- The U.S. Allies with the Taliban Against Terror: My Enemy’s Enemy…
My Enemy’s Enemy…The U.S. Allies with the Taliban Against Terror
The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 to defeat the Taliban. Now that President Joe Biden has withdrawn the troops, he is relying on the Taliban to hold Afghanistan together and prevent it from becoming a playground for terrorists.By René Pfister und Christoph Reuter 09.09.2021
The more than 100 Afghans in question had worked for Germany and for an American company and were on the list for an emergency evacuation to Germany. All the names had been approved and a way had even been found to print all the documents sent from Berlin. Then, a week-and-a-half ago, on Saturday evening, the buses were finally lined up at the final checkpoint at the south gate of the airport. With bureaucratic zeal, the Taliban began checking every single detail relating to the passengers, along with the bus driver’s name. But they hit a snag: Someone had reversed a 5 and a 6 when writing down the license plate number of one of the buses. The organizers of the evacuation noticed it themselves and redistributed the passengers of that bus to the others.Aus: DER SPIEGEL 36/2021
The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 36/2021 (September 4th, 2021) of DER SPIEGEL.SPIEGEL International
But that wasn’t enough for Qari Omar, the notoriously temperamental Taliban commander in charge of the south gate. He demanded a new list of all passengers, certified by both Washington and Berlin. Following a few hectic telephone calls between Kabul, Berlin and the military officers at the airport, the new lists arrived. Omar nodded condescendingly and the buses were allowed through.
A mixture of ignorance and hubris led the U.S. and its allies to become reliant on the mercy of the Taliban during their precipitous departure from Afghanistan. And the Islamists savored their newfound power. Can the U.S. really rely on such a group in the future?
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Among the most unexpected ironies of this conflict is the fact that the Taliban, which U.S. President George W. Bush accused of murder in 2001, is now supposed to become a U.S. partner in the fight against Islamist terror. As bearded extremists were inspecting helicopters at the Kabul airport that had been left behind by the Americans, U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken stepped before the cameras in Washington and said: “The Taliban has made a commitment to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base for external operations that could threaten the United States or our allies.” U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mike Milley said last Wednesday that he believes cooperation with the Taliban is possible. “In war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do,” he said.
Castle Made of Sand
But how much faith can be placed in promises from the Taliban? The desire to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terror attacks was the first and last justification for the war Bush launched after the 9/11 assault on America. It went on to become the longest military conflict in U.S. history, resulting in the deaths of more than 170,000 people, the vast majority of them Afghans. It ultimately cost $2 trillion – and lasted as long as it did in part because the U.S. and its allies kept moving goalposts.
The hunt for Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida, his terror network, a conflict initially branded “War on Terror,” transformed at times into a half-hearted attempt at nation building. The Afghan state, though, was always little more than a castle made of sand, something the U.S. and its allies, including the German government, refused to admit for almost two decades. Joe Biden was the one to finally destroy the illusion, but the price was high.
U.S. President Joe Biden: “The world has is changing.” Foto: Jim Watson / AFP
Just a month and a half ago, the U.S. president promised that Kabul would not produce images reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, when hopeless Vietnamese tried desperately to board the last American helicopter. Then, after the Kabul airport had been surrounded by the Taliban and Afghans tried to cling to U.S. airplanes as they were taking off, Biden promised to evacuate every American citizen from the country. This, promise, too, proved impossible to fulfil.
Now, the Americans are left to hope that the Taliban learned their lesson from 2001. Back then, they made the mistake of allowing al-Qaida to stay, says Vali Nasr, who worked for the State Department during the Obama administration and now teaches at Johns Hopkins University. But he doesn’t think they will repeat it. “The Taliban know that the Americans won’t return because of Shariah or women’s rights. That would only happen if Americans were to die in New York because of a terrorist plan hatched in Afghanistan,” he says.
That, though, presupposes that the Taliban are a unified group that acts rationally. And that they can exert their control over all of Afghanistan, a country of 40 million people spread across a territory almost twice as large as Germany.
Indeed, the chaos at the airport in Kabul could merely be a precursor of what lies in store for the entire country. Already, Biden has been harshly criticized for placing the safety of the U.S. in the hands of Islamist extremists. H.R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s former security adviser who had a falling out with the president in 2018 and went on to become a sharp critic of the president’s Afghanistan policies, told DER SPIEGEL: “A victory for the Taliban is a victory for al-Qaida and other terrorist organizations.”
