Working with the Devil? The Potential for U.S.-Taliban Cooperation Against the Islamic State in Afghanistan
During World War II, when defending collaboration with reprehensible regimes, President Franklin Roosevelt liked to quote an old proverb: “My children, it is permitted you in time of grave danger to walk with the devil until you have crossed the bridge.” In 2015, the year after the Islamic State declared the creation of a “caliphate” in parts of Syria and Iraq, Patrick Porter pointedly used the proverb in War on the Rocks to encourage reflection about how to respond to this group: Did policymakers deem the Islamic State sufficiently dangerous and evil to justify working with unsavory partners to combat it?
Today, the U.S. government confronts a different version of the same dilemma: Should the United States cooperate with the Taliban in order to counter the Islamic State in Afghanistan? When asked about prospects for that during a Sept. 1 press conference, Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, responded, “It’s possible.” Given the 20-year U.S. war against the Taliban, Milley’s remarks made news and came as a shock to some observers.
In fact, the United States has already worked with the Taliban on several occasions in pursuit of common interests, and Milley’s comment makes clear U.S. officials are seriously thinking through the possibility of doing so again. A review of the pros and cons of future U.S.-Taliban cooperation against the Islamic State in Afghanistan shows that while there may be operational advantages for both sides, those benefits could come at significant political costs.
Previous Efforts Against A Common Enemy
The Islamic State in Afghanistan is a declared enemy of both the United States and the Taliban. In 2016, the U.S. government designated the group a Foreign Terrorist Organization. Earlier this year, American intelligence estimates suggested the group maintained the desire to attack the United States and could develop the capability to do so within 18 to 36 months after a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As scholars Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines described, the Islamic State in Afghanistan, which was founded in 2015, “sees the Afghan Taliban as its strategic rival.” Among the points of contention, the Islamic State in Afghanistan is highly critical of the Taliban’s limited focus on that country, which “contradicts the Islamic State movement’s goal of establishing a global caliphate.” This rivalry has played out in both a war of words and through significant fighting between the two groups.
The Taliban and the United States thus share an interest in eradicating the Islamic State from Afghanistan, and each has conducted sustained operations focused on degrading the group’s capabilities in recent years. While its military was still deployed in Afghanistan, the United States conducted unilateral and partnered counter-terrorism operations with Afghanistan’s special security forces under the auspices of Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. The Taliban have also conducted unilateral operations against the Islamic State, such as when they eliminated the group’s position in Jawzjan province in 2018.
Additionally, U.S. and Taliban forces have acted in mutually beneficial ways in support of their shared interest. In March 2020, the commander of U.S. Central Command, Gen. Frank McKenzie, acknowledged that the United States had provided “very limited” support to Taliban efforts against the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province.
The extent of this support is not entirely clear, but available reports indicate it took at least two forms. First, U.S. forces exercised strategic restraint whereby they refrained from attacking certain Taliban units who were preparing to launch operations against the Islamic State. Second, the U.S. military conducted airstrikes against Islamic State forces who were directly battling Taliban units. According to U.S. officials, there was no direct communication between U.S. and Taliban forces during these operations. Nonetheless, both sides clearly recognized that tacit cooperation was occurring — the Taliban knew that the U.S. military was listening to their communications and American personnel overseeing the airstrikes went so far as to jokingly call themselves the “Taliban Air Force.”
A more recent example of the United States and the Taliban working together occurred during the evacuation of U.S. personnel and eligible Afghans from Kabul. To create as secure an environment as possible under chaotic conditions, the United States first agreed to an arrangement under which the Taliban took control of the city of Kabul, while the militaries of the United States and its international partners secured the inner perimeter of the Hamid Karzai International Airport. The Taliban further promised not to interfere with the U.S.-led evacuation. To try to facilitate the safe passage of individuals from behind Taliban lines into the airport, the two sides established direct channels of communication and de-confliction mechanisms. Controversially, these included the U.S. government giving the Taliban the names of people who were to be allowed through the latter’s checkpoints. For its part, the Taliban escorted Americans directly to the gates of the airport several times per day.
In the wake of the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s suicide attack at the airport that resulted in the deaths of 13 U.S. servicemembers and hundreds of Afghans, McKenzie revealed that the United States had been sharing sanitized intelligence on Islamic State threats with the Taliban for nearly two weeks. He stated that the communication channels and information sharing had resulted in the Taliban preventing several additional Islamic State attacks against the airport, including when the Taliban cleared a bus that was reportedly rigged with explosives and may have carried two suicide bombers. According to McKenzie, the Taliban were “very pragmatic and very business-like” during the final days of the withdrawal, and they were “very helpful and useful to us as we closed down operations.” The last U.S. servicemember to leave Afghanistan — Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue — talked to the local Taliban commander, with whom he had been coordinating, shortly before boarding the final C-17 out of Kabul.
