By Ido Gadi Raz
It’s been two years since the Taliban recaptured Kabul, while America and its allies completed their withdrawal from Afghanistan. The historically torn state, also known as the heart of Asia, once more faced life under the radical terrorist group.
While the world was concerned about the Taliban’s Intentions to violate human rights, remove women from the public sphere, and hurt minorities as it did in its previous tenure, America and Afghanistan’s neighbors were deeply threatened that Afghanistan would return to being a safe haven for terrorists. Unfortunately, all concerns were fulfilled. The Taliban banned girls from schools and universities, attacked minorities, and supported global terrorist groups, such as Al-Qaida, in contrast to its commitments in the Doha Accord signed with the USA. Furthermore, the Taliban have failed to counter the Islamic State’s cell in Afghanistan, also known as ISIS-K (Khurasan), which has expanded dramatically under the new regime in Kabul.
But what do the happenings in Afghanistan have to do with the State of Israel 3000 km away? The answer lies in three different consequences of the Taliban’s radical shaky regime combined with Biden’s administration policy in the region. First, the Taliban’s connection with the Sunni terrorist organization Hamas brings security implications to Jerusalem in the near and far future. Second, ISIS-K spreads wide-range propaganda against Jews, and in particular, the Jewish state. Third, the absence of America in Afghanistan gives competition powers such as China and Russia to strengthen their influence in South Asia away from the West’s eyes.
Hamas and the Taliban
On June 15, an IDF source told in an interview with the magazine Newsweek that “some of the U.S. small arms seized in Afghanistan have already been observed in the hands of Palestinian groups operating in the Gaza Strip.” Not surprisingly, Israel’s borders aren’t the only destinations that left American weapons had seen since the Taliban takeover. More precisely, some of the stockpiles of guns and military vehicles, estimated at 7.12 billion dollars, had already been used by armed groups in Russia, Pakistan, China, Turkey, and Austria. The Taliban, which faces broad sanctions from the West, uses its connections with weapon smugglers and terror groups, such as Hamas (and maybe the Islamic Jihad), to stay above the water.
Hamas and the Taliban are much of the same. The two fundamental Islamic groups formed by the roots of non-violent radical Islamic organizations, Hamas from the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Taliban from the Jamiate-Ulema-Islam (JUI) in Pakistan, now control a populated territory. Therefore, they tend to act under the same narratives. In a meeting in Istanbul between the acting Taliban foreign minister, Amir Muttaqi, and Hamas leaders that took place on October 18, 2022, both expressed their desire for cooperation on mutual issues, such as the status of the Al-Aqsa Mosque.
Later, on April 14, 2023, officials from the two groups met again in the Qatari capital for a festive iftar, aligned with 30 or more diplomats from the Islamic world. Although, except for some pictures and key phrases, not much has been recorded between Hamas and the Taliban, it is convincing that cooperation from the two Sunni- sanctioned groups has been discussed in those meetings. Either way, collaboration should not be problematic when the two have official offices in Doha. Beyond the smuggled weapons, what should concern Jerusalem in this connection is that the Taliban allows terrorist organizations to operate training camps under their auspices in Afghanistan unhindered. Under a friendly group away from the West, Hamas could find comfortable training grounds.
The 20th issue of ISIS-K’s leading English propaganda magazine, published in January this year, was dedicated mainly to Israel and the Jews as the state’s elections were done. Despite its distance, ISIS-K saw the momentum to promote the Jihad in Israel and Palestine, using the complex political situation as leverage. On the cover page, it wrote: “The Rise of Far Right Extremists in Palestine and the Silence before Storm for the Muslims,” while the following pages denied the legitimacy of Israel, claimed the Jews of being hostile to Islam, argued the end of the Jews is near, and determined that the solution in Palestine is violent Jihad.
Since the Americans left Afghanistan, ISIS-K expanded its presence in South Asia, recruiting, spreading propaganda, and operating in various countries. According to some officials, the Islamic State branch, established at the end of 2014 in Afghanistan and Pakistan, is now posing an actual threat even to the West. Not long ago, on July 6, the German police arrested five men from Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Turkmenistan with suspected links to ISIS. These central Asia countries faced mass of ISIS-K propaganda in the last two years, pushing individuals to fight in the way of Jihad. Similarly, ISIS-K terrorists have been arrested in Istanbul and the Netherlands since 2022.
