The group can change its relationship to its long-time enemies by using savvy diplomacy, moderation and a little bit of wisdom.
There’s an odd historical resonance the fact that Vice President Kamala Harris is visiting Vietnam as the scenes of chaos, bloodshed, and desperation play out in Afghanistan this week. For Americans, the evacuation of Kabul resembles, and has frequently been compared to, that of Saigon 46 years ago. Both are humiliating surrenders. They either reflect American hubris or some combination of both. There may also be lessons for Afghanistan’s new rulers.
Vietnam’s Communist Party was once seen as a serious threat to U.S. security. America spent more than a decade fighting them, which resulted in nearly 30 times the number American servicemembers who were killed in Afghanistan. It’s not unusual for a vice president or president of the United States to visit Hanoi during a trip through Asia. Vietnam is considered by Washington to be a crucial regional ally against China. The U.S. is Vietnam’s largest trading partner. This is despite Vietnam’s authoritarian government and poor human rights record.
For the past 20 years, the U.S. has been engaged in an endless war that has resulted in a nightmare scenario: the Taliban taking over Afghanistan. It is possible that the Taliban could experience a similar transformation in their relationship with the U.S., and other democratic countries. They may not even need to wait for half a century.
These events demonstrate how the U.S. and Taliban relationship is changing. After the bombing at Kabul airport on Thursday that killed 13 U.S. servicemembers and nearly 100 Afghans, President Joe Biden vowed, “We will not forgive. We won’t forget. “We will hunt you down, and make you pay.” This was something he did notdo in all the hard talk. In fact, he was sure to point out that ISIS-Khorasan, the Afghan Islamic State affiliate blamed for the attack, was “an archenemy of the Taliban.” Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, commander of CENTCOM, added, “I don’t think there is anything to convince me that [the Taliban] let it happen,” and described the U.S. and the Taliban as having the “common purpose” of getting U.S. troops out of the country by Aug. 31, which has made them “useful to work with.”
The reality of the ongoing evacuation operation means that the U.S. has no other option but to cooperate with the Taliban if it wants to maintain flight operations and some security at the airport.
Even after the evacuation, ISIS-K will still exist. If the Taliban are smart, they might use the threat ISIS-K poses to get recognition from the U.S. or, at the very least, grudging tolerance from its allies. ISIS-K has killed more Americans in one day than the Taliban since 2019, according to recent statistics. Although the group did not honor many of its pledges in the Doha 2020 agreement with the Trump administration, it has resisted attacks on U.S. troops in recent months in an effort to speed up their departure. ISIS is not bound by such agreements. The Taliban certainly seem to genuinely see ISIS-K’s eradication as a priority: One of their first actions after taking control of Kabul was to execute a former leader of the group who was being held in an Afghan government prison.
The nearly universally despised ISIS has a habit of producing strange bedfellows. During its war against the group’s core “caliphate” in Iraq and Syria, the U.S. was allied with “moderate” Syrian rebel groups that were sometimes only one or two degrees of separation removed from al-Qaida affiliates, as well as with an anarchist Kurdish militia affiliated with a group on the U.S. terrorist list. It was tacitly on the side of Iranian-backed Shiite militias. We’re already seeing once unthinkable scenes in Afghanistan like CIA Director William Burns traveling to Kabul to meet with the group’s de facto leader. If ISIS-K is considered enough of an international threat–and there’s no doubt that the Taliban has an interest in making it appear as such–it’s easy to see Washington and Kabul developing an intelligence relationship.