Increasing threats from Daesh-K could bring about greater cooperation not only between the Taliban and Washington, but also between the new Afghan administration and other countries.
Today marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and Washington faces the reality of Taliban rule across almost all of Afghanistan. Shortly before this anniversary, the new regime in Kabul appointed senior members of the Al Qaeda-aligned Haqqani network to serve as high-ranking officials in Afghanistan’s new interim government. These appointments are salt in the wound for many Americans who have spent the past few weeks reflecting on their country’s post-2001 foreign policy in Afghanistan.
The current US leadership says that formal recognition of the new Taliban administration as a legitimate Afghan government is a “long way off”. But an informal relationship has seemingly emerged. In fact, some observers argue that once the US began engaging the Taliban in Doha in 2018 Washington’s de facto recognition and legitimisation of the group started.
Since August 16, the CIA director William Burns has had a secret meeting in Kabul with Abdul Ghani Baradar and last month’s evacuations from the Hamid Karzai International Airport required US-Taliban coordination.
Looking ahead, as the Biden administration pursues an over-the-horizon counter-terrorism posture in post-US Afghanistan, the threat posed by Daesh-K could incentivise the US to soon expand cooperation with the Taliban.
At the start of this month, General Mark A Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that US-Taliban cooperation against Daesh-K is possible. While acknowledging that the Taliban constitutes “a ruthless group”, General Milley added that, “in war you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do.”
It is important to note that the US has already coordinated with the Taliban against Daesh-K. In October 2020, Wesley Morgan reported in the Washington Post that, “the US military has been quietly helping the Taliban to weaken the Islamic State in its Konar stronghold and keep more of the country from falling into the hands of the group, which — unlike the Taliban — the United States views as an international terrorist organization with aspirations to strike America and Europe.”
As Morgan explained, amid the Taliban’s operations against Daesh-K, American military personnel were listening to radio communications from the Taliban and carrying out its strikes against Daesh-K in specific areas.
“By using such signals intelligence, members of the task force told me, they could tell when and where in the mountains the Taliban was preparing thrusts against [Daesh-K], then plan airstrikes where they would be most useful. Taliban units on the ground appeared willing to take the help, waiting to assault [Daesh-K] positions until they heard and saw the explosions of bombs and Hellfires.”
It is unclear how effective the Taliban will be in terms of governing Afghanistan and waging counter-terrorism operations against Daesh-K. But the potential for Daesh-K to become more powerful will likely result in the Biden administration taking the idea of enhancing cooperation with the Taliban more seriously.
Indeed, an increasingly dangerous Daesh-K could serve to bring about greater cooperation not only between the Taliban and the US, but also between the new Afghan administration and various states across the world from the United Kingdom to Iran and Russia to China.
Within this context, experts have noted that the Taliban’s broader interests will be both hindered and helped by a stronger Daesh-K. “The threat is that [Daesh-K] will attract enough Taliban defectors and foreign fighters to cause serious instability and ruin the hopes of pragmatic Taliban leaders for economic development,” wrote Dr Anatol Lieven in a Responsible Statecraft article last month.
“The opportunity lies in the fact that [Daesh-K] are feared by every government in Afghanistan’s region, as well as the United States and Europe. This gives the Afghan Taliban the chance to attract support from all of these states in their fight against [Daesh-K].”
Taliban v Daesh-K?
For outsiders, it is important to understand that the Taliban and Daesh-K have fundamentally different ambitions. Focused on Afghan interests and seeing itself as an Afghan group, the Taliban has domestic agendas that contrast with those of Daesh’s local franchise.
“While [Daesh-K] might also see themselves as tied geography to Afghanistan, they are part of a global jihadist franchise,” as Dr. Andreas Krieg, a lecturer at the School of Security Studies at King's College London, recently told TRT World.
“As such [Daesh-K] has more global ambitions. That makes them inherently different in terms of what they want to achieve…The Taliban no longer wants to be seen as a jihadist organisation. Their jihad was very much limited to Afghanistan, so it was always about Afghanistan. I think that’ll make the difference and pit the Taliban against [Daesh-K] quite naturally…The relationship between [Daesh-K] and the Taliban is very much broken…It’s more likely that they will continue fighting each other as they have done since 2015.”
Should the threat of Daesh-K prompt Washington to take advantage of new opportunities to engage more closely with the Taliban? Can Western powers and the Taliban form (informal or formal) relationships that serve to protect both from Daesh-K?
Officials in the US must take these questions seriously while observing the conduct of the Taliban as it transitions from waging an insurgency to governing a chaotic country suffering from humanitarian disasters and decades of warfare. Adding complexity and uncertainty is the fact that the Taliban is not a monolithic entity.
At this juncture, it is extremely difficult for Washington to make decisions about how to deal with the Taliban while there are so many unknowns about how it will rule post-US Afghanistan and approach global terrorist groups that seek to use Afghan soil for their extremist causes.
Ultimately, there are probably more questions than answers at this point about how realistic it would be for the US to enter a more robust partnership with the Taliban in the fight against more extreme forces that seek to target Western countries with terrorist attacks plotted in Afghanistan.
Nonetheless, it is safe to assume that the US will keep this option on the table and continue assessing its potential viability down the line depending on circumstances surrounding Daesh-K.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
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