The World

Wait, Is the U.S. Allied With the Taliban Against ISIS Now?

With some savvy diplomacy and just a fig leaf of moderation, the group could change its relationship with its longtime enemies.

(FILES) In this picture taken on September 26, 2008, Fighters with Afghanistan's Taliban militia stand on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul.  Afghanistan's long years of unrest have produced a new generation of Islamic militants, many of them bent on holy war, who are reinforcing the "old Taliban" in their deadly insurgency, analysts say. When the Taliban regime was toppled in a US-led invasion in late 2001, the hardliners were considered a spent force. But in their safe havens across the border in Pakistan, they have been able to regroup, recruit and -- armed with new ideologies, funds and warfare from the Al-Qaeda terror network -- make a deadly comeback, analysts say.  AFP PHOTO/STR/FILES (Photo credit should read STR/AFP via Getty Images)
In this picture taken on September 26, 2008, Fighters with Afghanistan’s Taliban militia stand on a hillside at Maydan Shahr in Wardak province, west of Kabul. STR/Getty Images

There’s an odd historical resonance the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris is visiting Vietnam as the scenes of chaos, bloodshed, and desperation play out in Afghanistan this week. For Americans, the evacuation of Kabul resembles, and has frequently been compared to, that of Saigon 46 years ago. Depending on your political persuasion, both are humiliating surrenders, the inevitable results of American hubris, or some combination of the two. But there may be lessons for Afghanistan’s new rulers as well.

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Vietnam’s ruling Communist Party were once seen as such a grave threat to global security and U.S. interests that America spent a decade fighting it, resulting in more than 58,000 U.S. military deaths—almost 30 times the number of American servicemembers killed in Afghanistan. And yet, today, it’s hardly even noteworthy for an American vice president or president to stop by Hanoi on a swing through Asia. The U.S. is the country’s largest trading partner, and Vietnam is viewed in Washington as a key regional ally against China. And this has happened despite the fact Vietnam is still a highly authoritarian government with a dismal record on human rights.

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The Taliban takeover of Afghanistan has been the nightmare scenario that has kept U.S. troops engaged in an agonizing fruitless war for the past two decades. Still, it doesn’t seem out of the question that the Taliban’s relationship with the U.S. and other democratic powers could see a similar transformation—and they may not even have to wait half a century.

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This week’s events show how the U.S.-Taliban relationship is transforming. After the bombing at Kabul airport on Thursday that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and nearly 100 Afghans, President Joe Biden vowed, “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” One thing he did not do amid all the tough talk was blame the Taliban. In fact, he was sure to point out that ISIS-Khorasan, the Afghan Islamic State affiliate blamed for the attack, was “an archenemy of the Taliban.” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, added, “I don’t think there is anything to convince me that [the Taliban] let it happen,” and described the U.S. and the Taliban as having the “common purpose” of getting U.S. troops out of the country by Aug. 31, which has made them “useful to work with.”

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Given the realities of the ongoing evacuation operation, the U.S. doesn’t really have any other choice but to work with the Taliban, if it wants to keep the flights taking off and maintain some modicum of security outside the airport.

But even after Aug. 31, or whenever the evacuation operation is complete, ISIS-K will still be there, and if the Taliban are savvy, they could use the ongoing threat the group poses to gain recognition, or at least grudging tolerance, from the U.S. and its allies. After all, in one day, ISIS-K killed more Americans than the Taliban has since 2019. While the group didn’t honor many of the pledges it made with the agreement signed in Doha in in 2020 with the Trump administration, it has refrained in recent months from attacking U.S. troops, in hopes of speeding those troops’ departure. ISIS is bound by no such agreements. The Taliban certainly seem to genuinely see ISIS-K’s eradication as a priority: One of their first actions after taking control of Kabul was to execute a former leader of the group who was being held in an Afghan government prison.

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The nearly universally despised ISIS has a habit of producing strange bedfellows. During its war against the group’s core “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. was allied with “moderate” Syrian rebel groups that were sometimes only one or two degrees of separation removed from al-Qaida affiliates, as well as with an anarchist Kurdish militia affiliated with a group on the U.S. terrorist list. It was tacitly on the same side as Iranian-backed Shiite militias. We’re already seeing once unthinkable scenes in Afghanistan like CIA Director William Burns traveling to Kabul to meet with the group’s de facto leader. If ISIS-K is seen as enough of an ongoing international threat—and the Taliban certainly has an interest in presenting it as one—it’s not hard to imagine an ongoing intelligence relationship between Washington and the new rulers in Kabul.