The suicide attack just under two weeks ago, which killed almost 200 people, was a clear demonstration to the Taliban and the rest of the world of the strength of “Islamic State Khorasan” (IS-K). The terror group had to that point primarily been active in eastern Afghanistan, but in the confusion created by the collapse of the state, around 200 fighters are thought to have infiltrated Kabul. That, at least, is what the Taliban’s secret service believes.
Filling the Power Vacuum
For the West, the only important question surrounding this ominous and extremely violent Islamic State offshoot is: How great is the danger that it could also carry out attacks abroad? But the group is also an important factor in the fragile balance of power in Afghanistan itself. Joe Biden isn’t entirely wrong when he says that IS-K is the “sworn enemy” of the Taliban. The two organizations are fierce competitors for power and are pursuing diametrically opposed aims. Whereas the Taliban would like to govern the entire country and keep it together, IS-K is hoping to benefit from the disappointment arising out of Taliban rule.
Nurses in a hospital in Kabul: Now that the government has collapsed, many people are no longer receiving a paycheck. Foto: Aamir Qureshi / AFP
The Taliban proved deft at filling the power vacuum that loomed once the Americans announced their approaching withdrawal. Especially in northern Afghanistan, they began early on to discretely win over influential local leaders, which is why one district after the other simply fell into their hands. The north is primarily populated by minorities, like Uzbeks and Tajiks, who felt they were being ignored by the former Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani is a member of the majority Pashtun ethnicity, as are the founders of the Taliban.
But the humility shown by the Taliban as they prepared their takeover has given way to the arrogance of power – and that could prove a danger to their rule. Across the north, Pashtun Taliban commanders have arrived from the south and are ignoring all the fragile deals that were negotiated in the hopes of keeping the peace.
In the Balkh Province, not far from Mazar-i-Sharif, where the German military maintained its final base until abandoning it in June, two military commanders were arrested, one of them an Uzbek. The two are to be sentenced to death for their loyalty to the former government. In the Warduj district of Badakhshan, several local commanders belonging to the Arbaki were kidnapped, with four of them later found dead on the banks of a river. They, too, had been loyal to the government in Kabul. In the district of Yaftal, a militia leader changed sides along with his fighters and raised the IS flag.
IS-K has one strategic advantage that is especially helpful among the minorities in the north: The group’s inclusiveness. The idea of a caliphate, as pursued by IS, isn’t interested in nationalities. All Sunni Muslims are more than welcome, with the Uzbeks valued just as highly as the Pashtuns.
Those who defect to IS-K aren’t doing so primarily for ideological reasons, says Jan Koehler, a Berlin-based political scientist who has been studying northern Afghanistan for several years. He says they are much more interested in tangible things, like respect and power. “Many are now rebelling against the Taliban for the same reasons they rebelled against the government in Kabul: the arrogance of the Pashtuns, who act like they are the masters of the country.”
A week and a half ago, not long after they took control of the capital, eyewitnesses in Kabul reported seeing Taliban stop drivers with drawn weapons to demand snacks. There are stories of Taliban marching into villages and forcing residents to cook them a hot meal. A catering company in Kabul was coerced into feeding a group of Taliban fighters for free.
In Danger of Collapse
Though these are but small anecdotes, they are a dangerous indication that the victors in Afghanistan aren’t even able to provide food for their own foot soldiers. The state that they would like to take control of is disintegrating: Technicians, public officials, financial experts – people, in other words, without whom no polity can function – left long before the Taliban even started recruiting personnel. On top of that, the remaining doctors, teachers and nurses are no longer being paid. Banks are only disbursing tiny amounts. Businesspeople are unable to import foodstuffs. Everything is in danger of collapse.
The U.S. withdrawal came suddenly, but Biden insists it was necessary. Foto: Jack Holt / US Central Command (CENTCOM) / AFP
A civil war, meanwhile, is exactly what IS-K is waiting for. “Not long ago, we were all afraid the Taliban would take power,” says Koehler, the political scientist. “Now, we need to be worried about them losing power.” It’s not about soft-pedaling the Taliban, he says, but they are the last ones who can still hold the country together.
