U.S. Bets on Old Foe Taliban to Fight New ISIS Threat in Afghanistan

As the last foreign troops depart Afghanistan, the United States is counting on its old foe, the Taliban, to keep the new threat posed by the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) at bay as the country teeters toward an uncertain future.

The concept reflects a new and stark reality, some 20 years after the U.S. and its allies first entered Afghanistan as part of a massive intervention against both Al-Qaeda and its Taliban host in the wake of 9/11.

But as efforts to shore up Afghan security forces against a Taliban rebellion proved fruitless and the regional threat landscape shifted drastically over the past two decades, the prospect of a resurgent Taliban leading the local fight against ISIS, identified by the U.S. as a far greater global threat, has grown increasingly accepted in official circles.

"I think that is the general consensus from most people here in the military, on our military and as well as the civilian side," a Defense Department official speaking on the condition of anonymity told Newsweek, "that the Taliban did not like ISIS in their area, almost to the point where they are more prejudiced against ISIS, and their ideologies, and they're working as hard as they can to remove them."

And while there is no suggestion that the U.S. would actively support this Taliban campaign, such efforts were welcome as the Pentagon formulates its own long-term anti-ISIS strategy in Afghanistan.

"In that respect, we're glad that they're doing what they're doing," the official said, "because it mirrors and parallels what we're trying to do for our counterterrorism mission."

U.S. and Taliban interests have previously intersected in real-world incidents.

Last March, shortly after former President Donald Trump's administration reached a historic peace deal with the Taliban, U.S. Central Command chief Army General Kenneth McKenzie revealed to lawmakers of the House Armed Services Committee that his forces had provided "very limited support" to the Taliban's fight against ISIS.

The general did not specify the exact nature of this support, and CENTCOM has said "Gen. McKenzie's comments stand on their own," but he did go into greater detail in a December interview with Defense One in which he characterized the operations as matters of opportunity in the fight against ISIS, not coordination with the Taliban.

Nonetheless, he acknowledged that both U.S. and Taliban interests were served in pursuit of combatting "a common enemy."

"It was an opportunity to strike someone who is an implacable foe of the United States," McKenzie said at the time. "We did it. It probably helped the Taliban, and that would be the way I would describe it."

Taliban, raising, flag, after, victories, in, Afghanistan
Taliban fighters raise their group's flags in celebration amid nationwide military gains in this photo shared by the Taliban's media wing on July 10. The group, officially called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, said Afghan security forces "should take advantage of the Islamic Emirate’s announcement of amnesty and join the ranks of the Mujahideen to save their own lives." Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan Media Office

The Enemy of My Enemy...

Months later, McKenzie presided over Tuesday's ceremony marking the symbolic end to the U.S. and allied NATO mission that President Joe Biden had said would formally conclude by August 31.

In his remarks, he focused on four key elements of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan moving forward: "Protection of the U.S. diplomatic presence in Afghanistan;" "Enabling the continued safe operation of the airport in Kabul;" "Continuing to provide advice and assistance to Afghan National Defense and Security Forces;" and "Continued support of the U.S. counterterrorism efforts."

A State Department spokesperson echoed these points from the diplomatic perspective.

"As President Biden said, the United States will reorganize our counterterrorism capabilities and substantial assets to prevent reemergence of terrorist threats, in Afghanistan or anywhere else," the spokesperson told Newsweek. "And we will continue to provide assistance to the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces."

"In addition," the spokesperson added, "the United States is working with international partners to deny ISIS-K access to financing, disrupt and deter foreign terrorist fighters from reaching Afghanistan and the region, and counter ISIS-K's extreme and violent ideology."

ISIS-K refers to the group's proclamation of a Khorasan province spanning Central and South Asia, with activities extending beyond the borders of Afghanistan to include parts of Pakistan, Tajikistan and India to some degree.

But unlike Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, the penetration of ISIS into Afghanistan has little historic precedent. ISIS was originally established as an offshoot of Al-Qaeda's own Iraq branch that later spread into Syria, hence the acronym, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or the Levant, sometimes shortened to ISIL.

The origins of Al-Qaeda, on the other hand, can be traced back to another era in which U.S. aims dovetailed with those of Sunni Muslim militias in Afghanistan. The group was formed by Osama bin Laden in the late 1980s in support of mujahideen fighters that also received direct assistance from the U.S. in their fight against Soviet intervention.

