The United States is not ruling out potentially working with the Taliban to counter the threat from the Islamic State terror group’s affiliate in Afghanistan, though officials cautioned against expecting much help.
“It’s possible,” General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon on Tuesday, taking questions for the first time since the last U.S. troops left Afghanistan.
“We don’t know what the future of the Taliban is, but I can tell you from personal experience that this is a ruthless group, from the past, and whether or not they change remains to be seen,” Milley added.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin also sought to downplay the possibility of working with the Taliban when it comes to Islamic State-Khorasan, as the group is known, despite coordination between U.S. troops and Taliban commanders during the recent U.S. evacuation from Kabul.
“We were working with the Taliban on a very narrow set of issues, and it was just there to get as many people out as we possibly could,” Austin said.
“I would not make any leaps of logic,” he added.
Despite a lack of trust between the U.S. and the Taliban after 20 years of combat, questions about whether the Taliban might cooperate when it comes to IS-Khorasan have persisted. One reason has been their apparent willingness to coordinate with the U.S. on security at the Kabul airport as the withdrawal and evacuation drew to a close. Additionally, both the U.S. and the Taliban see the IS affiliate as a mutual enemy.
There is even some recent history.
Just over a year and a half ago, the Taliban ousted IS-Khorasan from strongholds in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces with what was described as “very limited support” from the U.S.
“We suspended actively pursuing Taliban units engaged with ISIS-K,” a military official said on the condition of anonymity at the time, using another acronym for the IS affiliate.
“We also conducted some strikes on known ISIS-K locations,” the official added, cautioning “those strikes were not coordinated with the Taliban.”
But now that IS-Khorasan no longer holds any territory, and the Taliban are in control, there are those who think the Taliban will be reluctant to accede to many requests from Washington.
“Where it suits them, they’ll be aggressive against ISIS-K,” a U.S. official told VOA on condition of anonymity due to the delicate situation on the ground. “They’re not going to do it for our benefit.”
The Taliban made commitments as part of its February 2020 deal with the U.S. to prevent Afghanistan from being used as a base for terror attacks against America and the West. However, their actions as they retook control of the country, including the release of veteran IS-Khorasan officials from Afghan prisons, have raised doubts.
“We would assess that probably there are at least 2,000 hardcore ISIS fighters in Afghanistan now and of course many of those come from the prisons that were opened a few days ago,” General Kenneth “Frank” McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said this past Monday.
Some intelligence agencies have also warned that, despite being natural enemies, the Taliban have been making use of the IS-Khorasan when it serves their agenda.
Specifically, counterterrorism officials point to signs the Taliban were using the semi-autonomous Haqqani terrorist network to help plan and direct IS-Khorasan attacks against Afghan government targets in Kabul.
And despite U.S. coordination with the Taliban, last Thursday IS-Khorasan still managed to kill 13 American troops and at least 169 Afghans in a suicide bombing at the gates of the Kabul airport.
Days later, the group launched an unsuccessful rocket attack against the airport.
U.S. officials said a third attack was likely averted after a U.S. drone strike this past Sunday, which killed an alleged IS-Khorasan facilitator who was said to be loading explosives into his vehicle.
For now, U.S. officials are willing to keep the lines of communication with the Taliban open.
“We will continue to have conversations that serve our interest, as will our allies and partners,” Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland told reporters Wednesday.
“They claim to be able to control the security of Afghanistan. We’ll see if that is the case,” Nuland said.