Even more recently, after the Taliban allowed a chartered Qatar Airways flight to depart Kabul full of U.S. citizens and lawful permanent residents, the White House issued a statement saying that the group was “cooperative” and “professional.” The White House also indicated that the results of this effort were a “positive first step” for relations between the United States and the interim Taliban government.
Given the history of both tacit and direct coordination and cooperation between the U.S. military and the Taliban, as well as previous U.S.-Taliban diplomacy, it is not altogether surprising that Milley left open the door to an interest-based security relationship.
The Pros and Cons of Cooperation Between the United States and the Taliban
With the Taliban’s recent gains against the National Resistance Front, the Islamic State in Afghanistan represents the last major challenge to the Taliban’s consolidation of control in the country. The Taliban are, therefore, eager to destroy the group and, based on previous encounters, should be able to accomplish this. Nevertheless, with the addition of thousands of escaped prisoners to its ranks, the Islamic State in Afghanistan may prove to be a more formidable foe than it has been during the past few years. Thus, the Taliban might benefit from U.S. cooperation against the group — perhaps in the form of sanitized intelligence or even drone strikes — so long as any American support was provided discreetly.
For its part, the United States would benefit from the destruction of the most significant terrorist threat it faces in South Asia, without having to put any of its military forces in harm’s way. Relying on the Taliban to do the bulk of the fighting against the Islamic State in Afghanistan would be a far less costly approach than some of the “over the horizon” options reportedly under consideration. By offering contributions to the Taliban’s goal of defeating the Islamic State, the United States might also incentivize positive actions by Afghanistan’s new regime on other American priorities, such as allowing remaining U.S. citizens and Special Immigrant Visa applicants to depart the country.
As for potential drawbacks, the Biden administration is already paying political costs for the manner in which it exited Afghanistan. President Joe Biden’s approval ratings dropped sharply in August and, in a recent poll by the Economist, just 33 percent of Americans expressed support for his handling of the withdrawal and evacuation from Afghanistan. Overt cooperation with the Taliban regime — even if focused on a recognizable enemy such as the Islamic State — may not resonate with the American public or across the political aisle, especially if the Taliban engage in widespread oppressive actions toward women and minorities, of which there are already some indications. Additionally, even if the administration could secure the Taliban’s cooperation against the Islamic State in Afghanistan, it is highly unlikely that the Taliban would take further action against al-Qaeda, a group with which the Taliban maintain strong ties.
For the Taliban, overt cooperation with the United States could also bring political risks. For years, the Taliban have been concerned about — and heavily focused on — maintaining the internal cohesion of their militant coalition. The Taliban’s interim government, while mostly excluding minorities and entirely excluding women, is generally inclusive of the group’s internal factions and appears to have been designed with that as a central consideration. Some of these factions — most notably, the Haqqanis — might balk at cooperation with the United States. Or, as a member of the group’s cultural commission recently stated, they may just think that the Taliban don’t need any help from the United States to secure the country.
Working with the Enemy of My Enemy?
Given several decades of past animosity toward each other, the United States and the Taliban are unlikely to become friends, despite their common enemy. Yet, their recent history of coordination and cooperation might serve as a foundation for a limited, mutually beneficial partnership against the Islamic State in Afghanistan going forward. While coordination until now has mostly entailed communication through military channels, future efforts could be handled via other means. This might even be preferable if such actions were taken covertly. It is possible the Biden administration is already thinking along these lines, as suggested by the recent visit of CIA Director William Burns to Kabul.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin warned on Sept. 1 against making “any leaps of logic” to predict future collaboration with the Taliban just because of past cooperation with them. Immediately after, Milley emphasized that the Taliban are a “ruthless group,” but as he also acknowledged, “In war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not necessarily what you want to do.” While the U.S. war against the Taliban is over, its conflict against the Islamic State continues. In that effort, the United States may not want to work with the devil — as many Americans consider the Taliban to be — but it may yet find it beneficial to do so.
Jonathan Schroden, Ph.D., directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA, a non-profit, non-partisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. His work at CNA has focused on counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency activities across much of the Middle East and South Asia, including numerous deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also an adjunct scholar at the U.S. Military Academy’s Modern War Institute. You can find him on Twitter: @jjschroden.
Alexander Powell is a research analyst in the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at CNA. He has worked extensively on security issues in Afghanistan, traveling there frequently to conduct assessments of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. He holds an M.A. in security studies from Georgetown University, where his thesis focused on foreign armed interventions in Afghanistan since the Anglo-Afghan wars.
The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Department of the Navy, or the Department of Defense.