By Borhan Osman
Feb. 7, 2019
The United States and the Taliban made
progress in peace talks in late January after coming to a basic understanding
about withdrawing American troops in return for Taliban commitments to prevent
Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for transnational terrorists. An
agreement between the United States and the Taliban has been long overdue — as
part of a broader settlement also involving the Taliban's Afghan opponents —
and is the way out of a war without victory.
The fear of Afghanistan-based terrorists
attacking the United States has been the key reason for keeping American troops
in the country and keeping the Taliban out of power, but it is rooted more in
perception than in reality.
The transnational terrorist threat from
Afghanistan has been exaggerated. For years, I have puzzled over claims from
American and Afghan officials that 20 terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan.
Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, portrayed the country as a “front
line” in the global fight against terrorism. These statements make the Afghan
conflict appear terribly chaotic.
The reality is that the Afghan war is a
two-sided struggle, something increasingly rare in the fragmented landscape of
modern warfare. The conflict in Afghanistan is simpler than the multifunctional
wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Almost every battle in Afghanistan
involves the Taliban fighting the government forces, which makes insurgency
almost synonymous with the Taliban.
Foreign jihadist groups in Afghanistan
grew, mutated and faded over the past two decades. Al Qaeda dwindled from a
potent force in southern and eastern Afghanistan to a peripheral actor. This
happened partly because of the relentless American campaign against them and
partly because Al Qaeda’s attention moved to the Middle East.
The decline of other militant groups in
Afghanistan has also resulted from the Taliban’s calculated effort to establish
a near-monopoly over insurgent operations in the country. This could be
observed when the Taliban declared a three-day cease-fire in June. No militants
broke the cease-fire except for the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a local
franchise of the Islamic State. I.S.K.P. was born in 2015 partly in reaction to
the Taliban’s purge of foreign jihadist groups and its own hard-line
When the I.S.K.P. emerged in eastern
Afghanistan, the Taliban was the first to move against it. The Taliban was one
of the three forces alongside the United States military and Afghan government
forces whose sustained offensive against I.S.K.P. confined it to a handful of
districts in the remote eastern mountains, although it has shown resilience.
Hunted and isolated, I.S.K.P. is the
biggest nonstate group after the Taliban; the other “20 terrorist groups” have
little strength, reach or operational capability. More than half are local
Pakistani groups, some are long defunct, and others regularly change their
ideology and branding. Most of them target Shiite or Christian minorities in Pakistan
and occasionally Indians.
Others are weak and divided Central Asian
organizations, driven mostly by hostility to their repressive states rather
than the West. Some of these groups have mere 20 or 30 members. There is no
public evidence that apart from the remnants of Al Qaeda and I.S.K.P., any
militant group in Afghanistan has actively threatened the United States. Not a
single attack against the United States or Europe by any of these groups has
been publicly linked to Afghanistan since 2001.
Critics of the American negotiations with
the Taliban are questioning whether the Taliban’s assurances to not allow any
terrorist acts against the United States and its allies from Afghanistan can be
The Taliban — like any group or state — can
be expected to act in their own interests. Instead of trying to evaluate their
trustworthiness, the more relevant questions are: Do the Taliban have their own
reasons for excluding terrorist groups from Afghanistan? Do they have the
capability to do so?
I have observed the evolution of the
Taliban’s relations with transnational jihadist groups on the ground. The
Taliban’s full-throated fight against the Islamic State franchisee in
Afghanistan shows their will and capability to counter a jihadist group that
they consider a competitor.
The Taliban are a nationalist and
traditionalist group with no transnational ambitions; these features of Taliban
ideology have strengthened over the past four years since the emergence of the
I.S.K.P. The Taliban leadership has purged commanders whose ideology did not
align with their own in recent years.
Because the Taliban have struck tactical
compromises with Al Qaeda in the past, an important question is whether the
Taliban will again offer hospitality to Al Qaeda or fail to prevent its
resurgence after an American withdrawal.
After hundreds of conversations with
Taliban figures, I concluded that both the pragmatists and the former champions
of Osama bin Laden within the Taliban have grown weary of Al Qaeda and its
Harbouring transnational jihadist groups
cost the Taliban their government and sparked a bloody war. Many Taliban
members have come to see Al Qaeda as a threat to their cause. There is now
little sympathy in the Taliban’s internal discussions for any transnational
jihadist group, which is a remarkable break from the Taliban’s ambivalent
attitude toward global Jihadism a decade ago.
A clear and public rejection of Al Qaeda
and other transnational jihadist groups, with verifiable commitments to prevent
them from resurfacing, must follow as part of a political settlement. An
agreement with the Taliban that brings them into the Afghan political
mainstream would create an opportunity to harness their interests in and
capability to deal with any resurgent terrorist groups.
A Taliban that has made commitments against
terrorism to join an Afghan government could be a more effective barrier
against terror attacks in the West than keeping troops in Afghanistan and
fighting an unending war.
Mr. Osman is the International Crisis Group's senior analyst for