Is the US now allied with the Taliban against ISIS?
There is an odd historical response that Vice President Kamala Harris is visiting Vietnam as the scenes of chaos, bloodshed and despair unfold in Afghanistan this week. For Americans, the evacuation of Kabul is similar and often compared to that of Saigon 46 years ago. Depending on your political beliefs, both are humiliating surrenders, the inevitable consequences of American hubris, or a combination of both. But there could also be lessons for Afghanistan’s new rulers.
The ruling Communist Party of Vietnam was once seen as such a serious threat to global security and US interests that America spent a decade fighting it, resulting in more than 58,000 US military deaths – nearly 30 times more American soldiers in Afghanistan. And yet today it is hardly worth mentioning that an American Vice President or President stops by Hanoi on a trip through Asia. The US is the country’s largest trading partner, and Vietnam is seen in Washington as a key regional ally against China. And it did so despite the fact that Vietnam is still a highly authoritarian government with a dire record on human rights.
The Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan was the nightmare scenario that has drawn US troops into an excruciating fruitless war over the past two decades. Nevertheless, it does not seem impossible that the Taliban’s relations with the US and other democratic powers could change in a similar way – and they may not even have to wait half a century.
This week’s events show how the relationship between the US and the Taliban is changing. After the bombing of Kabul airport on Thursday, in which 13 US soldiers and nearly 100 Afghans were killed, President Joe Biden vowed: “We will not forgive. We will not be forgotten. We’ll hunt you down and make you pay. ”One thing he didn’t do with all this harsh talk was to blame the Taliban. In fact, he stressed that ISIS-Khorasan, the Afghan Islamic State responsible for the attack, was “an archenemy of the Taliban”. Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Commander of CENTCOM, added, “I don’t think anything will convince me [the Taliban] let it happen ”and described that the US and the Taliban had the“ common goal ”of getting US troops out of the country by August 31, which made working with them“ useful ”.
Given the reality of the ongoing evacuation operations, the US has no choice but to work with the Taliban to keep flights open and maintain some level of security outside the airport.
But even after August 31, or when the evacuation operation is complete, ISIS-K will still be around, and if the Taliban are wise, they could use the ongoing threat the group poses to gain recognition, or at least reluctant tolerance the US and its allies. After all, ISIS-K killed more Americans in one day than the Taliban since 2019. Although the group failed to keep many of the pledges it made with the Trump administration in the 2020 Doha agreement, it failed to do so in the Prevented US troops from attacking for the past few months in hopes of speeding up the withdrawal of those troops. ISIS is not bound by any such agreements. The Taliban really seem to see the eradication of ISIS-K as a priority: one of their first actions after taking control of Kabul was the execution of a former group leader who was held in an Afghan government prison.
The IS, despised almost everywhere, has a habit of producing strange bedfellows. During its war against the group’s core “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the US was allied with “moderate” Syrian rebel groups, sometimes a degree or two away from al-Qaeda members, as well as with an anarchist Kurdish militia who belonged to a group on the US terrorist list. She was tacitly on the same side as the Iranian-backed Shiite militias. We are already seeing once unthinkable scenes in Afghanistan such as CIA Director William Burns traveling to Kabul to meet with the de facto leader of the group. If ISIS-K is seen as a lingering international threat enough – and the Taliban certainly have an interest in portraying it as such – it is not difficult to envision an ongoing intelligence relationship between Washington and the new rulers in Kabul.
If the Taliban played their cards right, it could even get a little more formal. Russia and China are already cautiously moving towards recognizing the group’s legitimacy, motivated by a desire to preserve regional stability. The US will be a tougher sale, but not an impossible one.
An important step could be for the group to invite prominent political leaders outside the Taliban to form at least the appearance of a power-sharing secular government. (Former President Hamid Karzai seems to be in favor, as always.) In any case, a group that has had no government experience in the last 20 years is likely to need some support just to keep its regime from collapsing. The Taliban leaders could de facto still maintain power through some kind of religious guardian council. Actually, this would not be very different from the agreement that the Biden government had put Ashraf Ghani’s government under pressure a few months ago.
Security and stability are not the only advantages the Taliban have in their favor. The group could now have control of up to $ 1 trillion in mineral reserves, including some of the world’s lithium reserves, which could be an important component in the fossil fuel move.
It would be nice to think that the Taliban will tone down their tough theocratic rule, especially their dealings with women and ethnic minorities, to avoid the pariah status they had when they last ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. But they may not have to moderate it that much. In search of security, stability and natural resources, the US has
has close ties with governments with a pathetic array of human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia, a country where until recently women were not allowed to drive or travel without the permission of a male guardian, with the spread of Islamist radicalism around the world Has been linked. The Taliban’s own predecessors in the 1980s were not much more “moderate” than the US backed them against the Soviet Union. And as brutal and repressive as the Taliban’s rule may be – and everything indicates that it will be both – it will nonetheless benefit from a comparison with ISIS, which killed 24 people, including mothers, in its most notorious attack in 2020 and newborns in an attack on a maternity ward in Kabul.
The fact that the Taliban have spent the past 20 years fighting and killing American troops also seems to make the idea of an ongoing partnership of any kind a non-starter. Perhaps, but it is also worth remembering that the Obama administration, and to some extent the Biden administration, have tried to at least partially normalize relations with Iran, despite its role in saturating Iraq with the IEDs for years killed and wounded many American troops.
The future questions are how pragmatic are the men who now rule Kabul, and how much actual control they will have over their nationwide movement. Despite the greatest efforts by the US and Afghan governments over the past 20 years to split the movement and incite it against itself, the Taliban has remained a remarkably cohesive movement. But as Ibrahim Bahiss of the Crisis Group pointed out, the group’s fighters, many of whom are too young to remember the last power, have been fed for years with propaganda that the Islamic emirate of the Taliban is the perfect form of government and they expect to return now – not a moderate, less pure form of it.
With all the conciliatory talks in Kabul, reports of massacres of ethnic Hazaras, forced marriages and attacks on people who worked with NATO forces or the previous Afghan government emerge from Taliban-controlled areas elsewhere in the country. These practices could escalate when the last Americans take off. Even the most cynical American foreign policy has its limits: Donald Trump once spoke of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a potential ally against IS, but changed his mind when pictures of children who were killed in a chemical weapons attack and ordered air strikes against the Syrian army emerged Regime. Massacres such as those that took place during the Taliban’s last violent takeover could have a similar effect even on the cold-hearted realists in Washington.
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Then there is terrorism. The Taliban promised to sever ties with al-Qaeda in their agreement with the Trump administration, but there is ample evidence they never did, and pro-al-Qaeda social media accounts celebrated the takeover of Kabul. Anti-terrorism experts fear that the severely decimated al-Qaeda could reconstitute itself in an Afghanistan under Taliban rule, which would make it more difficult to imagine the Taliban as a partner against terrorism.
Ultimately, all speculation about the future of Afghanistan, or Afghanistan’s place in the world, is based on what the Taliban are doing now, and given how little they have said about their government plans – some Taliban leaders seemed as surprised as they were by the rapid takeover everyone else – it’s hard to know. It seems possible that with some skillful diplomacy and just a fig leaf of moderation, the group could change their relationship with their longtime enemies, who are desperate to avoid further engagement of their own troops in the country. The Taliban could do it if they are smart. But how smart are you?