The United States and the Taliban made progress in peace talks in late January after coming to a basic understanding about withdrawing American troops in return for Taliban commitments to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for transnational terrorists. An agreement between the United States and the Taliban has been long overdue — as part of a broader settlement also involving the Taliban’s Afghan opponents — and is the way out of a war without victory.
The fear of Afghanistan-based terrorists attacking the United States has been the key reason for keeping American troops in the country and keeping the Taliban out of power, but it is rooted more in perception than in reality.
The transnational terrorist threat from Afghanistan has been exaggerated. For years, I have puzzled over claims from American and Afghan officials that 20 terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan. Ashraf Ghani, the president of Afghanistan, portrayed the country as a “front line” in the global fight against terrorism. These statements make the Afghan conflict appear terribly chaotic.
The reality is that the Afghan war is a two-sided struggle, something increasingly rare in the fragmented landscape of modern warfare. The conflict in Afghanistan is simpler than the multifactional wars in Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen. Almost every battle in Afghanistan involves the Taliban fighting the government forces, which makes insurgency almost synonymous with the Taliban.
Foreign jihadist groups in Afghanistan grew, mutated and faded over the past two decades. Al Qaeda dwindled from a potent force in southern and eastern Afghanistan to a peripheral actor. This happened partly because of the relentless American campaign against them and partly because Al Qaeda’s attention moved to the Middle East.
The decline of other militant groups in Afghanistan has also resulted from the Taliban’s calculated effort to establish a near-monopoly over insurgent operations in the country. This could be observed when the Taliban declared a three-day cease-fire in June. No militants broke the cease-fire except for the Islamic State in Khorasan Province, a local franchise of the Islamic State. I.S.K.P. was born in 2015 partly in reaction to the Taliban’s purge of foreign jihadist groups and its own hard-line commanders.
When the I.S.K.P. emerged in eastern Afghanistan, the Taliban was the first to move against it. The Taliban was one of the three forces alongside the United States military and Afghan government forces whose sustained offensive against I.S.K.P. confined it to a handful of districts in the remote eastern mountains, although it has shown resilience.
Hunted and isolated, I.S.K.P. is the biggest nonstate group after the Taliban; the other “20 terrorist groups” have little strength, reach or operational capability. More than half are local Pakistani groups, some are long defunct, and others regularly change their ideology and branding. Most of them target Shiite or Christian minorities in Pakistan and occasionally Indians.
Others are weak and divided Central Asian organizations, driven mostly by hostility to their repressive states rather than the West. Some of these groups have a mere 20 or 30 members. There is no public evidence that apart from the remnants of Al Qaeda and I.S.K.P., any militant group in Afghanistan has actively threatened the United States. Not a single attack against the United States or Europe by any of these groups has been publicly linked to Afghanistan since 2001.
Critics of the American negotiations with the Taliban are questioning whether the Taliban’s assurances to not allow any terrorist acts against the United States and its allies from Afghanistan can be trusted.
The Taliban — like any group or state — can be expected to act in their own interests. Instead of trying to evaluate their trustworthiness, the more relevant questions are: Do the Taliban have their own reasons for excluding terrorist groups from Afghanistan? Do they have the capability to do so?
I have observed the evolution of the Taliban’s relations with transnational jihadist groups on the ground. The Taliban’s full-throated fight against the Islamic State franchisee in Afghanistan shows their will and capability to counter a jihadist group that they consider a competitor.
The Taliban are a nationalist and traditionalist group with no transnational ambitions; these features of Taliban ideology have strengthened over the past four years since the emergence of the I.S.K.P. The Taliban leadership has purged commanders whose ideology did not align with their own in recent years.
Because the Taliban have struck tactical compromises with Al Qaeda in the past, an important question is whether the Taliban will again offer hospitality to Al Qaeda or fail to prevent its resurgence after an American withdrawal.
After hundreds of conversations with Taliban figures, I concluded that both the pragmatists and the former champions of Osama bin Laden within the Taliban have grown weary of Al Qaeda and its ideology.
Harboring transnational jihadist groups cost the Taliban their government and sparked a bloody war. Many Taliban members have come to see Al Qaeda as a threat to their cause. There is now little sympathy in the Taliban’s internal discussions for any transnational jihadist group, which is a remarkable break from the Taliban’s ambivalent attitude toward global jihadism a decade ago.
A clear and public rejection of Al Qaeda and other transnational jihadist groups, with verifiable commitments to prevent them from resurfacing, must follow as part of a political settlement. An agreement with the Taliban that brings them into the Afghan political mainstream would create an opportunity to harness their interests in and capability to deal with any resurgent terrorist groups.
A Taliban that has made commitments against terrorism to join an Afghan government could be a more effective barrier against terror attacks in the West than keeping troops in Afghanistan and fighting an unending war.
Borhan Osman is the senior analyst for Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.