As the first anniversary of the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban approaches—coincidentally falling on the same day as the Independence day of India in 1947—tectonic shifts in international relations, specifically from an American point of view, are taking shape for the first time since the post-9/11 ‘War on Terror’ era. The killing
of al-Qaeda Chief Ayman al-Zawahiri in a posh locality of Kabul by a US drone strike has provided a sort of closure to America’s 20-year-long endeavour. However, it has also raised questions about the global security architectures of the future.
Richard Moore, chief of the United Kingdom’s premier Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI6), recently in a public address said
that the threat posed by China now topped the intelligence agency’s priority list, surpassing counterterrorism. Moore’s comments are not in isolation, as his views are echoed by other western capitals in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the possibility of Moscow becoming more reliant on China for its economic well-being in the days ahead. Chief of the CIA, William J. Burns, has also highlighted
China as a major inflection point for global security in the coming years. While the 2022 NATO Strategic Concept document
highlights terrorism as the most “direct asymmetric threat” to security; Afghanistan was mentioned only once despite recent reports
by the UN highlighting that the likes of al-Qaeda have comfortable refuge under the Taliban once again.
Moore’s comments are not in isolation, as his views are echoed by other western capitals in the wake of Russia’s war against Ukraine, and the possibility of Moscow becoming more reliant on China for its economic well-being in the days ahead.
Recent tensions between the US and China over the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan
led to much more than just a war of words between the two powers, with military drills and deployments, in and around Taiwan’s waters, becoming aggressive. The political fallout was Beijing announcing the discontinuation of dialogue with Washington D.C. on issues relating to international diplomacy, military affairs, climate change and so on. As per reports
, there is even a concerted push by the US Congress to bring China to the forefront as far as American security capacities are concerned. The intent behind such calls was perhaps visible through US military deployments
around Pelosi’s visit to counter Chinese aggressions.
The gap in global counterterrorism
The dash to largely put the ‘War on Terror’ policy construct in the rearview mirror in the West raises interesting conundrums for a country such as India. While the US withdrawal from Afghanistan was botched—from the US–Taliban agreement brokered in Doha to the actual exit—many countries, including India
, used the American security umbrella to build capacity, relations and institutions to further their strategic agendas. However, a shift toward China is undoubtedly aligned with the geopolitical realities of today and requires a fundamental capacity reorientation toward Asia. This does leave behind a significant gap in global counterterrorism capacities—both strategic and kinetic—one that will be glaringly visible, as the threat from terrorism and ideological extremism has only expanded and not contracted.
A shift toward China is undoubtedly aligned with the geopolitical realities of today and requires a fundamental capacity reorientation toward Asia.
For example, the terror group Islamic State (or ISIS) recently made calls via its most consistently active propaganda outlet al-Naba for jihadists, from across the world, to undertake hijrah
(jihadist migration) to Africa, from Mozambique on the continent’s Eastern side to the Maghreb region, Mali, Burkina Faso, and other areas. Islamist terrorism in Africa has become an amalgamation
of local jihadist groups being fought over by transnational groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda, with local affiliates claiming alliances with both to expand their operations, attract attention and benefit financially from expansive fund-raising networks. France had been involved in the Sahel, particularly Mali, for nine years in counterterror operations, and decided to withdraw
earlier this year as the military-led effort failed to drive out extremists. Paris feared its African operations were going to become a political quagmire, like what Afghanistan became to the US.
Islamist militancy threat
While other trends such as far-right terrorism and extremism have seen an uptick
over the past few years, Islamist militancy remains the biggest and most overarching threat. Meanwhile, newer containment policies and designs, such as the much-debated US–Taliban agreement signed in Qatar in February 2020 have set contested precedence on what the future of counterterrorism entails. Today, even Pakistan, which has backed the Taliban in Afghanistan for years, is in negotiations
with the Tehreek-e Taliban Pakistan (TTP) for it to cease its operation against the Pakistani state. Ironically, the Afghan Taliban, which has enjoyed Pakistani patronage for years, is facilitating the talks, learning from their immense experience in negotiating from a position of strength. The Afghan Taliban has refused to take on the TTP at the behest of the Pakistanis, despite their history.
Similar assessments have also been mulled by analysts regarding Zawahiri’s killing, and whether he was betrayed from within the Taliban or the Pakistani military, to gain concessions from the US.
Beyond this, even in faraway regions such as Syria, groups like Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and its leader, Abu Mohammed al-Jolani, have tried to court the US into a deal, while also demanding that Washington delist
HTS from its Foreign Terrorist Organizations’ (FTOs) list. In the post-al Baghdadi era of ISIS, al-Jolani’s successors have been killed in the small geography of northwestern Syria, at least some of which is under HTS’s quasi-state control. There have been speculations about whether HTS has provided on-ground intelligence to the US-led anti-ISIS coalition to target senior ISIS functionaries. Similar assessments have also been mulled by analysts regarding Zawahiri’s killing, and whether he was betrayed from within the Taliban or the Pakistani military, to gain concessions from the US. If not Washington, Beijing could use its own clout to influence certain groups to both, play to its interests and act as disruptors in certain geographies. Such an outcome would be a critical blow to global multilateral and bilateral measures against terrorism, which have, despite significant shortfalls, achieved useful gains
The prediction of a great power competition between the US and China, now complicated further by the Ukraine war and tensions over Taiwan, will be as much a test of capacities as it will be about political resolve. In this, Beijing already views counterterrorism as a geopolitical tool. While China criticised the US for delisting
the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) in 2020 from its terror listing, and perhaps rightly so, Beijing this year has also blocked
a joint India–US bid at the UN against Abdul Rehman Makki, brother-in-law of Lashkar-e-Tayyeba (LeT) Chief and 26/11 terror mastermind Hafiz Saeed. Clashes over the strategic interests of Beijing and Washington will negatively spill over into the geopolitics of counterterrorism.
Despite big setbacks in Afghanistan, counterterror efforts, for example, against ISIS, have garnered positive results with a mix of conventional military operations and unconventional technology-led warfare on multiple fronts. It is imperative that amidst the narrative of great power competition between the US and China, global counterterrorism cooperation and the fundamental pushback against violent extremism is further strengthened, and not politicised for short-term gains to the point of ineffectiveness.
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