U.S. Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said it’s “possible” that the United States will seek to coordinate with the Taliban on counterterrorism strikes in Afghanistan against Islamic State militants or other terrorist groups operating within the country. The optics of that statement, so soon after the evacuation of the U.S. from Kabul, reflect poorly on the administration.
The general’s comments were given at a news conference at the Pentagon, which was also attended by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
While the general didn’t give any details he didn’t appear to suggest that cooperation with the Taliban will happen anytime soon.
The Taliban and the U.S. military coordinated daily outside of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport over the past few weeks to facilitate the evacuation of more than 124,000 people. But that was a matter of convenience for both parties and not necessarily a sign of things to come in terms.
For the immediate future, any interaction between the Taliban and the United States will be strictly conducted by diplomats and in Doha, Qatar. Nevertheless, Milley’s comment coupled with President Joe Biden’s statement that the Taliban are avowed enemies of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), raised some eyebrows, and suggested a shared interest with the United States.
Secretary Austin, perhaps sensing the questions that were bound to be asked, attempted to downplay any suggestion of cooperation with the Taliban.
“I would not make any leaps of logic to broader issues,” said Austin.
Milley further commented on the Taliban, calling them “ruthless” and adding that “Whether or not they change remains to be seen.” He then backtracked his earlier comment stating that the recent cooperation with the Taliban at Kabul airport was not necessarily a model for the future.
“In war, you do what you must in order to reduce risk to mission and force, not what you necessarily want to do,” Milley said.
Is the Enemy of My Enemy Always My Friend?
The president has vowed continued retaliation against ISIS-K in Afghanistan in response to the ISIS-K suicide bombing last week at a Kabul airport gate. The attack killed 13 American troops and more than 150 Afghans, including some members of the Taliban.
The U.S. military has carried out two drone strikes against supposed ISIS-K targets, one in Nangahar province and another in Kabul. The military said that the strikes killed ISIS planners or bombers.
During his Tuesday press conference, Biden said, “To ISIS-K: We are not done with you yet.”
While the Taliban are sworn enemies of ISIS and ISIS-K, it remains to be seen if they would cooperate with the United States in over-the-horizon drone strikes against the terrorist group.
Regarding other groups, there will be absolutely no Taliban cooperation in targeting al-Qaeda terrorists. It was the Taliban’s relationship and their refusal to oust al-Qaeda from their borders that got the United States involved in Afghanistan 20 years ago, in the first place. The Taliban’s assurance that they’ve cut ties with al-Qaeda as part of the peace agreement has already been debunked.
Pain and Anger
Biden and his administration are being severely criticized for their handling of the evacuation. In particular, the administration’s insistence on sticking to the arbitrary withdrawal date of August 31 and its leaving behind Americans and billions of dollars of equipment has drawn widespread fire.
The August 31 date was not part of the agreement with the Taliban. Rather, Biden picked it after his earlier September 11 date was put off. The Taliban simply went along with it. And after insisting that the mission would continue until all Americans were evacuated, the administration, nevertheless, left Americans at the gates.
Both Milley and Austin, who commanded troops in Afghanistan, know that one of the primary principles of the U.S. military has always been, “Leave no man behind.”
Leaving Americans at the gates of the airport, while empty aircraft were at the tarmac, is something that veterans, regardless of branch, will not forget or forgive lightly.
Milley and Austin, seeing the criticism leveled at them and the administration by veterans, attempted to soothe hard feelings. Milley urged U.S. veterans to view their service during the war in Afghanistan as worthwhile and appreciated by the American public while acknowledging that the memories can be painful.
“War is hard. It’s vicious. It’s brutal. It’s unforgiving,” Milley said. “Yes, we all have pain and anger. When we see what has unfolded over the last 20 years and over the last 20 days, that creates pain and anger.”
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