Probably no one would say the United States and the Taliban are “allies” but they do share at least one common goal: the elimination of ISIS.
ISIS (or ISIS-K, for ISIS-Khorasan) formed in Afghanistan around 2015, and for the last several months its fighters and leaders and been targeted by US and coalition forces in Nangarhar province, the group’s center of operations. The Taliban is ideologically opposed to ISIS-K, and the two groups have regularly clashed.
U.S. officials estimated there were anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 ISIS-K fighters in Afghanistan as of September 2019.
But according to the latest DoD report from the Inspector General on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel (OFS) in Afghanistan published this month, that number is way, way down. In fact, cut in half.
Months of sustained pressure from both the U.S. and the Taliban have taken their toll. More than 300 ISIS fighters and family members surrendered en masse and turned themselves in to Afghan officials, while most others simply packed up and fled.
According to the report, "Afghan President Ashraf Ghani declared that ISIS-K was “obliterated” in Nangarhar. U.S. officials told the DoD OIG that it was unclear how many ISIS-K fighters remained in the country this quarter, but estimated ISIS-K “lost more than half of its fighters” due to coalition and Afghan strikes, Taliban ground operations, and ISIS-K surrenders."
Still, the report admits, ISIS has shown—in Afghanistan as well as in Iraq and Syria—the ability to adapt, move underground, recruit, and remain a threat.
As we reported here, the U.S. and the Taliban are currently in a cease-fire of sorts — or a reduction in violence — as talks continue about how to negotiate a peace deal. The Taliban wants the U.S. to leave, and President Trump has said repeatedly he wants to end the endless war.
Of course, the enemy also gets a vote. And in Afghanistan, who the enemy really is, is a complicated question.
The IG report says China, Russia, and Iran also diplomatically engaged with both the Afghan government and the Taliban… All three countries share some interests with the United States in Afghanistan, such as countering ISIS-K, but each pursues disparate interests that at times conflict with U.S. interests.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, China likely sees Afghanistan as a place where it can cooperate with the United States, given its concern about terrorist activity crossing the border from Afghanistan.
Of course, China has another big problem to contend with — namely the coronavirus.
On the other hand, the report says Russia and Iran likely see Afghanistan as an area where they can exert pressure on the United States. In the past, Russia has exaggerated the threat of ISIS-K as justification for expanding its military presence in Central Asia. And Iran wants a central role in any reconciliation talks with the Taliban to ensure its influence on any future Afghan government.
So in Afghanistan, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. For now, ISIS has been significantly diminished. But those who know anything about Afghanistan’s history know it’s not as simple as that.