Credit to Jonathan Schanzer | Senior Vice President for Research,
Foundation for Defense of Democracies – September 20, 2021
No, the Taliban are not America’s partners
The disastrous American military withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete. After a deadly ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K) attack that killed 13 American servicemen, in the wake of a lightning Taliban offensive that left the country firmly in the hands of al-Qaeda’s long-standing ally, and amid the fallout from a half-baked evacuation effort that still left Americans stranded, the White House has worked feverishly to recast it all as a hard-fought success in the struggle to end America’s longest war.
The White House spin is absurd, verging on the insane. The Taliban are back in control, with the help of al-Qaeda and other extremist groups. They have captured billions of dollars’ worth of high-tech American hardware. And they has reversed two decades of U.S. military, counterinsurgency, and state-building efforts that cost the American taxpayer hundreds of billions, if not trillions, of dollars, not to mention thousands of lives.
Moreover, after years of sustained American efforts to beat back jihadism across the Middle East, the virulent ideology of militant Islam and its practitioners is finding inspiration in the American defeat—much as it did in the mujahideen defeat of the Soviet army in 1989. That moment gave rise to a generation of international jihadists that was harnessed by Osama bin Laden and that ultimately led to the creation of al-Qaeda.
Worse, America’s ability to project power in South Asia is severely diminished. This will yield opportunities for China, Russia, and even Iran to fill the vacuum. The U.S. military could have maintained a small footprint in Afghanistan with minimal risk. Instead, our elected leaders fell prey to a false binary, promoted by neo-isolationists in recent years, that America either had to fight a “forever war” or quit the theater.
Remarkably, the Biden administration refuses to acknowledge any of this. Officials are doubling down on the narrative that “adults are back in charge” at the White House. Worse, the administration is peddling the abjectly false and Orwellian narrative that the Taliban are pragmatic actors, or even partners, with whom the United States is able to work to achieve common interests. Such depraved thinking cannot go unaddressed.
On August 17, 2021, during the bungled American pullout, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told journalists at the White House that American officials were “in contact with the Taliban to ensure the safe passage of people to the airport. We are monitoring for any potential terrorist threats… including from ISIS-K.” In saying this, Sullivan conveyed the deranged notion that the Taliban, a terrorist group that partners with al-Qaeda and seeks the destruction of the American-led world order, were U.S. partners in the U.S. pullout.
Similarly, as plans took shape for a final military withdrawal in late August, Secretary of State Antony Blinken conveyed to the American people that the White House had placed its trust in the Taliban. He stated that America aimed to “incentivize the Taliban to make good on its commitments,” and that “if the Taliban is serious about the commitments that it’s repeatedly made in public, including nationally across the country, as well as in private, commitments that the international community intends to hold the Taliban to, then we’ll find ways to do it.”
This was preposterous to anyone even vaguely familiar with the Taliban’s history of extremism and violence. Yet Blinken doubled down, citing “expectations of the Taliban going forward if they’re going to have any kind of relationship with the rest of the world, starting with freedom of travel but then going on to making sure that they’re sustaining the basic rights of their people, including women and girls; making sure that they’re making good on commitments they’ve repeatedly made on counterterrorism; and having some inclusivity in governance.”
The Taliban never cared about “making good” with the international community. As my colleague Thomas Joscelyn has pointed out, the Taliban rejected more than 30 demands by the U.S. and the United Nations to turn over Osama bin Laden over the years. After al-Qaeda perpetrated the deadly U.S. Embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1988, the Taliban’s foreign minister vowed to “never give up Osama at any price.” Mullah Omar, the Taliban’s founder, refused to turn over bin Laden even after 9/11.
Nor is this ancient history. The Taliban and al-Qaeda continue to cooperate closely to this day. In 2020, for example, a United Nations report established that the Taliban “regularly consulted with al-Qaeda during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties.” Earlier this year, the Defense Intelligence Agency also reported that the Taliban remained close with al-Qaeda and was planning large-scale offensives once the United States withdrew. Their joint targets: “population centers and Afghan government installations.”
It appears that General Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, and Rear Admiral Peter Vasely, head of U.S. forces on the ground in Afghanistan, did not heed the DIA report. Both referred to the Taliban as “our Afghan partners,” Politico reported in August. This may explain why they committed the grievous error of removing American military assets before evacuating diplomats, U.S. civilians, and Afghan allies. Indeed, there was no military cover for the civilian retreat. So when the Taliban predictably mounted their offensive and retook the country, Washington could not offer any protection to the civilians seeking to flee. The result was bedlam, leading to an ad hoc effort to evacuate thousands of people left stranded.
Adding insult to injury, when the American military withdrawal was complete, al-Qaeda released a two-page statement congratulating the Taliban on their victory. Moreover, Al Arabiya reported that al-Qaeda forces joined with the Taliban to attack the Afghan resistance forces that had gathered in the province of Panjshir, northeast of Kabul. This only confirmed what should have been obvious to all from the start: The Taliban view al-Qaeda, not the United States, as a partner.
