A preliminary deal between the United States and Afghanistan’s Taliban is reportedly in the making. Details remain unclear, but the core agreement would involve Washington withdrawing its forces from Afghanistan. In return, the insurgent movement will not allow terrorist groups to use Afghanistan as a springboard to launch attacks around the world. However, any such deal will be hard to put into action, because the Afghan jihadist group will not be able to uphold its end of the bargain.
Just four days ago, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a Shiite wedding reception in western Kabul. The blast killed 63 people and wounded another 182. ISIS claimed responsibility for the gruesome attack. Earlier, on Aug. 7, three suicide bombers attacked a police station in the same district of the Afghan capital. That attack was claimed by the Taliban.
The continuing Taliban insurgent activity running parallel to intensifying negotiations is a tactic to sustain pressure on the United States so the Taliban can extract as many concessions as possible at the bargaining table. The attacks from ISIS, however, underscore the hollowness of the Taliban pledge to keep transnational jihadists from using their country as a base. More critically, there is the matter of the Taliban’s relationship with international terrorist outfits, particularly al Qaeda.
The Taliban-al Qaeda Connection
The most important American demand in these talks has been that the Taliban disassociate themselves from al Qaeda. The United States has waged war in Afghanistan since 2001 in an attempt to ensure that terrorists do not enjoy sanctuary in the country, which has largely been an ungoverned space for almost four decades. In fact, Washington started its military campaign only after the Taliban refused to distance themselves from al Qaeda – leaving the United States with no choice but to treat the two as allies and topple the former’s regime. After years of conflict, however, Washington and the Taliban have had their respective realizations.
The United States realized that the Taliban are indigenous actors that cannot be militarily defeated; if anything, the group’s war-making capabilities only grew with time, and U.S. efforts to establish a viable state have not succeeded. For the Taliban, it became clear that its decision to remain aligned with al Qaeda after the Sept. 11 attacks cost the group its regime. The Afghan jihadist group also recognized that it could not achieve its goals without gaining international recognition as a legitimate Afghan national movement. The Taliban struggled to attain this status during their last stint in power (1996-2001) and know that the only way to achieve it is through a negotiated settlement with Washington. This is why the Taliban negotiators have been promising their U.S. counterparts that they are prepared to throw al Qaeda under the proverbial bus. But this is not something the Taliban can deliver on – assuming they even intend to.
It is true that the goals of the Taliban and al Qaeda are very different. The Taliban have sought to establish an emirate within the territorial confines of Afghanistan, while al Qaeda has been seeking a global-scale caliphate. That said, ideologically the two groups are very similar. This explains why, during its regime and even during the 18-year-old insurgency, the Taliban remained aligned with al Qaeda, using the latter as a force multiplier. During the mid-2000s, the relationship with al Qaeda proved especially beneficial to the Taliban; it allowed the Afghan jihadists to develop the modus operandi of suicide bombings – a tradecraft that the Taliban had not possessed until then.
While the Taliban representatives sitting across the table from Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s team are insisting that their group has nothing to do with al Qaeda, at the operational level the groups’ relationship has remained close. The Taliban subgroup known as the Haqqani Network enjoys particularly strong ties with al Qaeda.
The Shifting Jihadist Landscape
Washington is hoping that a deal will allow it to extricate itself from the longest running war in American history and leave the Taliban the primary responsibility of fighting transnational jihadists in the country. Yet, as we have seen in conflicts around the world, the jihadist landscape is incessantly fluid, and the lines between different groups can become very blurry. This is because they all share a common baseline militant Islamist ideology. Therefore, we can expect the Taliban to fight ISIS but not al Qaeda or other South and Central Asian actors. In fact, the Taliban will be fighting their Afghan opponents and ISIS simultaneously.
In this two-front war, the Taliban will need al Qaeda and other allied Islamist insurrectionist forces as allies. Bear in mind that the Taliban’s move to position itself as an Afghan nationalist actor is already causing it to hemorrhage; it has lost many fighters who feel the group is betraying the cause to ISIS. To counter this, the Taliban will need to buoy its radical credentials, and its relationship with al Qaeda will prove useful.
Therefore, it will be terribly challenging for the Trump Administration to verify that the Afghan Taliban have indeed divorced al Qaeda. This is largely because the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS are opaque structures and their linkages, even after a generation of the U.S.-jihadist war, largely remain well beyond the penetration of intelligence agencies. The jihadist landscape in Afghanistan will become far more complicated, and the deal with the Taliban probably will not yield a durable power-sharing settlement. Instead, the 40-year old civil war in the country is likely to enter a new phase.
In essence, the Taliban have very little incentive and lack the capability to distance themselves from transnational jihadists – much less ensure that their country won’t be a staging ground for international terrorist attacks. Washington’s need to fast track a provisional deal with the Taliban in order to satisfy domestic political imperatives ahead of President Donald Trump’s re-election bid in 2020 is understandable. But Khalilzad’s team must be empowered to negotiate more aggressively and pay attention to the details of any agreement, especially the enforcement mechanisms. Furthermore, Washington should realize that any deal would just be an initial step toward making sure that transnational jihadists do not regain freedom of operation in Afghanistan.
We should not repeat the mistake of simply packing up and leaving as we did after the 1988 Geneva Accords were signed. There is a dire need to plan ahead and in great detail for what happens after a deal is inked.
Dr. Kamran Bokhari is a founding director of the Center for Global Policy and the coordinator for Central Asia studies at the State Department’s Foreign Service Institute. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and are not an official policy or position of CGP, FSI or the U.S. Department of State. Follow him @KamranBokhari.