Last Tuesday, in remarks at the White House, the U.S. president made it clear that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is more than just the end of a war. Biden presented a whole new era in foreign policy. “The world is changing,” he said, adding that “endless military deployments” are not the right approach to promote human rights and democracy on the other side of the world. America’s rivals, Biden said, are in Beijing and Moscow, and that will be his focus. “There’s nothing China or Russia would rather have, would want more in this competition, than the United States to be bogged down another decade in Afghanistan.”
But what if Afghanistan returns to being a playground for terrorists and Biden is once again pulled into the region’s chaos?
His government has made clear that it may continue drone strikes in Afghanistan. A week and a half ago, an airstrike carried out by the U.S. struck a vehicle in Kabul that was allegedly carrying IS-K terrorists. According to reporting by The New York Times, the strike killed at least 10 civilians, seven of them reportedly children.
There are many in Washington who think it was a mistake that Biden didn’t at least leave a small Special Forces unit in Afghanistan. “It is now painfully clear that the results of surrendering to the Taliban for the purposes of withdrawing from the so-called ‘endless war’ in Afghanistan will prove to be far worse than a sustained, small-scale commitment under a sound strategy,” says H.R. McMaster.
It should be mentioned that the approach described by McMaster – that of sending a small-scale commitment under a sound strategy – was the one pursued by the U.S. government in 2001. It didn’t work then, and ultimately spawned a 20-year war.
Still, his viewpoint is shared by some on the other side of the political spectrum. “I think that it’s almost inevitable that these terrorists will carve out a degree of sanctuary from which they believe they can operate with impunity,” says William Wechsler, who was deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism during the tenure of Barack Obama. It is, of course, possible to fend off terrorists without boots on the ground, says Wechsler, who now works at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank. But in the case of Afghanistan, doing so is particularly difficult because the collapse of the government in Kabul has led to a loss of intelligence contacts. Furthermore, neighboring countries like China and Iran have no interest in helping the U.S., says Wechsler.
The Power to Override the Pentagon
Biden, it must be said, did not make the decision to withdraw in a fit of momentary pique. Ten years ago, as vice president, he tried to convince Obama to bring the war to an end. Obama listened to the advice of his military leaders instead. This time around, Biden had the power to override the Pentagon, which again warned against pulling out. In his recent remarks at the White House, Biden said that he had to decide between sending thousands more troops to Afghanistan or pulling out completely. “I cannot and I will not ask our troops to fight on endlessly in another country’s civil war,” he said.
Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan in 2015 Foto: Ghulamullah Habibi / EPA / dpa
It proved helpful to Biden that his predecessor signed a deal with the Taliban back in February 2020 – essentially a capitulation foreseeing the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by May 1, 2021. That makes the shrill criticism coming from the ranks of the Republicans ring rather hollow. Biden, a Democrat, was essentially carrying out Trump’s plan. But the images from the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul are on Biden. They are damaging to the image of America – and of all the West — which wanted to demonstrate in Afghanistan that it could defend its values.
Following his election, Biden repeatedly insisted that the U.S. had returned to the global stage and intended to resume its leadership position of the Western world. But the last several months have raised the question in Europe as to whether that’s true. Biden did not coordinate his decision to withdraw with the Germans, who went to war at America’s side 20 years ago after then-Chancellor Gerhard Schröder pledged Germany’s “unlimited solidarity” after 9/11. German parliament extended the Afghanistan mission as recently as March 2021, only to learn a short time later that Biden had ordered U.S. troops to pull out. Taken together, it has strengthened the impression that, despite Biden’s vows of loyalty to the trans-Atlantic relationship, his administration may actually be pursuing a brand of isolationism that isn’t all that different from Trump’s.
“I understand completely if our partners in Europe and Asia are now wondering: How far will the U.S. withdrawal still go?” says Wechsler. He hopes that the country won’t completely disengage. But Biden’s priorities, as has by now become totally clear, are at home. The rapid withdrawal was also a product of the midterm elections approaching in fall 2022, and the desire to get the issue of Afghanistan off the table before then.
Wechsler says he can only encourage Europe to prepare to stand on their own in the future. “Even if you like Joe Biden, we just experienced four years of Donald Trump.” And there are plenty of voices within the Democratic party that are fundamentally opposed to international engagement, he says. “If I were Europe, I would ask the following crucial questions: Where do our strategic interests lie? And how will we achieve them?” Finding the answers are not easy. But Wechsler is quite certain on one point: The answers will no longer be coming from Washington.