But the Biden administration didn’t stop with the ridiculous notion that the Taliban were partners. It soon embarked on a campaign to brand the jihadi faction as moderate—relative to ISIS-K. Never mind that, upon sacking the country, the Taliban, the more powerful of the two groups, had just released hundreds or even thousands of ISIS operatives from jail. President Joe Biden himself stated on August 20 that he wanted “to make everybody understand—that the ISIS in Afghanistan are the—have been the sworn enemy of the Taliban.”
Biden repeated this four days later, noting the risks of “attack by a terrorist group known as ISIS-K, an ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan—which is the sworn enemy of the Taliban as well.”
Several media outlets soon regurgitated this bizarre line. Eric Schmidt of the New York Times wrote a head-spinning piece highlighting the threat from ISIS-K in Afghanistan, with the headline calling the group “a sworn enemy of both the Taliban and the United States.” Only later in the piece did Schmidt note that “ISIS-K has never been a major force in Afghanistan, much less globally.”
The truth is, while ISIS and the Taliban may have clashed, they have quite a lot in common. Their ideological underpinnings are virtually indistinguishable. They both seek to resurrect an Islamic caliphate. They both wield Islam to justify their violence and brutality. Their antipathy for America and the West is a core driver of their recruitment efforts. But even more remarkable is how similarly they evolved.
In 2013, ISIS grew out of the civil war in Syria. It rapidly conquered territory and laid waste to its enemies. The group was led by a fanatic known as Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who imposed hudud penalties in which thieves were punished by amputation and adulterers were stoned. Western innovation was strictly prohibited.
In the mid-1990s, the Taliban emerged out of the civil war in Afghanistan. They, too, rapidly conquered territory and imposed strict Sharia law. The group was led by a fanatic known as Mullah Omar, who also imposed hudud penalties on transgressors. And the Taliban also banned music, games, and certain Western technology.
ISIS was ultimately vanquished by a U.S.-led military coalition in 2016. The Taliban were ultimately vanquished by a U.S.-led invasion in 2002. In neither case was either group completely eradicated, however. They both fled to safer jurisdictions and regrouped.
In the Syrian theater, al-Qaeda and ISIS clashed and competed. This is the dynamic that the Biden administration seeks to exploit in its Afghanistan spin. In Syria, the Islamic State refused to recognize al-Qaeda’s authority. But it went a bit further than that. Al-Qaeda grew uncomfortable with the way in which ISIS had alienated the Muslim world with its brutality and nonchalant approach to killing. In 2014, al-Qaeda disavowed ISIS. Then, in 2016, al-Qaeda’s franchise in Syria—the violent jihadi group known as the Nusra Front and later Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS)—disassociated itself from the broader al-Qaeda network. Analysts increasingly began to describe HTS as “moderate” compared to ISIS.
This should all sound somewhat familiar. However, even then, it was a long throw from third. Describing the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda as “moderate,” even in relation to ISIS, deliberately ignores the franchise’s long-standing ties to the broader jihadi matrix. It further ignores the group’s horrifying track record, including suicide bombings and the slaughter of Western-backed rebels fighting the Assad regime.
It is said that success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Not so in this case. The effort to rebrand the Taliban as “moderate” tracks back more than a decade. It could not have happened without the help of the Obama administration. That said, the Trump administration deserves its fair share of the blame.
In June 2010, President Barack Obama called the Taliban “a blend of hard-core ideologues, tribal leaders, kids that basically sign up because it’s the best job available to them. Not all of them are going to be thinking the same way about the Afghan government, about the future of Afghanistan.” Then-Vice President Biden in 2011 stated that the U.S. military was “breaking the momentum of the insurgents and the radicalized portion of the Taliban” (emphasis added). Biden claimed that same year that “the Taliban, per se, is not our enemy.” Thus began the Obama administration’s search for the “moderates” within one of the world’s deadliest terrorist organizations.
Discussions began in 2011 between the tiny but wealthy Persian Gulf nation of Qatar and the Taliban, with the notion that eventually the latter would open an embassy in Doha. By 2013, the Taliban created an official office there, with the full backing of Washington. The following year, the Obama administration authorized the release from Guantanamo of the “Taliban Five”—senior Taliban figures with a history of violence against the United States and known ties to al-Qaeda—in exchange for Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, an American captured by the Taliban after (deliberately) wandering off his base. The Taliban detainees were sent to Qatar, where officials promised to monitor their activities.
This was akin to having a fox guard the henhouse. Persistent reports indicated that Qatar had been supporting and financing a range of Islamist terrorist groups. Nevertheless, Washington continued to encourage Qatar to take the lead in political negotiations over the future of the Taliban in Afghanistan. As the United States looked to exit Afghanistan, the Obama administration was angling for a diplomatic arrangement to provide cover for doing so. Qatar, warts and all, was America’s proxy negotiator.
In a strange turn of events, after Obama left the White House in 2016, the Trump administration sustained this effort. It did so even as the Taliban Five joined the Taliban’s negotiating team, reportedly at Doha’s urging. By 2019, the U.S. had concluded nine rounds of negotiations in Qatar. The process was gaining steam.
