Reversing the Cold War Strategy: Prospects of US-Taliban Intelligence Engagement

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After the US-led NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021, many speculated that episodes from the 1990s would be repeated in the country. The experience was that the Taliban would be completely isolated, and Afghanistan’s foreign relations would remain frozen. Another analysis was that the Taliban might not survive, and soon their government would be weakened by the armed opposition known as the National Resistance Front. However, the past year’s events made it clear that the Taliban have not only survived, but they have also achieved a stronger position in their international interactions, especially in bargaining with the United States.

In the first year of their rule, the Taliban were able to integrate the political control of the country with their authoritarian approach. Although pro-Taliban and anti-Taliban terrorist groups have become more active after the regime change in Afghanistan, the Taliban have always been determined to exploit the situation. Bargaining with the United States on the recognition of their regime has been one of their main objectives: terrorism and counterterrorism discourses act as a catalyst for the process.

On the other hand, the United States, which is facing the decline of its hegemony at the international level, is trying to shift its behaviour from value-oriented to interest-oriented foreign policy. Although the newly published National Security Strategy of the United States does not ignore American values, the country’s strategic interests outweigh the former. The failed experience supporting the coloured revolutions in Central Asia and the Arab Spring in the Middle East pressed Washington to revise its foreign policy. Therefore, in the new cold war between the United States and Russia, the discourse of fighting terrorism has been replaced by the traditional discourse of containing the socialist bloc. Restricting drone attacks against terrorism by Joe Biden is one of the clear examples of this claim.

In this context, the United States’ new vision for Afghanistan can be examined through cautious cooperation with the Taliban. In the international arena, Russia’s unrestrained invasion of Ukraine, the miscarriage of NATO and the Chinese advancement of its BRI projects have prompted the United States to consider creating trouble for Russia on another front. For this purpose, the United States aims to cooperate with the Taliban to facilitate its penetration in Central Asia. In this connection, the tactic of facilitating the activities of terrorist groups from Afghanistan to Central Asia can cause great concern not only to Russia but also to China. Seemingly, to achieve this goal, CIA Deputy Director David Cohen travelled to Doha to meet with Abdul Haq Wasiq, the head of the Taliban intelligence. This is the first meeting of senior intelligence officials of the two sides after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan.

What has been exchanged between the United States intelligence officials and the Taliban goes beyond the joint fight against terrorism. Indeed, monitoring terrorist threats against the United States was the apparent agenda, but the objective is far more strategic. In exchange for cooperating with the Taliban, Washington expects them to create trouble for Moscow by facilitating terrorist insecurity in Central Asia. Noticing such a move, Russian President Vladimir Putin expressed his concerns about terrorist threats and wants to overtake the US by engaging the Taliban. Containing China, which eyes include Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria in its BRI projects, is another goal of the United States in its new strategy.

Some Afghan experts on the issue hold that establishing a branch of the CIA’s Special Activities Center (SAC) in Afghanistan was one issue the US raised to the Taliban. According to this scheme, the CIA special forces consisting of two to three thousand American troops shall be deployed in northern Afghanistan. This speculation was closer to reality when Mullah Muhammad Yaqoob, the Taliban’s Defense Minister, during a trip, carried a convoy of military equipment, including accommodation containers, to the north of the country. The main goal that the United States expects from these developments is to facilitate the insecurity of Central Asia by terrorist groups and monitor China in the Wakhan Corridor. Amid these developments, the President of Tajikistan, Emomali Rahmon, also raised his concerns about training hundreds of thousands of terrorists inside Afghanistan and the need to build security built across northern Afghan borders.

Meanwhile, to persuade the Taliban, the US Special Representative for Afghanistan, Thomas West, was dispatched to Turkey to facilitate cooperation with the Taliban in the political sphere. Indeed, the West’s mission is to create a mechanism for the return of fugitive Afghan political party leaders and to convince the Taliban to adopt a moderate approach in their administration. In the realization of this project, members of the Haqqani network, a more radical wing within the Taliban, have been gradually fired from higher rank governmental offices. Meanwhile, the Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has also spoken about the possibility of devising a parliament.

All these developments show that the United States is strategically interacting with the Taliban. The prospect of the United States’ new strategy is, on the one hand, to contain the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan against American soil and, on the other, to prevent the advancement of ambitious Russia and China. The tactic considered for this strategy is intelligence cooperation with the Taliban, which will not only make the United States safe from the threat of terrorism but will also challenge the ambitions of Russia and China by making Central Asia insecure.

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