The eventual collapse of the communist government in Kabul was followed by a 1990s civil war in which the Taliban, officially called the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, ultimately emerged as the leading faction. The Taliban managed to seize three quarters, leaving an embattled Northern Alliance shoring up the internationally recognized administration in Kabul until the U.S. entry in 2001 dismantled the group's stronghold.

But after regaining ground nationwide even during the U.S. and allied NATO presence in the country, the Taliban again finds itself poised to be Afghanistan's main powerbroker. As such, both the former Trump and current Biden administrations envisioned a role for the group in securing Afghanistan's future as enshrined in their peace deal.

"We expect the Taliban to continue to meet their commitment in the U.S.-Taliban Agreement to prevent any group, including al Qaeda and ISIS, from using the soil of Afghanistan to threaten the security of the United States and its allies," the State Department spokesperson said.

Even without direct U.S. support, the Taliban finds itself indirectly supplied through the capture of equipment provided to the Afghan government by the Pentagon and abandoned by Afghan forces as they steadily surrender positions that could be attractive to ISIS as well.

Washington ultimately sees the success of any Taliban effort to oust ISIS once and for all as being tied to the broader peace process with Kabul.

"The ongoing peace process presents the best opportunity to reach a political settlement to end the war and build a united front against the menace of terrorism," the spokesperson said.

...Is Still Not My Friend

But in a larger frame, the inter-Afghan peace process has undergone little progress amid undeniable military gains by the Taliban. How far the Taliban is willing to extend its battlefield ambitions and how forcefully it seeks to leverage its upper hand against not only the Afghan government but militant groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda remain to be seen.

Douglas Wise, who served in the CIA as a member of the Senior Intelligence Service and was deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, predicted an upcoming clash between the Taliban and ISIS, but said that even a Taliban victory would not address outstanding concerns about its plans for Afghanistan.

"I don't doubt that the Taliban and ISIS are not going to get along," Wise told Newsweek. "And in certain villages, at certain locations, absolutely, there's going to be a contest for power. And it may be that the Taliban will win, wouldn't surprise me a bit, because, quite frankly, the Taliban are Afghans, ISIS guys are generally not."

"So the point is that there will be conflict between the Taliban and ISIS," he added, "but I wouldn't extrapolate that into an overall advantage to those of us that are now worried about ISIS more than we're worried about the Taliban."

Douglas London, a former CIA official who served as chief of counterterrorism for South and Southwest Asia, and author of the book, "The Recruiter: The Lost Art of American Intelligence," coming out in September, agreed with Wise that "the Taliban wish to eliminate ISIS, which is a rival."

"As an intelligence officer, I believe in talking to everyone," London told Newsweek. "And were the Taliban suggesting willingness to cooperate against such groups and ISIS is the only group they would be willing to work against, I'd listen."

He added that the work goes far beyond merely listening.

"But with the greater likelihood the Taliban seeks outright military victory rather than an inclusive negotiated settlement," he said. "I'd invest in collaborating with regional, tribal and ethnic groups and individuals opposed to the Taliban to collect intelligence on terrorist groups, as well as the Taliban, and as force multipliers to disrupt identified threats."

London argued that Taliban control over Afghanistan would likely thwart, not support, U.S. efforts to gather intelligence and take on such threats. He also expressed skepticism about the probability of the Taliban mounting any major actions against Al-Qaeda, given their shared history of cooperation and intermarriage among family members.

"The decision has been made to get out of Afghanistan, and there is a hope that the Taliban will not provoke us by supporting terrorism," he said. "But hope does not conform to certainty."

And, in fact, it is uncertainty that seems to dominate the debate over what comes next in Afghanistan.

ISIS, Khorasan, video, mosque, Darzab, Afghanistan
Footage from an ISIS-K video confiscated on March 21, 2018 and published in part on April 18, 2018 by U.S. Central Command shows what appears to be ISIS-K fighters training inside of a mosque in Darzab district, Jowzjan province, northern Afghanistan. The group was beaten back by a combination of U.S. strikes along with separate Afghan government and Taliban offensives, but the jihadis threatened to resurge in 2021 with a new uptick in attacks. NATO Special Operations Component Command-Afghanistan

The Threat from Within

The Taliban, for its part, has been keen to downplay the disruption that would ensue in the event that the Islamic Emirate returned.

