WASHINGTON – Two decades ago, President George W. Bush denounced the Taliban for “aiding and abetting murder” after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.
Now, with President Biden ending the war that Mr. Bush started, the United States is in an uneasy partnership with that very hostile force, relying on the Taliban to help protect American citizens and their Afghan allies as they race to evacuate the country.
It’s an unlikely relationship on the battlefield: U.S. diplomats, spies and military officials hold collaborative discussions with their Taliban counterparts, as the group acts as the U.S. first line of defense at Kabul Airport, the Afghan capital, checking passengers for documents. and weapons.
That relationship appeared to have failed spectacularly, US military officials said Thursday, when rival terrorists managed to get through Taliban checkpoints around the airport and suicide bombing that killed 13 US soldiers and dozens of Afghan civilians.
The horrific incident—and warnings by administration officials of the possibility of more attacks in the coming days—underscore the precarious situation in which Biden found himself after dismantling his military advisers in the spring and ordering the complete withdrawal of U.S. forces. Troops from Afghanistan by the end of August.
Mr. Biden has received widespread criticism for his handling of the withdrawal, even from many Democrats. Republicans who eagerly supported President Donald J. Trump’s negotiations with the Taliban are now attacking Biden for following him on the country’s new rulers. But once the Taliban ousted the Afghan government on August 15, the necessity was determined, according to Biden and his top generals. Over the past ten days, they have described a necessary, if repugnant, work arrangement.
“Nobody trusts them,” Mr. Biden said Thursday evening, denouncing the terrorist attack by ISIS Khorasan, an offshoot of the Islamic State and a rival to the Taliban. “We are solely dependent on their self-interest to continue generating their activities. It is in their personal interest that we leave when we have said and that we get as many people as possible.”
The contact between the United States and the Taliban, the enemy in a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,400 American soldiers, is not unprecedented.
President Barack Obama agreed to hold talks with the Taliban in 2010 to release the sergeant. Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier who had captured the group the previous year.
During the Trump administration, the United States sought direct peace talks with the Taliban in hopes of ending the conflict. Afghan-born Zalmay Khalilzad was a former US ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq and the United Nations Brought to lead the negotiationsWhich lasted nearly two years in the Qatari capital, Doha.
At one point in 2019, talks seemed so close to success that Mr. Trump sought to bring the Taliban to the presidential retreat at Camp David to declare victory. The flight was soon thwarted by a Taliban suicide bombing in Kabul that killed 12 people, including an American soldier.
Officials working for Trump struck a deal with the Taliban leadership last year to end the US presence in Afghanistan by May 1, the deadline Biden has set to August 31.
US officials on Friday angrily denied reports that they handed Taliban lists of vulnerable Afghans trying to reach the airport. A US official said Taliban fighters at checkpoints were allowed to review the data as buses approached the group’s encirclement, but not to keep the lists.
Thursday night, even as they continued to work with the Taliban after the airport attack, two US officials said the CIA blew up Eagle Base, a Kabul outpost used throughout the war to train Afghan counterterrorism forces, to keep it out of the group’s hands. The operation was a raw example of the complexity of the relationship between the United States and the Taliban.
The Biden administration initially had no intention of working with the Taliban during the evacuation this month, according to US officials familiar with the plan.
When the first batch of nearly 6,000 troops authorized by Biden began arriving in Kabul this month, military leaders believed they would work with Afghan government security forces to help move Americans and others to safety. But by August 15, when the Taliban overran Kabul and President Ashraf Ghani fled the city, his security forces stopped working.
That day, General Kenneth Mackenzie Jr., a Marine who leads US Central Command, met with Taliban leaders and asked them not to interfere with the evacuation. Taliban officials told General McKenzie that security was deteriorating in Kabul, and that they had to move quickly to secure the city.
At that meeting, the Taliban offered to set up a communication system to discuss security issues, according to a US official familiar with the meeting.
During the past two weeks, regular talks took place between the Taliban official responsible for security in Kabul and US military leaders, Including Admiral Peter G. Vasili. The US official said that these talks reflect a relationship of necessity and pragmatism. The official added that the military talks were tactical and were not expected to continue after the end of the evacuation mission on August 31.
Such tactical discussions may have been necessary, said Thomas Joslin, who has followed details of the Afghanistan war in the Long War Journal of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Understand the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan
Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil following the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations, and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here is more about The story of their origin and record as rulers.
“There is a certain amount of tactical talking to be done here because they are face to face, and there has to be a certain amount of tactical inconsistency,” he said.
After Thursday’s bombing, General McKenzie said the US military had asked the Taliban to make adjustments to the security cordon and close specific roads the US had identified as sources of threats.
We are doing everything we can to be prepared for those attacks. This includes communication with the Taliban. “And we will continue to coordinate with them as they move forward.”
US officials still believe they can count on the Taliban to stop attacks by the Islamic State or other terrorist groups, with severe restrictions spelled out this week. The leadership of the Taliban and the Islamic State are enemies who have fought repeatedly inside Afghanistan.
But even before the bombing that killed dozens, US officials said the mass prisoner release that the Taliban allowed while in control of the country was a clear sign that the Taliban would act in unreliable ways, allowing developments that could endanger the United States.
Once the evacuation is complete, much of the regular communications with the Taliban may fall to the CIA. The spy agency has been tasked with dealing with unsavory partners and governments around the world. The CIA operates in secret, so its discussions with the Taliban can be more easily shielded from public opinion.
Perhaps the agency’s largest diplomatic campaign, Monday’s visit to Kabul by its director, William J. Burns, beginning a series of engagements over the coming years. But the extent of the CIA’s talks and cooperation with the Taliban will likely depend on their behavior. Officials said that if the Taliban allow strikes against Islamic State and al-Qaeda targets, and provide information about the development of terrorist cells, the US government is likely to cooperate with them.
The extent of this cooperation may also depend on whether Biden finds any support for this approach on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Biden has received scathing criticism from senior Democrats, who have vowed to use the gavel of their committees to seek full accountability for what went wrong. Meanwhile, Republicans struggled to find a coherent critique.
In the House of Representatives, California Republican Rep. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader, mocked Biden on Friday, calling him “a picture of weakness and incompetence.” But the criticism came after an astonishing series of contradictory statements, including his assurances that the United States should not have troops in Afghanistan but should have kept Bagram Air Base – which would have required more troops.
Asked if Biden and his team are frustrated with the need to rely on the Taliban, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said Friday that the administration is focused on finishing its mission.
“There’s not much time for self-reflection right now,” she said.
Katie Edmondson And Lara Jax Contribute to the preparation of reports.