The threat of ISIS's affiliate in Afghanistan is turning heads in Washington
Taliban insurgents turn themselves in to Afghan National Security Forces, 2010. Image: ResoluteSupportMedia (CC BY 2.0). Behind the scenes, a remarkable new alliance is being sought in Afghanistan. At ground level the country's long war is as disparate and complex as ever, but this emerging realignment may well give it a different flavour.
On the surface, these five events seem to have little enough in common:
* The Trump administration is encouraging United States and Afghan troops to concentrate on safeguarding the main towns and cities, even if that means that the Taliban seize more of the rural areas where three-quarters of Afghans live
* A US government agency, the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, reports that the Taliban currently controls 59 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and actively contests a further 119. Many of the latter could well fall under its authority
* A three-day ceasefire organised by the Afghan government under the country's president, Ashraf Ghani, produced some positive results. Several local Taliban leaders reportedly met local officials. At the same time, a preliminary meeting was held in Qatar between Taliban officials and Alice Wells, the US’s most senior diplomat for south Asia
* US and Afghan government forces continued to take the fight to the Taliban in some areas (see Gabriel Dominguez, “Afghan and allied forces up pressure on militant groups”, Jane's Defence Weekly, 1 August 2018). This comes in the wake of Trump's reluctant commitment of 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan, after a period when the trend was the other way
* Islamic State in Khorasan province (ISK, or ISKP) – as the local affiliate of ISIS is now commonly termed – is growing ever more bold in Afghanistan. A suicide-bombing in Kabul, claimed by ISK, killed twelve people and narrowly missed the vice-president, while the group has mounted numerous other attacks. These incidents fuel a wider perception that the US will come to focus more on the overall ISIS threat than the particular Taliban one.
Afghanistan's current war is approaching its eighteenth year. If these recent events are seen in the context of that whole period, then Washington's emerging focus may become clearer.
The road from 9/11
The Taliban do now hold sway over large swathes of rural Afghanistan, but ISK too is gaining traction. It's little wonder that the US, in light of its fresh experience in Iraq and Syria, views this ISIS affiliate as the major threat. The logic of that judgment leads to Washington's support for Ashraf Ghani's attempts to negotiate with the Taliban. If the US does now see the Taliban in a new light, it's hard to overstate what a stunning reversal that represents. A brief digest of US involvement in Afghanistan in the post-9/11 years illustrates the point.
By November 2001, only ten weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, the situation in Afghanistan had been transformed by the termination of the Taliban regime and the dispersal of al-Qaida. But this was not military victory or defeat in a conventional sense. Rather, the Taliban forces and their al-Qaida guerrilla comrades had merely ceased fighting, and chosen to redeploy into Afghan towns and villages or across the border into Pakistan – with many of their arms intact.
By January 2002, the George W Bush administration had effectively handed over post-war Afghanistan to the Europeans, while it moved on to confront the newly designated “axis of evil" of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea – with Saddam Hussein's Iraq first in line.
At that time, some experienced United Nations officials and knowledgeable Afghans strongly recommended the immediate injection of a stabilisation force to fill the security vacuum: 30,000-plus troops was a figure often quoted. In its absence, went the argument, growing disorder would lead to ever greater ungoverned spaces, perfect conditions for diverse militias to put down roots and ensure a much longer war..
But neither the Europeans nor the Americans would provide this much needed support. Instead, a Nato-backed International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was set up – only 5,000-strong at the start – which could do little more than provide security in Kabul and a few other Afghan urban centres. Most regions and districts in the country were not part of a coherent plan to deliver security, a neglect which helped facilitate the return of the Taliban. Within three years, ISAF was facing rapid, fluid and costly guerrilla combat for which it was unprepared.
From 2006, the number of foreign soldiers in Afghanistan was increasing steadily; it reached around 100,000 by the time of the 2008 presidential election in the United States which brought Barack Obama to power. Yet the Taliban remained entrenched and effective, inflicting losses on twenty-nine of the national contingents operating under the coalition banner. The even more damaging conflict in Iraq led Obama to focus his campaign on the theme of withdrawing US forces from that country, but after much internal debate, and mindful of the Afghan connection to 9/11, he vowed to see the mission in Afghanistan through to the end.
If that ultimate aim was ambiguous, so was the hybrid approach Obama eventually pursued. This borrowed from John McCain, his opponent in the presidential race, the idea of a 30,000-troop "surge", but instead of this being seen as part of a strategy to defeat the Taliban (as McCain consistently wanted), Obama's aim was to weaken the Taliban and bolster the rule of the Kabul government to the extent that US troops could be safely withdrawn.
That plan faced constant setbacks on the ground, but despite the lack of progress the US forces were (as in Iraq) slowly extracted under Obama's administration. Its hope was that the Afghan national army (ANA) – which the US had poured great resources into building, training, and equipping – would hold on. But the military initiative remained with the Taliban, and as Obama departed the scene and Trump arrived the calculation in Washington shifted once more: opting for that modest increase in American troop numbers but also towards slow acceptance of the need to negotiate with the Taliban.
The morphing war
The US's hope now is that a deal can be done that achieves two valued outcomes: the negotiated entry of the Taliban into parts of Afghanistan's governance, alongside the conversion of the post-deal Taliban into a body able and willing to assist in the control – and quite possibly the eventual defeat – of ISK.
This would still require a remarkable turnaround. But stepping back from Afghanistan to view the wider picture, the notion makes strategic sense. For a new manifestation of ISIS is taking shape after its setbacks in Iraq and Syria. The group is on the way to mounting a guerrilla-style insurgency in these two countries; is expanding into north Africa and the Sahel; is making connections with Islamist paramilitaries in the southern Philippines and Indonesia; and not least, has a growing impact in Afghanistan itself in the shape of ISK.
Thus western states, despite what they might say in public, are ready to accept that the way to prevent an uncontainable Afghan insurgency is to form a necessary – if strictly unofficial – alliance with the Taliban. The major transnational threat of the US and its allies is the emerging ISIS, and Taliban involvement is considered essential if ISK is to be stopped (see Antonio Giustozzi, The Islamic State in Khorasan Afghanistan, Pakistan and the New Central Asian Jihad [C Hurst, 2018]).
The seventeen-year "war on terror" has made for strange alliances. Just as Iranian militias became quietly linked to the US-led campaign against ISIS in Iraq, so the US-led anti-ISIS alliance in Afghanistan is set informally to embrace the Taliban. This may cause discomfort in polite western circles, but its political reality is as stark as can be.
Paul Rogers is professor in the department of peace studies at Bradford University, northern England. He is openDemocracy's international security adviser, and has been writing a weekly column on global security since 28 September 2001; he also writes a monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group. His latest book is Irregular War: ISIS and the New Threat from the Margins (IB Tauris, 2016), which follows Why We’re Losing the War on Terror (Polity, 2007), and Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century (Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010). He is on Twitter at: @ProfPRogers