In August, Afghanistan fell to a coalition of jihadists under the direction of Pakistan’s military-intelligence establishment. This coalition has announced an Islamic Emirate “government” in Afghanistan that includes the Taliban, Al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network—some of the most deadly terrorist groups of recent decades. The question now is what Western governments and regional governments opposed to the spread of Islamist extremism and the terrorist risk this poses can do about it.
Use the Terrorists to Fight the Terrorists?
One answer is to work with this Islamic Emirate to suppress an apparently even worse danger, namely the Islamic State’s South Asian branch, the so-called Khorasan Province (ISKP). This is the option rather explicitly propounded by the United States. Having signed a withdrawal agreement spun as a peace deal in February 2020 while the Taliban was being hosted by Qatar, the U.S. has taken to quoting this “Doha Agreement” as imposing on the Taliban “commitments on counterterrorism”. There is a surreal quality to this posture.
It is technically true that the Taliban was never added to the list of U.S. Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). It is equally true that the Taliban remains bound—by covenant, ideology, command structure, and family relations—to Al-Qaeda and the Haqqani Network, both of which are formal FTOs. Even without this obvious, public integration of the Taliban with blacklisted groups, any objective observer would have to consider the Taliban a terrorist organization: it has brutalised its way back into power through the systematic use of violence against civilians, including suicide bombings.
The messaging from President Joe Biden’s administration has been very persistent in referring to the Taliban as “sworn enemies” of ISKP. Accurate in so far as it goes, it is irrelevant in two senses.
First, the Taliban have not prioritised countering ISKP. As General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), told Voice of America last week, “I don’t know that [the Taliban are] doing anything at all for us right now” when it comes to counterterrorism.
Second, even if the Taliban had the will, they do not have the capacity. The most charitable interpretation of the ISKP massacre of nearly 200 people at the Kabul airport on 26 August, when an ISKP suicide bomber penetrated the Taliban security cordon, is that the Taliban could not stop it. In just the last few days, ISKP has conducted more than a dozen attacks in Afghanistan using long-established and well-known networks, where, again, the most charitable explanation is that the Taliban cannot do anything about them.
Back to Reality
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Lorenzo Vidino, the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University and the author of The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West, which has been reviewed here at EER, set out the folly of “[d]ividing the jihadi movement into ‘moderates’ (HTS [Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the Taliban, and even Al Qaeda) [that] Washington [and its allies] can do business with, and extremists (the Islamic State) that are the only real enemy”.
The brazen barbarism of the Islamic State (ISIS) provoked a global coalition to wage war against it, Vidino notes, while Syria’s Al-Qaeda branch, then-Jabhat al-Nusra and now HTS, expanded its hold on territory—but quietly, and only suffered “some targeted strikes”. “The lesson was clear”, says Vidino. “Lay low, don’t behead Westerners, don’t plan attacks in the West, and Washington lets you be. … The Syrian lesson has recently been confirmed in Afghanistan.” Al-Qaeda’s West African groups have taken a similar position, warring with French troops supporting regional governments but explicitly renouncing plans to attack French territory.
As Vidino sets out, the offer from jihadists in “the pro-Al-Qaeda galaxy” relies on the West’s advertised “war-weariness”:
“You let us be, and we let you be. We know you want out of the region and are no longer interested in spending your lives and money to defend far-flung places of little strategic value to you. Allow us to rule them, and we will not bother you. To the contrary, we will actually help you neutralize the one group that threatens you, the Islamic State, which is also our sworn enemy. Yes, we will denounce you in our propaganda for your support of Israel and other regimes in the region or for offending the honor of the Prophet Muhammad. But we have become pragmatic political actors and are ready to strike a deal with you that allows you to exit large parts of the region without any negative consequences.”
There are reasons to doubt that Western “war-weariness” is a genuine phenomenon, and it is certainly not an organic one. Samantha Power, the current Administrator of the United States Agency for International Development, described in her classic 2002 book on the response states have to genocide, “A Problem from Hell”: America and the Age of Genocide, the “circular” relationship democratic leaders have with a public opinion they claim to be trapped by: “[voting] constituencies are rarely if ever aroused by foreign crises … in the absence of political leadership, and yet at the same time [government] officials continually cite the absence of public support as grounds for inaction.”
Be that as it may, most Western political leaders are now unwilling to make the case to their publics about the need for overseas deployments—and Al-Qaeda has seized the opportunity, even if, as Vidino notes, “The terms of the deal are … not expressed in plain words—[since] doing so would give ammunition to the Islamic State’s propagandists, who are already painting Al-Qaeda and the Taliban as U.S. collaborators and puppets who have forsaken the true path of jihad”.
From the West, “entrusting ‘moderate jihadis’ to govern spaces that seem to be ungovernable by any other force” is being passed off as “a form of realpolitik”, Vidino writes: it is sold as being cheaper, it “is accompanied by a narrative that paints ‘moderate jihadis’ as an authentic expression of the local population”, and it is “sprinkled by occasional condemnation[s] of human rights abuses or even some toothless sanction[s]”. But this “deal with the devil” is far less “reasonable” than its proponents make it sound, Vidino argues.
This deal “would not mean the end of terrorism in the West”, Vidino explains: the success of jihadists like the Taliban can easily inspire lone actors; the incentive structure actually pushes ISIS to engage in more terrorism in the West, to embarrass and supplant Al-Qaeda’s coalition; and, “most importantly”, the moderates-vs.-extremists paradigm is fatally flawed.
If there is a distinction between jihadists, says Vidino, “A more fitting categorization is between gradualist and impatient jihadism”. Vidino underlines: “Gradualist jihadism is not more moderate but simply tactically smarter, adapting in the short term to then be in a better position to do what is in the DNA of all jihadis: destabilize the larger region and attack the West” [emphasis added].
“The difference between the two is not so much in the end goals but in the time frame”, Vidino concludes, and here the West’s Achilles heel is all too obvious. Dealing with Islamic militancy requires “Western policymakers to think beyond the time frame of the 24-hour news cycles and permanent election campaigns to years and decades, as jihadis do.” Sadly, at the present time, there is little evidence this can be done.