After the bloodshed at the Kabul airport, the harsh reality for those who want to prevent the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan from causing more deaths and chaos is that, in practice, its best ally in this complex and difficult battle is the Taliban. .
The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) – the name comes from that used by the early Islamic empires to describe much of modern Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan – was founded six years ago. Until this week the project seemed to have failed. Although the group made breakthroughs at first, it quickly faded when the Taliban fought back in force: They were not going to allow a newcomer intruder, especially one made up largely of disgruntled former Taliban, Pakistani and Uzbek commanders, to take control.
In 2019 and early 2020, a series of Taliban offensives, as well as US and Afghan government operations, wiped out the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan in the east of the country, reducing its dominance of the territory to just two small valleys. in Kunar, the northeastern border province. However, this year, despite several offensives, the Taliban have been unable to expel the Islamic State fighters from these bases. Now that the Taliban no longer have to fight elsewhere, they can concentrate much more forces against them and it is very likely that sooner or later they will be able to eliminate them.
However, while this would be a serious blow to the Islamic State, it highlights the dilemma facing the United States. The rule in Afghanistan has long been “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” This determines which local power brokers the Americans will choose to support – for example, which actor is most likely to provide them with the resources they need to maintain their influence – and who they must fight. But if America’s enemy is the Islamic State, does that make the Taliban its friends?
That the Islamic State in Afghanistan is an enemy of both the United States and the Taliban is a no-brainer. Its ideology is based on hard-line Salafi-Jidahist doctrines, influenced by the Wahhabi currents of the Muslim Gulf stream and the global vision of men like Osama bin Laden. Their ultimate goal is a caliphate that spans the entire Islamic world, a single “nation of Islam” within which the various nations dissolve. One of the insults that members of the Islamic State throw at the Taliban, whom they already consider “apostates” because of their (relative) restraint and their negotiations with the West, is that they are also nationalists.
The Taliban have never hidden their belief in the nation-state, although it is certainly often tinged with a certain degree of ethnic and sectarian chauvinism. The Taliban have also never been directly linked to any terrorist attacks beyond the borders of Afghanistan. A caliphate is not their goal. The state they are fighting for is an “emirate,” a far less ambitious proposition than the unified Islamic superpower that the Islamic State seeks.
As the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan has gained traction over the past year, thanks to a $ 20 million (€ 17 million) donation from Islamic State leaders in Iraq, its strategy has also included an assassination campaign against middle-ranking Taliban officials. The Kabul airport bombing was intended to show that the Taliban do not have a monopoly on violence in the country, as they claimed, and it also sends a message to the United States. Not surprisingly, the experts who have the most information about how the Islamic State operates on the ground – who have the names of its commanders, who can trace its funding networks, or even simply arrest the arms dealers it has been buying from. significant amounts of weapons in recent weeks – be the Taliban.
The United States, on the contrary, has just dismantled its intelligence networks and equipment, has ordered the withdrawal of its personnel and has evacuated its sources or has terminated the relationship. Now the United States relies on what President Biden calls “counterterrorism capability beyond the horizon.” However, no neighboring country is likely to be enthusiastic about helping; And while they are undoubtedly impressive, the long-range tools of American intelligence have their limits. These alone cannot produce information of the same quality as that obtained by experts in the field.
Meanwhile, the Taliban have clearly stated their desire for international recognition, or at least acceptance. It is not yet clear to what extent its leaders are willing to give up some of their core beliefs to do so, but in practical terms, cooperation with the United States in fighting a common enemy is possible.
This could consist solely of the secret exchange of information. For example, a tip by the Taliban for a US drone attack on a senior Islamic State commander in Afghanistan would seem like a win-win deal. The security authorities, located more than 11,000 kilometers from Kabul, would likely leave it to others to ponder the moral and ethical issues raised by these agreements with an abhorrent regime.
Once again, the United States has realized that it cannot leave a country without consequences, and that the rules of the game are determined by those who live there, not by the political leaders of Washington. So Washington has to choose: who is the enemy and who is the friend.
Note: Jason Burke is The Guardian’s Africa correspondent. He covered the 2001 war in Afghanistan and his most recent book is The New Threat from Islamic Militancy.
Translated by Emma Reverter.