America’s top generals say a counterterrorism partnership with the Taliban is a possibility. They have even explored a potential deal with Vladimir Putin to use Russian military bases as a launchpad for U.S. strikes on extremists.
The drastic measures under serious consideration in the Biden administration underscore the daunting challenges facing the U.S. in its effort to halt the expansion of the Islamic State group in Afghanistan, slow a seemingly inevitable resurgence of al Qaeda and otherwise manage threats emanating from a country that is on the fast track to once again become the global epicenter of Islamist terrorism.
That such moves are even on the table, critics say, offers more proof that President Biden’s decision to proceed with the military withdrawal from Afghanistan has left America and its allies in a dangerous, compromised position.
Pentagon officials have talked hopefully of keeping an “over-the-horizon” watch on the expanding terrorist threat inside Afghanistan, but the early results have been negative and the skepticism about the U.S. plan is growing.
“The fact that these options seem so outlandish really is a measure of how few good choices we have available to us at this point. If we’re seriously talking to the Russians, we must be on Plan Z,” said Nathan Sales, the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator under President Trump.
“Not every partner is going to be the United Kingdom. But I don’t recall a situation where we were seriously contemplating partnering with a sworn adversary, which is what the Taliban is and Russia is under Vladimir Putin,” Mr. Sales told The Washington Times in an interview.
Without troops and technology on the ground, the U.S. is forced to launch drone attacks or other operations hours away from Afghanistan, and the lack of a physical presence has slashed intelligence-gathering and reconnaissance capabilities. Pentagon officials insist that “over-the-horizon” assaults from elsewhere in the region will contain the terrorist threat, but that strategy has been questioned, especially after an American drone strike in late August inadvertently killed an aid worker and seven children in Kabul as American troops were leaving.
Military officials initially said the target was an operative for an Afghan-based Islamic State offshoot known as ISIS-K driving a car filled with explosives. It turned out to be an employee of an American aid organization who was ferrying jugs of water.
Foreign policy analysts generally believe an immediate terrorist threat from Afghanistan is relatively low. The 2001 U.S. invasion decimated al Qaeda, and the subsequent 20-year military presence kept the group from fully reforming. Still, jihadi fighters are scattered throughout the country.
ISIS-K is a potentially destabilizing force inside Afghanistan, but the group has limited capability to conduct attacks elsewhere in the Middle East or Asia, let alone Europe or the U.S., specialists say. The group was responsible for a terrorist attack at the Kabul airport in late August that killed 13 U.S. service members.
The Taliban considers ISIS-K an enemy and has vowed to clamp down on it. It appears unlikely that ISIS-K will control any significant amount of Afghan territory in the near future.
‘High degree of uncertainty’
The long-term forecasts are much murkier. Analysts have doubts about the Taliban‘s willingness or capability to keep al Qaeda in check or to prevent ISIS-K from attracting recruits and spreading its violent ideology across the country.
Those questions and a host of others make it difficult to project the danger to the U.S. and its interests under the second round of Taliban rule.
“There is disagreement on this question. What I would stress is there’s a high degree of uncertainty about this, and as a result, if you’re in the defense world, you plan for the more worrisome cases,” said Daniel Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
The Taliban have vowed not to allow Afghanistan to be a haven where al Qaeda or other groups could plot attacks on the U.S., but Mr. Byman and others say that is little reason for reassurance.
“The bad news is they’ve had 20 years to cut ties to al Qaeda and they haven’t,” Mr. Byman told The Times. “They’ve had a lot of good reasons to do that, and they haven’t done it. It’s not like today they’re going to see the light. The question is whether they will allow [al Qaeda] to do international terror attacks from Afghanistan. … It’s possible they will be pretty careful because they paid a heavy price the last time they allowed al Qaeda to have free rein.”
The U.S. isn’t the only nation skeptical of the Taliban‘s promises against terrorism. Even Russia has said it will not officially recognize the Taliban government in Afghanistan until it proves it will abide by the guarantees it has made.
“Official recognition of the Taliban is not under discussion for now,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told reporters this week during a multinational meeting with Taliban leaders in Moscow. The Kremlin’s priorities appear to be to make sure Islamist terrorism in Afghanistan isn’t imported to Russia and that the current crisis in Afghanistan doesn’t spill over to Central Asian states that Moscow considers part of its security zone of influence.
“Like most of the other influential countries in the region, we are in contact with them,” Mr. Lavrov said of the Taliban. “We are prodding them to fulfill the promises they made when they came to power.”
Taliban officials say the lack of international recognition by the U.S., Russia and other powers has undercut their authority and emboldened ISIS-K.
U.S. officials have been reticent about long-term counterterrorism options beyond over-the-horizon strike capabilities, but they have confirmed that the Pentagon has talked with Russian military leaders about basing U.S. counterterrorism assets at Russian facilities near Afghanistan.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed before Congress late last month that Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, sought more detail from Moscow about a potential offer.
“I can assure you we are not seeking Russia‘s permission to do anything, but I believe … [Gen. Milley] asked for clarification [about] what that offer was,” Mr. Austin said.
Having fought the Taliban for two decades, Pentagon leaders say they are open to partnering with the Taliban for counterterrorism strikes against ISIS-K, though specialists caution against it.
The Taliban “would be a terrible partner in the fight against ISIS. They simply don’t have the capabilities to apply pressure to ISIS, and they won’t give us the access we’d need to do it ourselves,” Mr. Sales said. “They don’t bring a lot to the table in terms of the counterterrorism fight against ISIS.”