Kabul bombings will bring US and Taliban closer
The horrific terrorist strikes in Kabul on Thursday that killed at least 13 American servicemen and dozens of civilians will lead to a higher level of cooperation between the US and the Taliban.
The commander of CENTCOM (US Central Command), General Kenneth McKenzie, disclosed to journalists on Thursday that the US was already sharing information on terror threats in Afghanistan with the Taliban. As he put it, “We share versions of this information with the Taliban so that they actually make searches.… We think they’ve thwarted some.”
The US is finally coming around to the Russian view that the real terrorist threat in Afghanistan stems from Islamic State and not the Taliban – and, more important, the Taliban can be a useful partner in the fight against ISIS.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Thursday that a communications mechanism between Russia and the US on Afghanistan has been established, and contacts are likely to continue. This follows a phone conversation earlier this week between Russian Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev and US national security adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss the situation in Afghanistan.
The Taliban’s victory march into Kabul stunned US President Joe Biden’s administration. The immediate task at hand was to launch the evacuation of American citizens and thousands of Afghan nationals out of Kabul Airport. The daunting security operation necessitated a working relationship with the Taliban – even as, on a parallel track, the Biden administration began turning the screws to punish the victorious insurgents by cutting off their access to funds.
On their part, the Taliban have remained largely cooperative. With the comfort level rising, Biden deputed CIA Director William Burns to travel to Kabul on Monday to meet with the Taliban’s political chief Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. In retrospect, Burns’ mission would have been partly at least to sensitize Baradar about intelligence reports regarding an imminent terrorist threat to Kabul.
Indeed, Biden himself said more than once in recent days that the Taliban are an inveterate enemy of ISIS – and vice versa. Biden probably signaled to the Taliban about a limited convergence of interests in working together.
Already, in remarks to the press in Washington on August 25, Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted that when it came to dealing with the Taliban government, America’s self-interest came first.
In Blinken’s words, “Going forward, we will judge our engagement with any Taliban-led government in Afghanistan based on one simple proposition: our interests, and does it help us advance them or not.”
Blinken added, “As a practical matter, it advances our interests” to engage with the Taliban, saying that an Afghan government that keeps its commitments to renouncing terrorism, protecting human rights, and allowing people to leave is “a government we can work with.”
Thus it is to be expected that the terrorist attacks in Kabul will prompt a major rethink in Washington’s approach to the Taliban. What direction it will take remains to be seen.
But at any rate, a deeper engagement with the Taliban has become a necessity for Washington for the simple reason that they are the compelling reality in Kabul and they control almost the entire Afghanistan – and happen to be implacably opposed to ISIS and sundry other terrorist groups.
Biden’s message was loud and clear when he threatened ISIS from the White House: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.” That means that ostracization of the Taliban government in Kabul is no longer a viable option for the Biden administration. (The US bombed areas of Afghanistan on Saturday where ISIS is known to operate.)
At issue will be the terms of engagement. To be sure, the US will need a strong intelligence presence in Kabul. Thus the reopening of the US Embassy in Kabul may become unavoidable sooner rather than later.
The Taliban are pragmatic. They’ll be positive toward the US overtures for engagement, as it could open the pathway for recognition of their government, enhanced international legitimacy, and, most important, access to blocked funds, and resumption of assistance by the international financial institutions such as World Bank and International Monetary Fund as well as the UN agencies.
An enhanced level of relationship with the US will go a long way to help the Taliban to consolidate their government and focus on governance. Clearly, there isn’t going to be space for any anti-Taliban resistance movement within Afghanistan. The Panjshiris will be smart enough to sense this.
Suffice to say, the paradox is that the horrific events in Kabul on Thursday may turn out to be a political windfall for the Taliban. Afghanistan will remain a frontline state for Washington for the foreseeable future in terms of the potential threats to the US national security from terrorist groups.
And counterterrorism will be the leitmotif of the new relationship between the US and the Taliban. Of course, the quality of that relationship will depend increasingly on how far the Taliban government is receptive to the US expectations and demands on the security front.
Human-rights issues will inevitably be relegated to the back burner. Already, there is grudging acceptance in the West that a democratic transformation of Afghanistan is not to be expected and that prescriptive Western values have few takers in that country.
The question henceforth will be not whether the Taliban have changed from the 1990s but rather how much they are willing to change.
The best hope would be that as time passes and the Taliban gather experience in statecraft, they may assume some characteristics of the Muslim Brotherhood, with whose ideologues based in Doha they would have had chance encounters in the recent years.
However, for Biden himself, the Afghan debacle has seen a dramatic decrease in his approval rating from voters. As of now, polls show that a majority of Americans would prefer Biden to sit out the 2024 White House run.
Meanwhile, any serious reverse in the midterm elections next year would mean loss of control over Congress, which could cripple the presidency.
There is a serious political crisis at home that Biden has to grapple with. To be sure, the recent events in Afghanistan will seriously affect his administration’s attention span and capability to counter the challenge from China and Russia on the global stage. In fact, the Iran nuclear issue looms large as a huge challenge.
America’s credentials to lead its trans-Atlantic allies are already under question. The Group of Seven leaders’ meeting on Tuesday exposed the fault lines. Two days later, the limits to US power were on full display in Kabul.