Why a U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal Could Strengthen ISIS in Afghanistan

ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, pictured in a screengrab from the documentary "Taliban Country."

ISIS fighters in Afghanistan, pictured in a screengrab from the documentary "Taliban Country."

February 26, 2020

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began nearly two decades ago in a post-9/11 bid to destroy Al Qaeda and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban, which had rejected U.S. demands to hand over Osama bin Laden.

More than 18 years and tens of thousands of deaths later, the Trump administration is negotiating with a resurgent Taliban — and both sides have said that they are prepared to sign a peace deal on Feb. 29. The signing of the deal, which is contingent on the successful completion of a week-long reduction in violence meant to show the U.S. that Taliban leadership has control over its fighters on the ground, is expected to involve an agreement to draw down U.S. troops in the country and to open the door to talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

But according to recent FRONTLINE reporting from inside Afghanistan, a U.S.-Taliban peace deal could have unintended consequences inside the country: an increase in membership for ISIS, as Taliban fighters unhappy with their group’s participation in the peace process defect.

“With this peace deal, you will see the caliphate rise,” an ISIS commander in Afghanistan told FRONTLINE correspondent Najibullah Quraishi. “Taliban fighters have promised to join us. We won’t rest until we implement the caliphate across the entire world.”

The commander’s comments came in Taliban Country, a documentary that FRONTLINE released on Jan. 21. Filmed late last year, as peace talks unfolded in fits and starts, the documentary followed Quraishi, an Afghan journalist, on a rare and dangerous journey inside both Taliban- and ISIS-held territory in Afghanistan.

“I wanted to find out, if the Taliban come to a deal, if the fighting in Afghanistan will finish or not,” Quraishi said. “But the answer is very clear: not. Most of my sources are telling me that as soon as a peace deal is signed, most of the Taliban’s foot soldiers will join ISIS.”

According to the Washington Post, if the potential deal is signed, the U.S. would shift the bulk of its counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan towards combating ISIS.

In addition to conversations with Taliban and ISIS fighters, the recent FRONTLINE documentary included an exclusive interview with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban and the group’s chief negotiator with the U.S. In the January interview, Baradar told Quraishi that “the war will end when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan,” and said the Taliban would defeat ISIS militants.

Before the U.S. invasion, the Taliban imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law under which girls were not allowed to attend school, women were extremely limited in their ability to work, and their movements and appearance were strictly policed. Baradar answered ambiguously when Quraishi pressed him on how the Taliban would treat women if the U.S. left Afghanistan: Women would have rights, he said, but only according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

“There has been no change in the Taliban in this regard,” he said. “We accept all the rights that God has granted to women…. Under Islamic law, if they want to live and work, of course we will allow it.”

Taliban Country is the latest installment in FRONTLINE’s years of reporting on what has become America’s longest war. As the potential signing of a peace deal approaches, watch the documentary to understand what’s been happening on the ground inside Afghanistan in recent months — and revisit FRONTLINE’s collection of streaming documentaries to explore how the war began, how it evolved, and its consequences:

Taliban Country (2020)

An on-the-ground look at the Taliban’s resurgence, and the threat posed by ISIS in Afghanistan, amid potential peace negotiations.

ISIS in Afghanistan (2015)

Quraishi reported on how ISIS gained a foothold in the country — and how it focused its efforts on training a new generation of jihadists.

Opium Brides (2012)

Quraishi investigated the Afghan government’s NATO-aided counter-narcotics effort, which placed some Afghan opium farmers in a horrifying situation: repay their debts or give their daughters to drug-traffickers.

The Secret War (2012)

Martin Smith and Stephen Grey went inside a deep front in America’s war against Al Qaeda and the Taliban: Pakistan. They uncovered new details about border-crossing, CIA-funded Afghan militias, and investigated covert support for elements of the Taliban by Pakistani military and intelligence.

Kill/Capture (2011)

Following the death of Osama bin Laden, an in-depth investigation from Dan Edge and Stephen Grey into the Obama administration’s campaign of targeted killing of Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Fighting for bin Laden (2011)

Quraishi investigated rumors that Al Qaeda was once again becoming a significant presence in Afghanistan.

The Dancing Boys of Afghanistan (2010)

Against the backdrop of an Afghanistan ravaged by war and poverty, Quraishi revealed the resurgence of an illegal practice known as “bacha bazi,” in which young boys are sold by their families to wealthy merchants and warlords, taught to dance and entertain, and sexually exploited.

Behind Taliban Lines (2010)

Quraishi traveled inside a part of the country that had quietly reverted back to Taliban control, and tracked members of an insurgent cell working with members of Al Qaeda on a mission to sabotage a major U.S./NATO supply route.

Obama’s War (2009)

After President Barack Obama took office, Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria examined the status of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan — finding that the fight promised to be longer and more costly than most Americans understood.

The War Briefing (2008)

Shortly before the 2008 presidential election — and shortly after Afghanistan had become a deadlier battlefield than Iraq — Martin Smith and Marcela Gaviria took a hard look at what the next president would face in the Middle East.

Bush’s War (2008)

Part one:

Part two:

From Michael Kirk, an in-depth, four-and-a-half hour analysis of the George W. Bush administration’s “war on terror” following 9/11 — from Afghanistan to Iraq, and beyond.

Return of the Taliban (2006)

Martin Smith revealed how, nearly seven years after the Taliban were toppled, both it and Al Qaeda continued to use Pakistani tribal areas along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as a launching pad for attacks on U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan.

The Dark Side (2006)

As part of this investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s push for war in Iraq and his battle with the Bush administration’s intelligence community in the wake of 9/11, Michael Kirk looked at how power struggles and disagreements within the administration shaped the war in Afghanistan — including Osama bin Laden’s 2001 escape from the mountains of Tora Bora.

FRONTLINE first began reporting on Osama bin Laden in 1999, after he masterminded the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A number of our early films on bin Laden and/or the post-9/11 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — including Hunting bin Laden, Campaign Against Terror, and In Search of Al Qaeda — are no longer available for streaming online, but you can still explore interviews and transcripts on the documentaries’ individual websites.

The first line of this story has been updated to more accurately describe the genesis of the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan.

Patrice Taddonio

Patrice Taddonio, Digital Writer & Audience Development Strategist, FRONTLINE



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