Almost overnight, U.S. forces in Afghanistan have gone from being mortal enemies of Taliban insurgents to being stuck in an awkward marriage of convenience against a mutual enemy – ISIS-K – that appears bent on mounting more deadly terrorist attacks against the U.S.-led evacuation effort.
Call it a shotgun wedding Kabul style, or one with AK-47s and American-made M4 military assault rifles that the ragtag Taliban are now carrying after their blitzkrieg takeover of Afghanistan.
It is yet another example of the old political adage, “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” But this one comes with a lot of caveats – and concerns.
One of them is that the current Taliban is chock full of former members of al-Qaida and local and regional militant groups like the Haqqani Network, which the U.S. government designated as a terrorist organization back in 2012 because of its alliances with al-Qaida.
Recently, the Taliban brought to Kabul one of its top operatives, Khalil al-Rahman Haqqani, to head security matters there U.S. officials believe. That means American military leaders could be collaborating – perhaps closely – with a U.S.-designated “global terrorist” with who has had a $5 million U.S. bounty on his head since 2011.
“It reminds me of that quote from Winston Churchill, defending his cooperation with Stalin against the Nazis,” said David Priess, a former CIA intelligence officer who used to deliver the president’s daily briefing. “To paraphrase, ‘If Hitler invaded Hell, we’d be allies with the devil.”
ISIS-K claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at Hamid Karzai International Airport. The death toll included 11 Marines, a Navy corpsman, an Army soldier and at least 169 Afghan people. Biden vowed to hunt down the culprits and U.S. officials said the ISIS-K poses a continuing threat.
ISIS-K considers the Taliban, noted for its brutality, to be insufficiently devout in its adherence to Islam. The two militant groups have engaged in attacks on each other.
It’s no secret that for years after 9/11, the U.S. government cooperated with unfriendly governments, including Russia and China, in sharing intelligence about al-Qaida. But examples of it cooperating with a militant or terrorist organization are not publicly known, according to Priess and other current and former intelligence officials.
“In extreme circumstances, and I think we would all agree that this is an extreme circumstance, working with people or groups that previously would have been unimaginable, or at least unpalatable, becomes practical and even necessary,” said Priess, author of “The President’s Book of Secrets,” a history of U.S. presidents and their use of intelligence.
‘They’re not good guys, the Taliban’
Biden said pretty much the same thing Thursday as he defended his handling of the crisis.
“They’re not good guys, the Taliban. I’m not suggesting that at all,” he said at the White House after the last of three deadly attacks that killed 13 U.S. service members and injured dozens of other people. But he added that the Taliban share some of the same goals as the United States, including keeping the airport open and getting U.S. forces out of the country.
“So it’s not a matter of trust, it’s a matter of mutual self-interest,” Biden said. He added that he had been given “no evidence thus far … that there has been collusion between the Taliban and ISIS in carrying out what happened today.”
More ISIS-K attacks possible
Marine Corps Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., commander of U.S. Central Command, discussed the uneasy alliance with the Taliban when discussing the “very, very real threat streams” suggesting that more ISIS-K attacks were imminent.
He said that U.S. forces had been working with the Taliban since mid-August, initially to allow American citizens through their security checkpoints ringing the airport. But that collaboration has developed into a mutual effort to identify and neutralize potential attacks by the regional offshoot of the Islamic State terror group.
U.S. intelligence indicates the possibility of rocket attacks, McKenzie said, and the U.S.-occupied airbase had good defenses against those. But he said ISIS-K was also believed to be planning vehicle-borne IED attacks – and that the U.S. vulnerability to those required working with the Taliban to shut off traffic leading to and from the airport.
“We also know they aim to get a suicide or vehicle-borne suicide attack in if they can, from a small vehicle to a large vehicle,” McKenzie said of ISIS-K. “So in terms of practical things that we’re doing, okay, again, we’ve reached out to the Taliban, we’ve told them, ‘You need to continue to push out the security perimeter.’ ”
The U.S. military has also asked the Taliban to shut down roads leading to the airport to prevent vehicle bombs from getting through, McKenzie said, adding, “we’re actually moving very aggressively to do that.”
Douglas London, until 2019 the CIA’s top counterterrorism official for Afghanistan and Pakistan, echoed Biden’s remarks that it is in the Taliban’s interest to work with anyone who wants to get rid of ISIS-K – including the United States – because the terrorist organization is on the rise in Afghanistan and threatening Taliban rule.
The attacks Thursday “make the Taliban look bad; weak and unable to control Kabul, which feeds right into the ISIS-K narrative that they are a better choice for Afghanistan than the Taliban is,” London said.
But the emergence of Haqqani as the Taliban’s Kabul security chief poses a range of potential complications for Washington, and not just because of his connections to the Taliban, the Haqqani Network and al-Qaida, said London, who spent 34 years in the CIA’s clandestine service in the Middle East, south Asia, Africa and central Eurasia before retiring as its chief of counterterrorism for south and southwest Asia.
‘A wanted terrorist for whom there’s a $5 million reward’
Haqqani’s nephew Sirajuddin Haqqani is the leader of the Haqqani Network, a U.S.-designated terrorist organization, and is also believed to be the current second-in command of the Taliban. In its designation of him as a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist,” the U.S. government said that in addition to his senior role within the Taliban, “Khalil has also acted on behalf of al-Qaida and has been linked to al-Qaida terrorist operations.”
In 2002, the designation said, Haqqani “was deploying men to reinforce al-Qaida elements in Paktia Province, Afghanistan,” just a few hours drive south of Kabul.
London described Haqqani as a day-to-day operational chief of the Haqqani Network, “a big manager who approves operations” for the sprawling militant organization straddling both sides of the Afghanistan/Pakistan border.
But complicating matters for Washington and its interests in the region, Haqqani has been directly involved with the kidnapping and killings of Americans, London said. He is also the Haqqani Network’s emissary to al-Qaeda, he added, and to the Pakistani government, meeting directly with its Army and intelligence chiefs.
“It’s certainly awkward to have an official dialogue with a wanted terrorist for whom there’s a $5 million reward,” London said. “If he’s in charge of Kabul security and we need to engage the Taliban to protect our citizens and troops, then reality and practicality drives our choices, but likewise, theirs.”