Unfortunately, this threat of ISIS, coming from propaganda, didn’t skip Israel. Last month, the head of the Shin Bet, Ronen Bar, noted that since 2022, his agency has taken care of more than 600 ISIS affiliates in the country. Those data come after the deadly terror attacks by ISIS affiliates in Beer Sheva and Hadera in 2022. Yes, ISIS-K is not the only one responsible for the terrorist group’s propaganda, although the group’s 12 langued online propaganda dramatically influences people worldwide. Nowadays, an innocent spending time on social media in Israel could lead to terrorist propaganda from Afghanistan.
China and Russia in, United States out
From a broad perspective, world dynamics have been changing dramatically recently. The chaos during the end of the American withdrawal from Afghanistan made the world question whether the United States is still trustable as the world’s great power. Later, the Russian invasion of Ukraine deepened the question marks about the USA and the West. Are they still determining the world order, or do we face a new reality in which other rising powers, such as China and Russia, have an equal influence?
On the other hand, China, in the last decade, is expanding its influence throughout Asia, particularly the Middle East, as part of the Belt and Road Project (BRI). China sees Afghanistan, similar to Russia, which tries to avoid the West’s sanctions, as a strategic ground for expanding its economic projects, due to its location – between Pakistan and the Middle East, and due to the potential inherent in its natural resources. The Taliban, which, as mentioned, opposes any involvement in its domestic policy, is slowly opening its doors to China and Russia, which care less about Afghanistan’s internal affairs. For example, recently, the Taliban and China signed a 25-year oil production agreement of tens of millions of dollars each year.
The strategic location of Afghanistan, between Iran, Pakistan, and the countries of Central Asia, creates strategic continuity from South Asia and the Middle East for the Chinese-Russian-Iranian axis. While on the other hand, the Biden administration has reduced its interest in the Middle East, where its influence decreases occasionally.
The withdrawal of the United States from Afghanistan created a strategic and intelligence vacuum in a country that has once again become a breeding ground for terrorist organizations. The more Chinese and Russian influence increases, the more likely the Taliban’s involvement or dependence on the West will decrease. With the heavy sanctions imposed by the United States, the United Nations, and other international factors on the Taliban, their influence will decrease as the involvement of Russia and China in the country increases.
So what Jerusalem, can do?
The latest Strengthening of Israel’s relations with the countries of Central Asia, especially Azerbaijan, and Uzbekistan, which border Afghanistan, may serve as a lever for security cooperation in the face of the threats of ISIS-K. Both countries face direct security threats from the terror group and could enjoy Israeli collaboration in terms of counter-terrorism. An example of that was noted the last month when the Azari security forces arrested an Afghan citizen that plotted a terror attack on the new Israeli embassy in Baku. Although, according to Israeli sources, Iran was behind this plot, a similar tactic of cooperation could benefit both countries against ISIS-K. Following this incident, Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Galant, flew to Baku to meet the Azari president to discuss the country’s relations and ways to cooperate against mutual security issues. Fighting against ISIS could be one of those issues.
Simultaneously, while Israel’s closest ally have had lost its influence in Afghanistan, another ally, India, is returning to the Afghan mud. India restarted its economic projects in Afghanistan, with an open embassy in Kabul. Besides New Delhi’s economic interests, it finds the Afghan soil a strategic ground to counter China’s expiation to South Asia and Pakistan’s influence on the Taliban’s regime. Israel-India security has been growing lately, especially in the defense and security sectors. Counterterrorism, and counterintelligence engagement between the two in Afghanistan, could help Jerusalem a lot through real-time on-ground reports.
At the end of the day, Afghanistan is not the first security concern for Israel when it comes to security. While dealing with the everyday terrorism at its borders and with the Iranian nuclear program, Israel still must look at the threats beyond that, that in a gimble of an eye, could go present.