisis. Scholars and advocates, including the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms while Countering Terrorism, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, saw the international community’s efforts, including the August 6th Security Council emergency meeting, as delayed hand-wringing, rather than decisive action.
Not only did the U.N. system appear unwilling or unable to respond, the sheer quantity of counterterrorism instruments, offices, and tools—least of all the UN Security Council sanctions regime, which had, after all, designated the Taliban a terrorist organization on multiple occasions—appeared strangely inert. This, in combination with national states’ waning emotional investment in Afghanistan, using a model of government imposed from the outside, undercut commitment to the mission as a whole, particularly once the U.S. stepped out.
If the early optimistic Bonn 2001 Afghanistan Agreements acknowledged “the right of the people of Afghanistan to freely determine their own political future in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy, pluralism and social justice,” what becomes of the Afghan people now? Will Afghans, many socialized over two decades to UN values and promises, take kindly to international acceptance of a long-designated terrorist organization as the governing authority? Is such a fate reconcilable with UN counterterrorism strategic pillars, notably human rights compliance?
The Coming Infrastructure and Supply Chain Wars
Rather than reckoning with the responsibilities under international law when retreating from a war, Afghanistan appears to have reverted to the status of a strategic prize—clearly for the Taliban, but also for Pakistan’s strategic interests, including its intelligence service’s long-documented involvement. Foremost, Afghanistan is emerging as rich in mineral wealth and central to China’s Belt and Road infrastructure development. With this come wholly new types of state interests and alliances, associated with China, Russia, Iran, Pakistan, and others—most notably, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridors initiative and China’s attempt to rebuild the road over the Wakhjir Pass (the 46-mile shared border). Certainly, many of the new power players are not amenable to the cardinal human rights ideal that governments should be responsive and accountable to their own citizens.
Apart from these new strategic alliances, Afghanistan has revealed multiplying realignments external to it, with new commercial corridors and strategic collaborations on the horizon—whether the renewed Quad (US, India, Japan, and Australia), the US-UK-Australian nuclear-powered submarine deal, which exiled the oldest of allies, India-Iran partnerships to access Central Asia, or Italy and Turkey‘s Europe-to-Africa commercial corridor. In parallel,
savvy strategic scholars are beginning to see the expanded use of Pakistan’s regional deployment of proxy jihadist actors, as a cheap form of “grand strategy”, to effect high-value national interests at low-cost disbursements. Certainly, tacit support for terrorist organizations is cheaper than standing up a national security force or nation building. Especially so, as tectonic plates of power and strategic commercial interests are shifting.
Ending what many have termed the post-9/11 “forever wars” or “the global war on terror”—ending any war—is invariably a good thing. But in this case, the nature of the ending and exit of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, and its simultaneous deprioritized status by the international community, have left observers with lingering doubts: about the promise of UN-based counterterrorism goals and about the nature of US and U.N.-based support and competence for stability, security, governance and rule of law efforts, all with impacts for international human rights law.
Others fear the end, the twilight, of a larger set of admittedly idealistic goals promoted by the international community for Afghanistan. There is no doubt a palpable fatigue in the failure to move the needle of governance in Afghanistan past where we started—even if the Taliban must be distinguished from the nation itself and its heterogeneous population. Now, the big unknown are the strategic interests which replace the international community – or the West’s – idealistic goals for Afghanistan of 20 years and beyond. A window into this future of global infrastructure and supply chain wars is already open.