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If the Taliban played their cards right, it could even turn into something more formal than that. Russia and China are already cautiously moving toward recognizing the group’s legitimacy, motivated by a desire to preserve regional stability. The U.S. will be a tougher sell, but not an impossible one.

One key step could be for the group to invite prominent non-Taliban political leaders to form at least a semblance of a secular, power-sharing government. (Former President Hamid Karzai, as always, seems up for it.) In any case, a group with no governance experience over the past 20 years will likely need some assistance just to keep their regime from collapsing. Taliban leaders could still maintain de facto power through some sort of religious guardian council. This would actually be not that different from the arrangement the Biden administration was pressuring Ashraf Ghani’s government to accept just a few months ago.

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Security and stability aren’t the only assets the Taliban has in its favor. The group could now be in control of as much as $1 trillion in mineral deposits, including some of the world’s deposits of lithium, which could be a vital component in efforts to transition away from fossil fuels.

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It would be nice to think that the Taliban will moderate their harsh brand of theocratic rule, particularly their treatment of women and ethnic minorities, in order to avoid the pariah status they faced the last time they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s. But they may not actually have to moderate it that much. In search of security, stability, and natural resources, the U.S.
has had close relationships with governments with a sickening array of human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia, a country where until recently women couldn’t drive or travel without a male guardian’s permission and which has been linked to the propagation of Islamist radicalism throughout the world. The Taliban’s own predecessors in the 1980s were not that much more “moderate” when the U.S. was backing them against the Soviet Union. And however brutal and repressive the Taliban’s rule may be—and there are all indications it will be both—it will still benefit from the comparison to ISIS, which in its most notorious 2020 attack killed 24 people, including mothers and newborn babies in an attack on a maternity ward in Kabul.

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The fact that the Taliban has spent the past 20 years fighting and killing American troops might also seem to make the idea of an ongoing partnership of any sort a nonstarter. Perhaps, but it’s also worth recalling that the Obama administration, and to an extent the Biden administration, have sought to at least partially normalize relations with Iran, despite its role in saturating Iraq with the IEDs that killed and wounded many American troops for years.

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The questions going forward are just how pragmatic are the men now ruling Kabul and how much actual control will they have over their nationwide movement. Despite the best efforts of the U.S. and Afghan governments over the last 20 years to divide the movement and turn it against itself, the Taliban has remained remarkably cohesive. But as Crisis Group’s Ibrahim Bahiss has pointed out, the group’s fighters, many of them too young to remember the last time it was in power, have been fed propaganda for years about how the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate was the perfect form of government and are expecting it—not a moderated, less pure form of it—to return now.

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For all the conciliatory talk in Kabul, reports are emerging from Taliban-held areas elsewhere in the country of massacres of ethnic Hazaras, forced marriages, and the targeting of people who worked with NATO forces or the previous Afghan government. These practices may well escalate once the last Americans take off. Even the most cynical of American foreign policies has its limits: Donald Trump once spoke of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as a potential ally against ISIS, but changed his tune when images emerged of children killed in a chemical weapons attack and ordered airstrikes against the Syrian regime. Massacres of the kind that took place the last time the Taliban took power by force could have a similar effect on even the most cold-hearted realists in Washington.

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Then there’s terrorism. The Taliban pledged to cut ties with al-Qaida in their agreement with the Trump administration, but there’s ample evidence they never did that, and pro-al-Qaida social media accounts have been celebrating the takeover of Kabul. Counterterrorism experts fear that the badly depleted al-Qaida could reconstitute itself in an Afghanistan under Taliban rule, which would, suffice to say, complicate the notion of the Taliban as a partner against terrorism.

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Ultimately, any speculation about the future of Afghanistan or Afghanistan’s place in the world rests on what the Taliban does now, and given how little they’ve explained about their plans for governance—some Taliban leaders seemed as surprised by the rapid takeover as everyone else—it’s hard to know. It does seem possible that with some savvy diplomacy and just a fig leaf of moderation, the group could change its relationship with its longtime enemies, who are desperate to avoid further engagement by their own troops in the country. The Taliban could do it if they’re smart. But how smart are they?

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