Joe Biden may find that Leon Trotsky’s observation that, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you” to be true regarding Afghanistan. Mr. Biden believed in August of last year that he had ended the “Endless War” in Afghanistan. From the President’s perspective, the humiliating American rush for the exits was justified as breaking a few eggs to make an omelet; but the Endless War goes on, and one of the combatants is very interested in America. ISIS in Khorasan (ISIS-K) is not only a threat to Taliban rule, but it can easily become capable of striking the United States if it overruns one or more of Afghanistan’s major airports.
Many Americans see no difference between ISIS-K and the Taliban, thinking they are interchangeable fundamentalist Muslim groups that use terror to achieve their ends. There is a world of difference. Having once more gained control of Afghanistan, the Taliban will content themselves with trying to govern the country by re-imposing Sharia law. If they have any outside interest, it is to expand their influence to unify with the Pashtun areas of Pakistan. ISIS, to include ISIS-K, has far grander ambitions in that it envisions an apocalyptic battle with the apostate forces of evil, read the West, and particularly the United States as the West’s leader. Internationally, ISIS vies with Al Qaeda for leadership in the field of Jihad; although it views Afghanistan as a key battlefield, it ultimately has its sights set on us.
The Taliban government has downplayed ISIS-K as a threat, but internally it has several good reasons to be worried. First, ISIS-K accuses the Taliban of being insufficiently Islamic. To rule the country without undue internal dissent, the Taliban have had to ratchet back on some of the more severe forms of Islamic law to include the treatment of women. It may not look that way to Americans, but compared with ISIS, the Taliban are raging feminists; that is not sitting well with many of the Taliban’s younger and more strident fighters. Thus, the more hardline ISIS approach is appealing. In addition, many of these young firebrands have known nothing else but war and have no marketable civilian skills. Demobilization means joblessness, and ISIS-K is hiring. In addition, there are many unemployed soldiers of the central government who are equally unskilled in anything be soldiering. Many of these jobless warriors will be for sale to the highest bidder, and ISIS-K has more money than the Taliban.
It is far less expensive to be an insurgent than to try to govern. The Taliban financed their insurgency largely through drug money from outfits such as the Haqqani network. Now, at least on paper, they must bad mouth the drug trade and appear to be suppressing it just as did their corrupt predecessors in Kabul. ISIS-K is internationally funded, mostly by rich Gulf Wahhabis, and their paymasters will increasingly be able to outbid the Taliban for hired guns. Switching sides when it appears to be more advantageous is an old tradition in Afghanistan. That is largely why the Taliban won last summer. There are serious questions as to whether the Taliban can do better than the former government in counterinsurgency operations.
At the present time, ISIS-K is concentrating its efforts in Nangarhar Province in eastern Afghanistan and have threatened the provincial capital Jalalabad, which is one of Afghanistan’s five major cities. If they can eventually gain control of the Jalalabad airport with its modern facilities, they will have a clear gateway to Europe and the United States. At that point, the Biden administration will have four clear options and none of them are good. First, the United States could offer to assist the Taliban in regaining the airfield; at this point the Taliban have categorically rejected the notion of U.S. help against ISIS-K. Second, the U.S. could crater the airfield and make it useless. The United States Air Force found from World War II to Vietnam that keeping an airport inoperable indefinitely takes a daily reapplication of airpower for the duration of the conflict. A third option is to seize and defend the airfield, again indefinitely. All three options require a return to the Endless War and would destroy yet another key pillar in Biden’s foreign policy.
The fourth option would be to do nothing, and hope for the best. That is probably what the present administration will do. Hope is not a strategy, and if ISIS-K launches an attack on the American homeland, it will be a death knell for the Biden presidency. If ISIS-K captures Jalalabad, the flapping noise you will hear will be Joe Biden’s chickens coming home to roost.
Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps Colonel who served as a Special Advisor to the Deputy secretary of defense and as a senior civilian advisor in Iraq and Afghanistan.