Where is Mark Frerichs, an American taken hostage in Afghanistan by a Taliban-affiliated group earlier this year? And, if the Taliban is actually separating itself from al-Qaeda, what was the leader of al-Qaeda’s South Asia branch, an intimate of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, doing at a Taliban compound in Helmand Province just months ago when U.S. counterterrorism forces tracked him down and killed him? Setting aside the Taliban’s high op-tempo resumption of operations against Afghan security forces in recent days, these are the kinds of questions Americans should be asking before indulging President Donald Trump’s victory lap over the agreement the United States signed with the Taliban last month. Why did the United States give so much away while getting so little back in return?
The Taliban celebrated the agreement with marches, public fanfare, and boastful propaganda broadcasts, only to demonstrate by deeds its true interpretation of the agreement within 24 hours of Trump’s phone call with former Taliban deputy, Abdul Ghani Baradar. And why not? The deal allows for broad interpretation that serves both parties.
In point of fact, while Baradar was once, many years ago, the Taliban’s deputy, the only official position he holds today is chief of the Taliban’s Doha-based negotiating team. The Taliban’s lack of effort in pursuing his release during his eight years in Pakistani custody was hardly coincidental. It was the U.S., in 2018, who sought his release, at American Chief Negotiator Amb. Zalmay Khalilzad’s urging. Today, Baradar exercises little influence or authority, but serves rather as convenient window dressing through which to distract U.S. energy and channel disinformation.
Even language concerning the forthcoming intra-Afghan political engagement is deliberately vague. The Taliban agreed only to dialogue with “other Afghan political parties,” among which the Kabul government unilaterally insists they will take the lead. Further, absent is any language committing the Taliban to respect the rights of women or minorities such as the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Shia Hazara, all of whom the Taliban worked to “cleanse” from Afghanistan during its rule before 9/11.
If America’s priority was securing the Taliban’s commitment to prevent its territory from being used by those who would attack the U.S. or its allies, this agreement falls decidedly short. It fails to recognize the realities of how the relationship between the Taliban and terrorist groups work, and it naively relieves the Taliban from renouncing such ties or expelling them outright. Apart from ISIS, most of the roughly 20 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan today, including al-Qaeda, pledge loyalty to the Taliban and operate in partnership with it. But their cooperation is carefully concealed under layers of cover that allow the Taliban to deny ongoing support to these groups and their lethal operations.
The Taliban could never guarantee to the United States that its fighters would abandon their terrorist partners even if the Taliban leadership wanted them to. Besides the unwritten Pashtunwali ethical code that still governs much of Pashtun life, many of these groups are inextricably tied through marriage, tribal ties, and military interdependence. Al-Qaeda members have long integrated into the Taliban organizationally, and practically all of the Arab al-Qaeda fighters who traveled to Afghanistan and Pakistan to fight married local women. Pakistani extremists who crossed into Afghanistan for refuge or the opportunity to fight American forces, did the same. Prior to his death, Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza wrote extensively about the interwoven fates of al-Qaeda and Afghanistan, broadcasting what he saw as the critical nature of al-Qaeda’s lasting presence in the country.
Al-Qaeda made itself invaluable to the Taliban over the past decade, helping to secure safe haven and autonomy. Functioning as a force multiplier, al-Qaeda offered military and religious instruction to Taliban fighters, often acting as the Taliban’s “shock troops.” In addition to sharing revenues, such as those derived from kidnapping-for-ransom operations, al-Qaeda provided unique skills, including explosives fabrication and suicide operations. When captured on the battlefield, al-Qaeda operatives, even those of Arab descent, minimized their importance and claimed some nominal, low-level Taliban association.
In the deal with the U.S., the Taliban is curiously expected to “message” to al-Qaeda and other partner organizations to refrain from undertaking attacks against the U.S. or its allies on Afghan soil, or likewise in recruiting, training, and fundraising. Similarly vague language provides that the Taliban will “not host such groups in accordance with the commitments in this agreement.” But the Taliban could simply claim that those the U.S. characterizes as al-Qaeda are, in fact, among their own followers. In this way, the agreement legitimizes sanctuary for those who continue to advance terrorist plots against the U.S.
Khalilzad layered the deal with incremental incentives the Taliban would be foolish to dismiss, such as prisoner releases, staged troop withdrawals, and sanctions relief, while allowing the group to otherwise conduct business as usual. The agreement even indulges the Taliban’s reference to itself as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, but there is no reciprocal Taliban allowance for any reference to the internationally recognized Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.. In fact, the Taliban agreed to a release of 1,000 prisoners “from the other side.”
But among the greatest incentives for the Taliban are the financial benefits, which pose serious second-order consequences. The U.S. pledged to review and drop its own sanctions by Aug. 27, 2020, and thereafter, engage the United Nations to do the same. The Taliban’s desire to give the appearance of acquiescence explained the recent New York Times op-ed attributed to Haqqani Taliban Network leader Sirajuddin Haqqani. Although I suspect the author was more likely Taliban lead negotiator, Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, and the column’s showmanship bore Khalilzad’s fingerprints, it would have otherwise been extraordinary for Sirajuddin to endorse the collection of long-disenfranchised and disrespected Taliban officials that made up the negotiating team in Doha. These members of the Taliban’s negotiating team had long poisoned the waters with the Taliban’s current leadership due to political rivalries, by surrendering troops, or for some, cooperating with the coalition.
U.S. and international sanctions relief will be a boon, particularly for the vast, criminal Haqqani Network. The Haqqanis’ business enterprises and front companies span South Asia and the Middle East, not to mention the fundraising they, and the Taliban, conduct, which requires international travel, particularly to Gulf Arab countries. Their ability to invest, repatriate and move money and goods will be a windfall that further strengthens the Haqqani Network politically and militarily. The Haqqanis and the Taliban will use their new riches to consolidate power and increase the danger for remaining American troops while they remain, and perpetuate the war after they have left. They will have new money not only to pay fighters and buy weapons, but likewise to secure influence, allies, and collaborators among rivals.
Perhaps this explains why a group so adept at employing social media and the press for propaganda and disinformation has evinced little need to prepare and galvanize its diverse and geographically dispersed followers to accept concessions. The reported kidnapping of American contractor Mark Frerichs, for instance, came not long after Khalilzad pressured Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to release Anas Haqqani, Sirajuddin Haqqani’s younger brother, along with two other prominent Haqqani officials, explosives expert Hafiz Rashid Omari and Sirajuddin’s uncle, Haji Mali Khan. The “gesture of good faith,” releasing these prisoners, added nothing to Haqqanis’ side of the deal — in fact, it was the same exchange the Haqqani’s had long offered for American hostage Kevin King and Australian Timothy Weeks — nor did it restrain the group from conducting further kidnappings.
Why then did Trump decide to proceed with signing the agreement without insisting on the American’s release? The president has campaigned on his commitment to secure all detained Americans, an agenda item further prioritized with former Hostage Fusion Cell Director Robert O’Brien’s becoming Trump’s new national security advisor. But, at the end of the day, the Trump administration was motivated by expediency. It just needs this to look good long enough to support Trump’s election campaign, and the Taliban knows it.
It’s no wonder the Taliban held victory parades. Likewise, it is clear why it is in the best interests of both the Taliban and the Trump administration to maintain the masquerade despite ongoing Taliban and Haqqani attacks targeting both U.S. and Afghan security forces, plus Afghan civilians. America must now count on the Afghans we are abandoning to find a way to work together and hold their ground. And by extension, protect America’s interests by denying sanctuary to the terrorist groups still determined to attack us.