The Taliban's media office did not immediately respond to Newsweek's request for comment, but the group's latest weekly commentary highlighted recent engagements with regional powers and lasting commitment to a peaceful resolution to the conflict.

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan should not be mistaken with a group that aspires arrogance or changes track upon gaining the military upper hand or position of strength," the statement said. "The Islamic Emirate sees recent advancements as increased responsibility upon its shoulders and views itself as a bigger pivotal Afghan party with an even greater responsibility of finding a way out for our nation from the current crisis in a peaceful and dignified manner so that the aspiration of a sovereign, Islamic and peaceful Afghanistan can be attained."

"Alas," the Taliban remarks added, "it considers dialogue and peaceful resolution an important and crucial factor."

But unless this "peaceful resolution" is reached, the Taliban continue to be seen as the most immediate threat by the Afghan government still in power in Kabul and provincial capitals and, by extension, to the U.S. as well.

"I think the limited help we've seen the U.S. give to the Taliban against ISIS-K in the form of tactical drone strikes isn't likely to recur unless either ISIS-K makes a real resurgence or the government and the Taliban reach a peace agreement," Wesley Morgan, a freelance journalist who covered the covert U.S. actions that benefited the Taliban against ISIS and authored the book "The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan's Pech Valley," told Newsweek.

At the same time, he argued peace with Kabul could actually inflame the threat ISIS poses to the Taliban in the form of defections, though the Taliban's dominant position currently mitigates this risk.

But, if the opportunity arises, ISIS may ultimately utilize an infamous strategy wielded by the Taliban against Afghan security forces and U.S. allies: insider attacks.

"Right now it seems like the combination of U.S. airpower and Afghan government and Taliban manpower has beaten ISIS-K back, so that it's just hanging on in a handful of valleys and with urban sleeper cells," Morgan said. "In its current strong position, I don't think the Taliban needs to worry much about defections or territorial losses to ISIS-K. If the Taliban reaches a peace agreement with the government, it could start to see fighters and subgroups splitting off to join ISIS-K."

Existing factionalism within the Taliban could exacerbate the threat.

"I could imagine that being a real problem for the Taliban," he added, "mainly if hard-line elements in the provinces of Paktika, Paktya, and Khost answering to the Haqqanis were to judge a peace agreement as unfavorable and split off, which seems unlikely given the Taliban's strong position right now."

Already, ISIS operations are on the rise in Afghanistan.

While a third of all ISIS attacks last month took place in the group's launching point of Iraq, some 21% occurred in Afghanistan, surpassing even those in Syria, home to the former de facto capital of the group's self-proclaimed caliphate, according to ISIS attack tallies gathered by risk analysis firm Flashpoint Intel.

An Arsenal of Diplomacy and Destruction

The Biden administration has emphasized it retains the ability and authority to strike any designated terrorist threat in Afghanistan if need be.

The president has also urged regional players to step up as countries like Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan identify an even more urgent need to address the rapidly developing Afghan situation in their own neighborhood.

Will Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute and Trump's nominee for ambassador to Afghanistan, said both military and diplomatic tools remained in the U.S. arsenal for combating adversaries in Afghanistan in the absence of troops on the ground.

"Going forward," Ruger told Newsweek, "terrorist groups that may emerge in Afghanistan with the intent and capability to harm the United States can be targeted with long-range strike capabilities and through engagement with regional actors that share our interests around counter-terrorism, neither of which require a permanent troops presence in Afghanistan."

The Taliban also may factor into this plan, he added, arguing that the U.S. should incentivize anti-ISIS efforts with clear communication to the group in no uncertain terms that it stood to lose its hard-won gains over the past 20 years if its rule once again threatened U.S. interests.

"Beyond that, the Taliban have some interest in working on their own against groups like ISIS-K that may oppose them," Ruger said.

"And should the Taliban come to power in Afghanistan," he said, "we should deter any collusion with terrorist organizations with the intent and capability to harm us, by making crystal clear any attacks against the U.S. or our forces globally will lead to severe punishment, such as was meted out after 9/11."

Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Long War Journal maintains a real-time map showing lines of control on the district level throughout Afghanistan's war, with the Taliban having gained a comfortable lead over its main rival, the Afghan government.