August 29, 2019


How to Partner With the Taliban: The Trump administration's peace deal for Afghanistan needs a plan for the country's most looming threat: international terrorists whom both sides oppose. (ROBERT PAPE, AUGUST 26, 2019, Foreign Policy)

The all-too-real risk with a complete withdrawal is that another international terrorist group bent on attacking the United States or its Western allies will use Afghanistan as a base to plan, organize, and execute future attacks. This has happened before. Although the Taliban have never tried to launch or inspire terrorist attacks against the United States or the West, they did allow, in the 1990s, al Qaeda to establish its main basis of operations in Afghanistan and plan 9/11 and other anti-American attacks.

Today, the Islamic State-Khorasan, IS-K for short, has already sought to establish a sanctuary for itself in Afghanistan, particularly in the southeastern province of Nangarhar and the northwestern province of Jowzjan.

IS-K uses suicide attacks--the most deadly form of terrorism--and in 2018 surpassed the Taliban in the use of this tactic in Afghanistan, according to data from the Chicago Project on Security and Threats, which tracks suicide attacks around the world.

Unlike the Taliban, whose ambitions are limited to Afghanistan, IS-K, like its parent organization, harbors international ambitions. Khorasan, the historical territorial unit from which IS-K derives its name, encompasses not only Afghanistan but large segments of Central Asia and Persia as well. The group's stated goals include raising "the banner of al-Uqab above Jerusalem and the White House" and inspiring lone-wolf attacks in the West--both promoted in IS-K video propaganda. There is already evidence of IS-K's efforts to attack the West. In September 2018, then-U.K. Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson reported that IS-K fighters in Afghanistan were in direct communication and planning efforts with terrorist cells in the U.K. There have also been reports of IS-K efforts to mount attacks against the U.S. homeland.

In short, the rise of IS-K in Afghanistan presents a serious threat to the security of America, not only a problem in Afghanistan, and demonstrates the unacceptable risks associated with the "negotiated withdrawal" plan.

A realistic solution

Fortunately, there is a third option: over-the-horizon counterterrorism strategy. This approach would remove U.S. combat troops from Afghanistan in the near term while countering threats from international terrorist groups by establishing long-term partners inside Afghanistan and relying on regional bases in U.S.-friendly neighboring countries from which to intervene with air power and special operations forces on a limited basis as necessary.

With an over-the-horizon strategy, America's aim is to work as partners with any legitimate Afghan authority, including the existing Afghan government but also the Taliban. In the near term, the role of U.S. forces at regional bases would be limited to providing air power, small numbers of special operations forces, and political, intelligence, and economic support to these Afghan partners. These regional bases could also serve as launching pads for future deployments of air, naval, and even ground forces, should the security of the United States call for it.

A lasting U.S. security strategy must be built around America's core national security interests and against threats that Americans will be ready to fight and die for. Since 9/11, Americans have demonstrated again and again--in routing al Qaeda's forces in Afghanistan, in eliminating the Islamic State as a territorial entity in Iraq and Syria--that they are prepared to defeat international terrorist groups that target the United States.

Vast majorities of Republicans and Democrats have persistently seen terrorism as a critical threat. The American public clearly has serious doubts about fighting an endless war to create a stable democracy, end all violence, or broker a new government in a country far from U.S. shores. But the United States has the stomach to defeat terrorists trying to attack it.

In Afghanistan, America's vital interest is thus to prevent international terrorists from gaining political and military control of any of the country's approximately 400 districts or uncontested control of a significant part of a district. Such control would allow small groups of international terrorists--even as small as 50 to 100 individuals--to prepare, plan, organize, and execute attacks effectively unimpeded by counterpressure.

No strategy in Afghanistan could stop all terrorism because it is virtually impossible to prevent an encrypted message from a single person in Afghanistan from inspiring or activating an operative in the West. However, denying terrorists sanctuary large enough for a cohesive contingent of operatives to train, plan, and orchestrate attacks does make protracted campaigns of terrorism vastly more difficult. Not surprisingly, al Qaeda in Afghanistan in the 1990s, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria from 2013 to 2018, and numerous groups waging campaigns of terrorism have relied on sanctuaries where hundreds (or thousands) of recruits, fighters, and leaders could operate in a protected environment.

Denying terrorists sanctuary involves more than leadership decapitation and killing identified members of the militant group. Militant leaders and operatives are often readily replaceable. The United States has killed the leader of IS-K with airstrikes four times--in July 2016, April 2017, July 2017, and August 2018. Each time, a new leader soon took over. Rather, effective denial of sanctuary requires rolling back territorial control. This involves U.S. intelligence, surveillance, and kinetic operations often in combination with reliable ground partners who also receive significant political, economic, logistic, and intelligence support. Most important, effective denial of sanctuary requires a persistent, protracted commitment--one that, for the United States, could be over-the-horizon strategy.

How ready are the Taliban to accept a working relationship with the United States, to cooperate tacitly or otherwise on a common purpose to deny sanctuary to international terrorists in Afghanistan with a U.S. over-the-horizon strategy? We cannot tell for sure because the over-the-horizon approach has not been widely discussed in public by the United States, the Taliban, or other parties. However, we can determine something about the Taliban's attitudes from their interests, past statements, and behavior.

The Taliban's strong interest has long been to protect their status as the top governing organization in Afghanistan. The group's appeal in February 2018 for the United States to start peace talks shows it is against the U.S. occupation--not against U.S. values as an existential threat that must be destroyed:

[T]he Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan undertakes legitimate efforts for the independence of our homeland. Having a sovereign country free from any foreign occupation is our natural and human right. ... [W]e have no agenda of playing any destructive role in any other country and we have practically proven over the past seventeen years that we have not interfered in any other country. Likewise we will not allow anyone else to use Afghan territory against any other country. ... Our preference is to solve the Afghan issue through peaceful dialogues. America must end her occupation and must accept all our legitimate rights including the right to form a government consistent with the beliefs of our people.

Since 2015--for four years--there has been a compelling reason to think that the Taliban have their own political motives for resisting and combating international terrorist groups.

Afghanistan, like Turkey, Iran, Indonesia, etc., can be an Islamist democracy and an ally against the Islamicists/Salafi/Wahhabi.

Posted by at August 29, 2019 8:43 AM