The Prospect of US-Taliban Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is the Embrace Worth It?

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The Prospect of US-Taliban Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is the Embrace Worth It?

Suggested convergence on counterterrorism cooperation between the United States and the Taliban may be a double-edged sword. 

The Prospect of US-Taliban Counterterrorism Cooperation: Is the Embrace Worth It?

This image from a video released by the Department of Defense shows U.S. Marines at Abbey Gate before a suicide bomber struck outside Hamid Karzai International Airport on Aug. 26, 2021, in Kabul Afghanistan.

Credit: Department of Defense via AP, File

It is not often that the United States and the Taliban vouch for the authenticity of the same incident. On April 25, American officials appeared to confirm the Taliban claim that the mastermind of the August 2021 suicide bombing attack at Kabul International Airport’s Abbey Gate, which killed 13 U.S. troops and as many as 173 Afghan civilians, was killed in a Taliban operation in early April. 

Strangely, however, neither side provided the name of the terrorist that was killed, a member of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP). No other details or evidence were provided. This information vacuum has come under attack, with a former Afghan security force commander asserting that the claims of the Taliban and its confirmation by the United States are false.

The attempt to sing in one voice could point to the possibility of some degree of convergence between the two countries, as far as counterterrorism is concerned.

Sayed Sami Sadat served as a lieutenant-general of the Afghanistan army and commanded forces in the southern province of Helmand in the last months of the Taliban offensive. In August 2021, a day before Kabul fell into the hands of the Taliban, he was appointed to head the Afghan National Special Operation Corps. Sadat alleged in a tweet on April 26 that the mastermind of the Abbey Gate attack, ISKP commander Abdullah Omar Bajawari, is still alive.

In a follow-up interview with me on May 12, Sadat insisted that Bajawari heads ISKP’s intelligence wing and operates from Kunar province. Bajawari was authorized by ISKP leader Sanaullah a.k.a. Shahab al-Muhajir, a Kabul native, to plan the attack. Sadat claimed that the Taliban operations in April 2023 had killed Doctor Hassan, a junior coordinator for ISKP’s operations in Herat, in western Afghanistan. Hassan had nothing to do with the Abbey Gate attack, he said.

Neither the Taliban or U.S. claim, nor Sadat’s contradictory assertion, is verifiable.

Incidentally, a senior ISKP commander named Syed Omar Bajawari a.k.a Khetab was killed by the special forces of the Afghan National Police during a counterterrorism operation in Achin district in April 2017. However, in jihadist terror establishments worldwide, names and assumed names of terrorists do overlap and there is no way to find out if Abdullah Omar Bajawari and Syed Omar Bajwari are the same person. Moreover, while ISKP had named the suicide bomber of the Abbey Gate attack as Abdul Rahman al-Logari, it kept silent about the planning of the attack. U.S. intelligence insisted that al-Logari was a former engineering student who was one of several thousand militants freed from at least two high-security prisons after the Taliban seized control of Kabul. 

There is no denying the fact that ISKP continues to pose a serious threat to the Taliban and to regional security. According to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), the group has spread from its original stronghold in eastern Afghanistan to nearly all of the country’s 34 provinces. There are, however, conflicting estimates of ISKP’s strength, ranging from 3,000 to 5,000. Sadat insists that the group’s strength is 7,000, bolstered by the 2,800 who escaped the two prisons raided by the Taliban in August 2021, which included some fighters from the Middle East and North Africa. 

The U.S. and Taliban refusal to provide the slain terrorist’s name remains at the root of the confusion. It is possible that there is a tactical convergence of interests between the United States and the Taliban. Sadat insists that both the Taliban and the U.S. are trying to sell a “success story” — the Taliban to the international community and the U.S. to its own people. However, there could be much more than that under the surface. Notwithstanding Taliban assertions that they have been able to keep ISKP’s activities under control, the group could be expanding rapidly on the ground. A leaked Pentagon assessment indicated that ISKP is once again using Afghanistan as a staging ground for plots against the United States, Europe, and Asia.

According to Sadat, ISKP now has an extended network of support in the Khuzdar and Kharan districts of Balochistan in Pakistan and may have even penetrated inside the Iranian border. If the pace of its expansion continues, in the next two years, it could emerge as much more dangerous and with the capacity to orchestrate attacks on a wider scale. This can be stopped only through an effective counterterrorism strategy within Afghanistan. The Taliban neither have a complex intelligence network to pursue ISKP, nor do they have the capacity or means to fight ISKP effectively at scale. Worse still, some Taliban rank-and-file members might refuse to fight ISKP due to a symbiotic ideological nexus, seriously hampering the objective of keeping the group under check.

It is here that the prospect of U.S. and Taliban counterterrorism cooperation against ISKP assumes importance. Media reports have already pointed to this possibility. 

This, however, is a double-edged sword. While such cooperation could possibly check ISKP, it may also potentially legitimize the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate and its regressive worldview and policies. In the last 21 months since recapturing power, the Taliban’s attitude has hardened. The dangers of recognizing the Taliban without any time-bound deliverables on the ground could lead to blowback of a different nature. While counterterrorism cooperation with the Taliban could indeed have become a necessity, it must be accompanied by reminders about where the United States stands on issues like governance, political inclusiveness, and the protection of women’s and minority rights — all necessary to prevent Afghanistan sliding further into the vortex of violent extremism and terrorism.