Thursday, December 2

The West has to ask itself: if IS is the enemy, does that make the Taliban our friends? | Jason burke


TOAfter the bloodshed at the Kabul airport, the sad reality for those who want to prevent the Islamic State affiliate from causing further murder and chaos in Afghanistan is that, in practice, their best partner in this complex and difficult battle would be the Taliban. .

The province of the Islamic State of Khorasan (ISKP), the name is borrowed from that used by the early Islamic empires to describe much of modern Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan, was founded six years ago. Until this week it had been a failure. Although the group made initial breakthroughs, these were quickly lost when the Taliban fought back harshly: They were not going to allow an upstart newcomer, particularly one made up largely of disgruntled former Taliban, Pakistani and Uzbek commanders, to take over.

In 2019 and early 2020, a series of offensives by the Taliban, as well as government operations by the United States and Afghanistan, devastated the ISKP in eastern Afghanistan, reducing its control over the territory to just two small valleys in Kunar, the border province. from the northeast. However, despite several offensives this year, the Taliban have been unable to dislodge ISKP fighters from these bases. Now that the Taliban no longer have to fight elsewhere, many more forces can be concentrated against them and it is very possible that they will soon be eliminated at some point.

But while this would be a significant blow to ISKP, it underscores the dilemma facing the United States. The government in Afghanistan has long been “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This determines the choices of powerful locals, as Americans constantly judge who they best support (for example, which actor is most likely to provide them with the resources they need to maintain their influence) and who they should fight against. But if America’s enemy is ISKP, does that make the Taliban your friend?

That the ISKP is an enemy of both the United States and the Taliban is very clear. It derives its ideology from hard-line “Salafi-Jidaist” doctrines, influenced by Wahhabi currents of Gulf-style Muslim observance and the global vision of men like Osama bin Laden. Their ultimate goal is a caliphate that spans the entire Islamic world: a single “nation of IslamWithin which individual nations dissolve. One of the insults launched by ISKP members at the Taliban, whom they already consider “apostates” because of their (relative) moderation and negotiation with the West, is that they are also nationalists.

The Taliban have never hidden their belief in the nation state, although it is undoubtedly often tinged with a degree of ethnic and sectarian chauvinism. Nor has the Taliban ever been directly linked to any terrorist attacks beyond the borders of Afghanistan. Nor do they seek to establish a caliphate. The state they have been fighting for is an “emirate,” a far less ambitious proposition than the unified Islamic superpower sought by IS.

As ISKP has regained strength over the past year, bolstered by a $ 20 million (£ 15 million) donation from Islamic State leaders in Iraq, its attacks have included an assassination campaign against mid-level Taliban officials. The bombing of the Kabul airport was aimed as much at undermining the right of the new rulers of Afghanistan to a monopoly on violence as it was on the United States. Unsurprisingly, the people who know the most about the ISKP on the ground, who have the names of its commanders, can run its financial networks or even just stop the arms dealers from whom it has been buying significant amounts of weaponry in the last few weeks, it’s the Taliban.

The United States, by contrast, has just dismantled its intelligence hardware and networks, retired its personnel, and paid or evacuated its sources. Now the United States relies on what President Biden calls counterterrorism capability “on the horizon.” However, no neighboring country is likely to be enthusiastic about helping; And while undoubtedly impressive, the far-reaching tools of American intelligence have their limits. These alone cannot produce information of the same quality as that obtained by people in the field.

Meanwhile, the Taliban have clearly indicated their desire for international recognition, or at least acceptance. It is not yet clear to what extent its leaders are willing to compromise core beliefs to achieve this, but in practical terms, cooperation with the United States in the battle against a mutual enemy is certainly possible. This could be nothing more than the secret intelligence exchange. A Taliban advisory for a US drone strike against a senior ISKP commander would seem like a mutually beneficial arrangement, for example. Security officials 11,000 kilometers from Kabul would likely let others ponder the moral and ethical issues raised by such agreements with an abhorrent regime.

But once again, the United States has found that it cannot simply leave a country without consequences, and that the rules of the game are determined by those who live there, not by politicians in Washington. So Washington needs to choose: which enemy and which friend.

  • The fall of Afghanistan: Join a Guardian Live online event with our journalists Emma Graham-Harrison, Peter Beaumont, and Julian Borger discussing the latest developments. Monday, September 6 at 7pm BST. Book your tickets here. All proceeds will be donated to relevant charities.


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