US-Taliban anti-terror cooperation? Not so fast

Salman Rafi Sheikh
Recent reports that the US and Taliban are on the verge of forming an unlikely alliance to tackle the Islamic State-Khorasan (ISIS-K) terror group overlook fast-changing geostrategic realities and thus are mostly off the mark.
ISIS-K’s Kabul airport suicide bomb attack on August 26 – an assault that killed 170 and 13 US servicemen and struck a hard blow to the Biden administration’s global credibility – brought Afghanistan’s lethal terror potential to television screens worldwide.
The US responded with an “over-the-horizon” drone strike on an ISIS-K planner in northern Nangarhar province, where the extremist group is known to operate. Significantly, the Taliban made no complaint about that and follow-up strikes.
But whatever tacit agreement the US and Taliban have will soon fall off as the lethal airport attack fades from news screens and US foreign policy priorities rapidly shift to East Asia and building alliances against China.
US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was widely quoted hinting there was an informal “understanding” between the US and Taliban after the airport assault. He also said that drone strikes targeting ISIS-K in Afghanistan will continue.
But the reality is ISIS-K, estimated by the United Nations to have some 2,000 largely foreign fighters in Afghanistan in pursuit of a transnational militant agenda, is a more serious and long-term threat for nearby Russia China, Iran and Pakistan than it is to the US.
With all American troops withdrawn from Afghanistan as of August 31, the US no longer faces any direct or immediate threat from ISIS-K – unless it activates sleeper cells inside the US or Europe to carry out attacks like the one in Vienna, Austria, in November 2020.
But while the US may still want to hit ISIS-K militants, drone attacks inside Afghanistan could become “a serious political and military challenge for the Taliban, especially because of the extremely strong anti-US sentiments that a majority of the Taliban fighters and field commanders share,” a Kabul-based observer who previously served in the Karzai administration’s security division told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity.
“The Taliban’s failure to stop these strikes could not only deepen ideological divisions within the group, but any alliance with the US could spark anti-US and anti-Taliban sentiments – making many of the Taliban fighters and commanders actually join the ISIS-K to continue their jihad against the US as well as its allies (Taliban) in Afghanistan.”
With or without the US, the Taliban will need to thwart quickly ISIS-K’s threat.
Not only does ISIS-K directly threaten the foreign powers – namely China and Russia – the Taliban needs to contribute aid for its war-ravaged and fast-collapsing economy, it is recruiting amid its rank-and-file as perceptions grown the leadership’s post-conflict agenda isn’t as radical as many fighters envisioned.
That all means the Taliban will reach more to Moscow, Beijing, Islamabad, and perhaps even Tehran, before building any significant anti-terrorism cooperation with Washington.
All those states have serious concerns about the formation of a broad transnational jihadi movement involving ISIS-K, al-Qaeda, East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM) and Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), among others.
“This will be a formation inherently predisposed to global jihad, seeking to liberate the Uighur in China, capturing the state in Pakistan, (as the TTP chief recently said), and exporting jihad to Central Asia and Iran”, said the former Karzai administration official.
TTP has leveraged the Taliban’s takeover to ramp up its attacks in neighboring Pakistan.
Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Muhaid said on Tuesday (August 31), in the latest bid to appease concerns Afghanistan could again become a hotbed for the export of terror, said on Tuesday the group won’t allow any group to use Afghan soil to launch transnational attacks, including in Pakistan.
That message doesn’t explain why Taliban fighters freed several detained TTP fighters including a top leader during their recent seizure of national power from the US-backed Ashraf Ghani administration.
With ISIS-K’s threat to Russia and Iran, ETIM’s to China and TTP’s to Pakistan, the Taliban are well-placed to seek anti-terrorism assistance from those countries, all of which have effectively endorsed the Taliban’s takeover and legitimacy as a political actor.
Suhail Shaheen, another Taliban spokesman, recently said the group is seeking to develop ties with China not only to promote regional peace but also to make sure that terrorist groups like ETIM have no safe havens in Afghanistan.
He also noted the Taliban is seeking Chinese help in “reconstructing” Afghanistan.
China’s special envoy for Afghan affairs Yue Xiaoyong has indicated Beijing’s broad, though not yet military, support.
“The best way forward is to communicate and be in touch with them, and work with them towards a peaceful reconciliation to build a widely accepted government, work towards combating terrorism, and build Afghanistan into a country that is friendly to its neighbors, the region and the international community.”
Significantly, Afghanistan has observer status in the China-led Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which includes several Central Asian states as well as Pakistan, Russia and India.
Yue noted the SCO has already opened talks with the Taliban, indicating a possible integration of the group in developing a common security outlook.
If and when it is granted formal SCO recognition, the Taliban will not only have access to Chinese investment (China is already the largest foreign investor in Afghanistan), but it can also sign formal deals for small arms and other advanced weapon systems to tackle the ISIS-K and other anti-China and anti-Russia groups.
SCO assistance will not risk the same blowback from radical militants currently under the Taliban’s wide umbrella who would be fundamentally opposed to any cooperation with the US in the name of fighting terrorism – the same charge America used to fight the Taliban for nearly 20 years.
A US-Taliban accommodation is also unlikely to yield any significant economic assistance, though the group clearly wants to avoid the type of debilitating sanctions imposed on neighboring Iran over its nuclear program.
The US has already frozen around US$7 billion worth of Afghan central bank reserves held in US institutions, representing most of the $9.5 billion it holds. Some see that as leverage Washington is using to ensure all its nationals can safely leave the country.
The International Monetary Fund (IMF) has also blocked Afghanistan’s access to $460 million in emergency reserves, while the World Bank halted funding to Afghanistan last week.
While it has not yet delisted the Taliban as a terrorist group, Russia has said freezing Afghanistan’s assets abroad is counterproductive and could cause a spike in narcotics exports as the Taliban desperately seeks revenues to keep the economy afloat.
For both Russia and China, the imperative is to stabilize and work with a Taliban-led government that is committed to combating terror groups that threaten to use Afghan territory to launch strikes on their interests.
While most Western countries have shut down their embassies in Kabul, Russia, China, Iran and Pakistan have opted to keep theirs open – a clear sign of their already good working relations with the Taliban.
But the Afghan-related terror risks the US and Western nations faced up until their evacuations a week ago have arguably already shifted to neighboring states.
UK Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab recently said going forward Russia and China will need to have a “moderating influence” on the Taliban.
And while the US hints it has reached a certain understanding with the Taliban on ISIS-K, the reality is that an unstable Afghanistan that exports terror threats to strategic rivals Russia, China and Iran is actually in Washington’s geopolitical interest.