The slaughter of at least 79 Afghan civilians and 13 American servicemen at Kabul airport has propelled the Afghan offshoot of Isis to the top of the news agenda, as it was intended to do. The movement showed with one ferocious assault, at a time and place guaranteeing maximum publicity, that it intends to be a player in Afghanistan under the new Taliban rulers.
President Joe Biden, echoing President George W Bush after 9/11, said: “We will not forgive. We will not forget. We will hunt you down and make you pay.”
But the self-destructive US response to 9/11 should serve as a warning about the perils of ill-directed over-reaction. Reducing complex developments in Afghanistan to another episode in “the war on terror” is misleading, counter-productive and one of the root causes of the present mess.
By viewing everything in Afghanistan through the prism of “counter-terrorism” 20 years ago, the US plugged itself into a civil war that it exacerbated and from which it has just emerged on the losing side.
Biden is now the target of a storm of criticism from all quarters for an over-hasty US exit, but Donald Trump had planned an even swifter pull-out. Moreover, he was the architect of the one-sided withdrawal agreement with the Taliban signed in February 2020, which persuaded Afghans that the Americans had switched sides and they had better do the same if they were going to survive.
Biden has been wounded politically by the present debacle, but the damage may not be lasting, as television pictures of the carnage at Kabul airport fade in the public mind – and he stresses that he has extracted the US from an unwinnable war. Who now remembers that, as recently as 2019, Trump betrayed America’s Kurdish allies who had defeated Isis in Syria by green-lighting a Turkish invasion of their territory that turned many of them into refugees?
There may even be advantages for America that world attention is wholly focused on events at Kabul airport, involving as they do some tens of thousands of people, and diverting attention away from the grim prospects facing 18 million Afghan women and the likely persecution of 4 million Shia Muslims. Another benefit for the US is the rebranding of the Taliban as the enemies of Isis, which replaces them as chief bogeymen for the US and makes defeat by the Taliban more palatable
The same thought has clearly occurred to the Taliban, which has been fighting Islamic State Khorasan, the regional franchise of Isis, since 2015. “Our guards are also risking their lives at Kabul airport, they face a threat too from the Islamic State group,” said an anonymous Taliban official before the bombing. By one account, 28 Taliban fighters were killed by the blast. Rebranded as an anti-Isis force, the Taliban will find it much easier to win legitimacy, international recognition and acquire desperately needed economic aid.
Isis itself has denounced the Taliban as collaborators with the US, saying that only an understanding between the two can explain the speed of the Taliban advance and of the Kabul government’s collapse. Here they are at one with some of the defeated leaders on the government side. The fall of Kabul was the “result of a large, organised and cowardly conspiracy,” claimed Atta Mohammad Noor, a former warlord, following his precipitous escape by helicopter.
Isis leaders do not like the fact the Taliban has succeeded in gaining control of an entire state, in contrast to the so-called caliphate they attempted to establish in western Iraq and eastern Syria in 2014, which was eradicated along with its self-declared caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was killed in 2019.
Islamic State Khorasan is not a large organisation and has between 1,500 and 2,200 fighters, according to a recent UN report. The airport bombings are not even its most horrific acts of butchery in Kabul this year – that goes to the murder of 85 Shia Hazara schoolgirls by a car bomb in May.
Isis feeds off the denunciations that follow such mass murders, be they in Kabul, Paris or Manchester, which serve to raise its profile, attracting new recruits and money. But how far does Isis really pose a physical threat inside and outside Afghanistan? Will the country once again become a haven for al-Qaeda-type groups, as it was when Osama bin Laden was based there before 2001?
The situation today differs from 20 years ago. Then, the Taliban needed an alliance with al-Qaeda, which provided it with money and fanatical fighters, such as the two suicide bombers who assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud, the very able leader of the anti-Taliban forces in 2001. Today, the Taliban needs no such assistance and, on the contrary, will present itself as an enthusiastic new recruit to “the war on terror” whose other failings should be ignored. This is a well-worn path for authoritarian states like Egypt and Saudi Arabia whose abuses are routinely ignored or downplayed in the west.
In the wake of the airport bombing, the Taliban is well on the way to escaping isolation as a pariah state, which it experienced between 1996 and 2001.
Self-interest could propel the Taliban to fight against Isis in order to establish links with the west, but the relationship between the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Isis is more complicated than that dictated by such realpolitik. Taliban leaders previously living in comfort abroad in Pakistan and Qatar may see the advantage of showing a moderate face to the world.
But Taliban military commanders and their fighters, having won a spectacular victory against those whom they regard as heretics and traitors, will not be eager to dilute their beliefs, and instead will pursue those whom the US and its allies identify as terrorists. Many in Islamic State Khorasan are former Taliban fighters and all the fundamentalist jihadi groups share, broadly speaking, a common ideology and view of the world.
Clearly these movements fight, envy and collaborate with each other, with most welcoming the Taliban victory and a few denouncing it as the outcome a US-Taliban deal – as indeed it is. But looked at in more global terms, the overthrow of the US-backed Afghan government with at least 100,000 well-armed soldiers by the smaller less well-equipped Taliban will be taken as a sign of the strength of fundamentalist Islamist jihadi religious movements. As with the capture of Mosul in Iraq in 2014 by 800 Isis fighters pitted against three Iraqi divisions, such victories will appear to sympathisers to be divinely inspired.
The swift collapse of the Kabul government demonstrates that western-backed or installed regimes seldom achieve legitimacy or the ability to stand alone. In the case of Afghanistan, the disintegration was part psychological – the government simply could not believe that their superpower ally was going to desert them.
The debacle was also military, the Pentagon having created an Afghan army which was a mirror image of America's and therefore could not fight without being able to call in airstrikes at will. These deep-seated failures are more important than the Isis suicide bombing at Kabul airport.