Reports from Washington and Kabul show the extent to which the Biden administration has been counting on the Taliban to facilitate the US withdrawal from Afghanistan -- and, apparently, to keep up the fight against IS-Khorasan, the local franchise of the Islamic State group, after the Americans are gone. The White House and Pentagon believe that the new rulers in Kabul share their eagerness for a speedy evacuation: a “common purpose,” in the words of Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of the United States Central Command. There is also an assumption that the Taliban have an implacable enmity toward IS-Khorasan.
These postulates are the basis for information-sharing between US officials and their Taliban counterparts to ensure smooth passage of American citizens, green-card holders and Afghan allies through militant-controlled checkpoints outside the Kabul airport. Also, according to McKenzie, US officials have for the past two weeks appraised Taliban commanders of threats to the airport, “so that they can actually do some searching out there for us.” The general has speculated that some attacks had been “thwarted” before Thursday’s twin blasts, which killed at least 75 Afghans and 13 American service personnel. IS-Khorasan has claimed responsibility for the attack, and the Taliban have condemned it.
But the assumptions underpinning the Biden administration’s decision-making in Afghanistan are, at the very least, highly questionable. It is not a given that the Taliban want a smooth US withdrawal. Many in their ranks may be keen for a final chance to kill Americans, and will cheer the sight of their hated enemies badly bloodied as they scramble for the exits. The deaths of Afghans whom the Taliban regard as collaborators would not disturb their sleep.
The very nature of the Taliban makes trust untenable. That’s not the only reason it is dangerous to confide in the new rulers of Kabul. It is even more delusional to rely on them to keep IS-Khorasan and other terrorist groups at bay.
Biden and his officials seem to think the Taliban are an organization in the conventional sense, with a leadership that can make rational decisions and cadres that faithfully follow orders. Repeat after me: The Taliban are an assemblage of factions and alliances, with different -- and sometimes conflicting -- motivations and priorities.
It is certainly true that many in the leadership regard IS-Khorasan as an enemy. The two groups have had bloody encounters, with heavy casualties on both sides. Many Taliban regard the IS-Khorasan as uninvited outsiders, distinct from honored guests like al-Qaida. In turn, IS-Khorasan propaganda portrays the Taliban as having gone soft, having compromised with the hated Americans in order to regain power.
But beneath their mutual hostility is a more complex web of relationships. While the IS-Khorasan leadership may mostly be made up of foreigners who arrived in Afghanistan from places like Syria and Iraq, they have recruited heavily from ranks of the Taliban itself. Whatever the disposition of the men at the top, foot-soldiers on both sides are liable to regard each other as brothers-in-arms.
The ramifications of this are not hard to imagine. In the worst case scenario, a couple of Taliban at a checkpoint let an IS-Khorasan suicide bomber through, with ensuing carnage and chaos. More generally, assurances from the Taliban that they are helping to prevent attacks on the airport must be regarded as suspect.
Information given to them about Afghans can hardly be regarded safe or confidential. There are already indications that the group, despite their promises of amnesty for those who worked with the previous dispensation, are conducting house-to-house searches for precisely those people.
Whatever the Taliban might do with people they regard as collaborators, imagine their fate if those lists fall into the hands of IS-Khorasan. Any Americans and Afghan allies who cannot make it out of the country this weekend must be prepared for the worst, as indeed must the Biden administration. (If the Americans were naive to hand over information, the British Embassy staff were just plain reckless. In their haste to evacuate, they apparently left behind details of local employees for the Taliban to find.)
If the loyalties of the Taliban’s lower orders are suspect, that goes double for their allies. Some, like the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State. Some Pakistani jihadist groups maintain good relations with both sides.
Those mutual friends could come in handy if the Taliban, settling into power, decide to prioritize stability over conflict. Afghanistan’s history is replete with examples of extremist groups, upon taking Kabul, making expedient compromises with their political and ideological enemies. Even a short-lived cessation of hostilities between the Taliban and IS-Khorasan could have horrific consequences, for Afghans and the US alike.
The Biden administration may think it can do business with the Taliban because it is an enemy of an enemy. But the Taliban and IS-Khorasan might make exactly the same calculation with respect to the US.
Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa. -- Ed.