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Enemy of my enemy: ISIS hit shows where U.S., Taliban interests align

It’s far from an ideal partnership and one that comes with plenty of baggage. But in Afghanistan, the enemy of our enemy may be the best friend that the Biden administration has right now.

Pentagon officials confirmed this week that a recent operation by Kabul’s Taliban regime killed a key Islamic State leader believed to be directly responsible for the August 2021 suicide bombing that killed 13 U.S.  Marines at the Kabul airport. That attack, which came at the height of the Biden administration’s chaotic withdrawal from the country after 20 years of war, cast a spotlight on the deeply embedded terrorist networks still active in the country — threats that U.S. officials feared would rapidly metastasize with no American troops left on the ground to contain them.

A key component of the U.S. withdrawal deal with Taliban hinged on promises that Afghanistan’s new rulers — who had sheltered Obama bin Laden and al Qaeda leaders in the years before the 9/11 attacks — would never again allow the country to be used as a base from which jihadis could launch terrorist attacks on the West. In the nearly two years since the pullout, analysts say, the results have been mixed, with clear evidence that numerous extremist outfits are still alive and well on the ground in Afghanistan.

But this week’s revelations signal that the interests of Washington and Kabul are in some instances closely aligned. The ruling Taliban sees the Islamic State-Khorasan, a particularly active and violent branch of the ISIS terror group, as perhaps the greatest threat to its own survival. Specialists say the Taliban has been hunting down ISIS-K figures with ruthless aggression and in some cases executing them in brutal fashion. 

The Taliban is far from the model U.S. counterterrorism partner. But analysts say it’s a reality Washington may have to accept.

“We’re not talking about the American relationship with Israel, or the American relationship with Egypt. But there have been these hopes that the enemy of my enemy could get some stuff done,” said Graeme Smith, a senior consultant with the International Crisis Group who spent years working in Afghanistan, including as a political affairs officer with the United Nations’ Assistance Mission in the country.

In the face of considerable skepticism, the Pentagon has insisted that the U.S. still has the “over-the-horizon” military capabilities — mainly in the form of drone strikes — to take out terrorist threats in Afghanistan when necessary. But that approach is risky, Mr. Smith said, as the Taliban believes its 2020 agreement with Washington strictly limits American military activity inside the country.

For the Biden administration, that could mean that it’s often best to leave some counterterrorism missions to Taliban fighters rather than risk further eroding an already tenuous relationship between the two sides and perhaps even angering the Taliban to the point that it resumes direct cooperation with U.S. enemies such as al Qaeda.

“The Americans put a lot of effort into retaining an over-the-horizon capacity to conduct airstrikes as needed, but they know they’re playing with fire when it comes to relations with the Taliban if they do that,” Mr. Smith said. “The whole premise of the [U.S.-Taliban] deal was the Taliban promised to keep Afghan soil from ever again harboring threats to the outside world. And the outside world promised to stop pounding the country with bombs.”

“That’s really how the Taliban understands the deal,” he said.

A mysterious mission

The exact circumstances around the recent Taliban mission remain murky. Pentagon officials said little about the operation but stressed that the U.S. wasn’t involved.

“The Department of Defense can confirm that the senior ISIS-Khorasan plotter responsible for planning the Aug. 26, 2021 attack on Abbey Gate which killed 13 U.S. service members was killed in Afghanistan by the Taliban in early April. The United States was not involved in this operation,” Pentagon spokesman Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a statement late Tuesday night. “The Department of Defense continues to maintain multifaceted capabilities to monitor and disrupt ISIS-K and other potential threats to our citizens and our interests. The department, alongside other components of the U.S. government, remains committed to protecting Americans from terrorist threats globally, wherever they might arise.”

The Pentagon did not identify the ISIS-K leader who was killed in the recent Taliban operation.

Abdul Rehman Al-Loghri, the suicide bomber who killed 13 U.S. troops and more than 170 Afghans at the Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate, had been released from prison by the Taliban after they seized control of the country.

 He triggered the bomb outside the gate as U.S. troops were evacuating Afghan allies and American diplomats and aid personnel during the rushed August 2021 withdrawal.
There are sure to be lingering questions about the Taliban mission, including whether U.S. intelligence assets or American allies in the region provided any information about the location of the ISIS-K targets.

But Marvin G. Weinbaum, director of Afghanistan and Pakistan studies at the Middle East Institute, argued in a new analysis Monday that the need for cooperation against groups such as Islamic State-Khorasan is one reason the U.S. should reconsider its policy of strictly limited contact with Afghanistan’s new leaders.

“[As] much as we might prefer to see regime change in Afghanistan, for the foreseeable future a reasonably stable and sufficiently capable Taliban government is needed to help facilitate humanitarian programs, neutralize [ISIS-K], and avert state collapse and civil war,” he wrote.

Mixed record

It’s clear why the Taliban considers ISIS-K to be a significant threat. The group has routinely carried out horrific attacks across the country and has specifically targeted government officials.

On March 11, for example, an ISIS-K suicide bomber sneaked into the office of Mohammad Dawood Muzammil, governor of Afghanistan’s Balkh Province, and detonated explosives. The blast killed the governor and another official, and also wounded several others. 

In January, a bombing outside Kabul’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs killed at least 20 Afghans. ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the attack. 

Those assaults have triggered a vicious response from the Taliban. Analysts say the group is efficient in its operations and merciless with its approach.

“The Taliban’s approach to counterterrorism makes the CIA look like nice people. They go into mosques and cut the heads off of preachers,” Mr. Smith said. 

But the Taliban’s counterterrorism campaign is highly limited in scope, at least by U.S. standards. U.S. government assessments have regularly concluded that major terrorist groups, including al Qaeda, are still active in the country.

Other extremist groups also are not only active in Afghanistan but in some cases seem to enjoy at least tacit support from the Taliban. Specialists point to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, or TPP, as an example. The group is an alliance of militant networks formed in opposition to the neighboring Pakistani military, according to U.S. government assessments. The State Department has designated it a foreign terrorist organization.

While Pakistan and other regional players argued that the group might fade away without the presence of U.S. troops in the region, analysts say the opposite has proven true.

“On the contrary, the TTP seems to have been energized with the Taliban’s takeover and looks stronger than before,” Asfandyar Mir, a South Asia senior expert at the U.S. Institute, wrote in an analysis last year. “The depth of the TTP-Afghan Taliban relationship became evident after the Taliban’s August takeover. Almost immediately, Taliban leadership released senior TTP leaders and a large number of fighters imprisoned by the former Afghan government,” he wrote. “The Taliban regime also appears to have provided the TTP’s top leadership with de facto political asylum and freedom of movement within Afghanistan — from which the group is directing its campaign of violence in Pakistan.”

Pakistan has complained repeatedly that the new Taliban regime in Kabul has failed to crack down on the TPP or prevented it from launching attacks across the border into Pakistan.

— Mike Glenn contributed to this article

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