In 2020, President Donald Trump publicly implied that the Taliban could soon be ready to take responsibility for Afghanistan’s security. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserted that the Taliban had agreed to “break” their “relationship” with al-Qaeda and to “work alongside of us to destroy, deny resources” to al-Qaeda and to “have al-Qaeda depart from” Afghanistan. He later stated that the White House expected “the Taliban to honor their commitments to make a clean break from all terrorist organizations.” There was even talk about inviting the Taliban for talks at Camp David.
What was strange about all of these overtures and statements (apart from the fact that they were not grounded in reality) was that Trump had pilloried the Obama administration for insisting that engagement with the Islamic Republic of Iran would sideline “the hardliners” and empower “the moderates.” But then he turned around and took a page from the Obama handbook. He pursued diplomacy with the Taliban, sworn enemies of America, even as he derided a similar process with Iran.
The Trump team never presided over a military withdrawal, however. That was Biden’s ill-fated decision. One can only speculate as to what Trump would have done had he gone on to serve a second term—but there can be no doubt that he set in motion the process of ceding Afghanistan to the Taliban, agreeing to a withdrawal deal on February 29, 2020, and then drawing down troops. This provided the Taliban with a timeline for their military offensive to reconquer the country.
In January 2021, the Trump team handed the baton to the Biden administration. Despite wholesale changes in policy and personnel, Biden retained Trump’s appointed U.S. envoy to Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalilzad, who had played a crucial role in working with the Qataris. Khalilzad kept the ill-fated dialogue alive with the Taliban while promoting the fiction that this was a pragmatic group that could work with Washington. In May, he even slammed projections that the Taliban might overrun Kabul after the American departure as “mistaken.” He insisted that the Taliban “seek normalcy in terms of relations—acceptability, removal from sanctions, not to remain a pariah.” So much for that.
The United States has not just lost America’s longest war in a spectacularly embarrassing fashion. It has lost the narrative. The facts speak for themselves. The Taliban are not partners. They are not friends. And they are not moderate. Al-Qaeda has helped to make that abundantly clear in recent weeks. As Joscelyn noted in the Long War Journal, al-Qaeda’s senior leadership has gloated about the Taliban’s return to power, praising it as a “historic victory” and calling upon Muslims worldwide to support the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”
Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of the entire al-Qaeda network, has further sworn an oath of allegiance to the Taliban’s emir, Hibatullah Akhundzada. This should come as no surprise, of course. Al-Qaeda’s leader has maintained an oath of loyalty to the Taliban’s emir for more than two decades. But this history only underscores the absurdity of the Biden administration’s claims.
In 2014, al-Qaeda announced a new franchise: al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. It was deliberately created to support the Taliban. In the meantime, other al-Qaeda affiliates, such as Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan, have long operated in areas of Afghanistan controlled by the Taliban, suggesting a modus vivendi, at minimum. My colleague Bill Roggio continues to track the presence of al-Qaeda throughout Afghanistan. It was significant before the pullout (Roggio predicted for that reason, among others, that the U.S. withdrawal would be a disaster). The al-Qaeda presence in Afghanistan, now that America is gone, is only likely to grow.
The glue that binds it all together is the Haqqani network, a terrorist group that is both one of al-Qaeda’s closest allies and also an integral component of the Taliban’s network. The Taliban’s new interior minister,Sirajuddin Haqqani, embodies this relationship. He has served as the Taliban’s deputy emir since 2015, while a recent UN report identified him as a member of the “wider al-Qaeda leadership.”
The Taliban’s strong ties to al-Qaeda only reinforce the fact that the group has not grown more moderate or pragmatic in recent years. But one need not look to al-Qaeda for evidence of this. The group recently released propaganda venerating its “suicide squads.” In the same video, the Taliban blamed American “policy” for the attacks of 9/11—attacks they have never attributed to al-Qaeda.
In perhaps the clearest sign of what is to come, the Taliban have now formed a new government, and there’s nothing moderate about it. Many of the cabinet ministers have been sanctioned by the U.S. and the UN for terrorism. Several were Guantanamo Bay detainees. Two of them appear on the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program, whereby the U.S. government offers millions of dollars for information that could lead to their kill or capture.
In late August, in the wake of the televised horrors out of Kabul, President Biden continued to appeal to the Taliban to help facilitate the departure of stranded American citizens and others from the country. Out of sheer desperation, he tried to wield the “power” of the United Nations. A recent UN resolution “sent a clear message about what the international community expects the Taliban to deliver on moving forward, notably freedom of travel, freedom to leave,” Biden said in a televised speech. “And together, we are joined by over 100 countries that are determined to make sure the Taliban upholds those commitments.”
The UN likely had little to do with what came next. The Taliban ultimately granted the U.S. and others permission to facilitate a number of evacuation flights. This was by no means a collaboration or a nod to a budding relationship with Washington. It was a tactical consideration in the group’s longer-term objective of reconquering Afghanistan. Mission accomplished.
Jonathan Schanzer is senior vice president for research at Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @JSchanzer. FDD is a Washington, DC-based, non-partisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.Re