The United States and the Taliban made substantial 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 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.
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.
Decline of foreign militant groups
Foreign militant groups in Afghanistan grew, mutated and faded over the past two decades. Al Qaida 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 Qaida’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 ceasefire in June. No militants broke the ceasefire except for Daesh in Khorassan Province.
When Daesh 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 Daesh confined it to a handful of districts in the remote eastern mountains, although it has shown resilience.
Hunted and isolated, Daesh is the biggest nonstate group after the Taliban; the other “20 terrorist groups” have little strength, reach or operational capability. Some of these groups have a mere 20 or 30 members. 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? The Taliban’s full-throated fight against Daesh’s franchisee in Afghanistan shows their will and capability to counter a group that they consider a competitor. 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 Qaida in the past, an important question is whether the Taliban will again offer hospitality to Al Qaida or fail to prevent its resurgence after an American withdrawal.
Harbouring transnational extremist groups cost the Taliban their government and sparked a bloody war. Many Taliban members have come to see Al Qaida as a threat to their cause. There is little sympathy in the Taliban’s internal discussions for any transnational militant group, which is a remarkable break from the Taliban’s stance from a decade ago. 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.
— New York Times News Service
Borhan Osman is a senior analyst for Afghanistan with the International Crisis Group and a long-time writer for the Afghanistan Analysts Network