The Taliban Is Still the Main Driver of Violence in Afghanistan

Two recent attacks by ISIS only obscure that the Taliban is attacking the Afghan government daily.

On Tuesday, a pair of monstrous terrorist attacks reminded the world that the war in Afghanistan rages on. In the Afghan capital of Kabul, gunmen stormed a bustling hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders. The jihadists killed at least two dozen people, including newborn babies and mothers in a nursery. Elsewhere, in the eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, a suicide bomber detonated himself at a funeral for a local police official. More than two dozen people were killed and numerous others wounded. The Islamic State’s Khorasan province (ISIS-K) quickly claimed responsibility for the latter bombing in Nangarhar. No party immediately accepted fault for the Kabul maternity ward shooting, though it is widely suspected that ISIS-K is behind that attack as well. 

The Taliban denied culpability for both attacks. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad quickly seized upon the Taliban’s denial, portraying the group as a possible counterterrorism partner. 

“We note the Taliban have denied any responsibility and condemned both attacks as heinous,” Pompeo said in a statement. “The Taliban and the Afghan government should cooperate to bring the perpetrators to justice.” Khalilzad tweeted the same, claiming the Taliban and Afghan government should cooperate “against a common enemy that perpetrates” such barbarism.

Pompeo and Khalilzad are the main architects of the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement, which was finalized on February 29 in Doha. The deal that was supposed to pave the way for a peace process has been a spectacular failure. There is no hint of peace more than two months after it was signed.

Why? The short answer: The Taliban doesn’t want peace. 

This hasn’t stopped Pompeo and Khalilzad from adopting a view of the Taliban that is entirely inconsistent with reality. They ignore the fact that the Taliban, not ISIS-K, is the main actor driving violence throughout the country. While the attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar are indeed “heinous,” the Taliban’s actions are no less so. The Taliban, and not ISIS-K, still terrorizes more civilians than any other party in Afghanistan. And while Pompeo and Khalilzad have argued that the Taliban can be America’s de facto counterterrorism partner, there is no reason to think that is true. There is no evidence indicating that the Taliban has broken with al-Qaeda, despite the supposed counterterrorism assurances enshrined in the February 29 accord. 

The Taliban went on the offensive immediately after the deal was signed. 

The U.S., the Afghan government and other nations have repeatedly pleaded with the Taliban to temporarily lay down its arms in anticipation of peace talks. But the Taliban has consistently rejected calls for a ceasefire. The jihadists agreed only to a short-lived “reduction in violence” during the days leading up to the signing of the Doha accord. The ink wasn’t even dry on that deal when the group unleashed a fury of attacks on Afghan forces throughout the country, killing and wounding hundreds of people. This campaign began in early March and continues to this day.

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) has documented the Taliban’s post-deal offensive. In late April, UNAMA warned that there was a “disturbing increase in violence” after the signing in Doha. The principal culprit is the Taliban. The number of civilian casualties during the first quarter of 2020 was lower than in previous years, but it was still high, with 710 people either killed (282) or wounded (428). And the dip in late February did not lead to a lasting reprieve. UNAMA attributes more than half of Afghan civilian deaths and injuries to the “anti-government elements,” meaning the Taliban and its allies, as well as ISIS-K. UNAMA found that the Taliban caused 39 percent of civilian casualties during the first quarter of the year. By comparison, attacks by ISIS-K accounted for 13 percent of civilian deaths and injuries. 

That is, while the attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar have grabbed much attention, the Taliban’s own pervasive violence is far more costly for civilians. Each and every week, more innocent men, women, and children are killed and maimed by the Taliban than any other actor in the war. 

The Taliban’s men are also busy hollowing out the Afghan security forces and picking off its opponents throughout the country. Since February 29, the Taliban has claimed responsibility for hundreds of operations across nearly every Afghan province. And the group is likely behind many more. 

Earlier this month, Reuters reported that two separate data sets (one maintained by a “Western military source” and the other by an “independent body”) show that the Taliban has carried out “more than 4,500 attacks in Afghanistan, marking a sharp escalation in violence, in the 45 days since signing a deal with the United States.” 

That is more than 100 Taliban attacks per day. While many of these were small-scale operations, the pace and scope of the Taliban’s insurgency are still far more problematic than anything ISIS-K can muster. On May 10, for instance, the Taliban overran an Afghan National Army outpost in the eastern province of Laghman, killing more than two dozen Afghan soldiers. This type of raid is more advanced than the massacres ISIS-K conducts. It requires advanced planning, training, and weaponry. Although ISIS-K remains lethal, it doesn’t have the capacity to carry out attacks on the same level throughout the country. Only the Taliban and its al-Qaeda-affiliated allies do.

The U.S. military is certainly aware that the Taliban is driving the war, as American officials have pleaded with the group to reduce violence. The Taliban objects to such pleas, correctly noting that it made no such commitment in the February 29 agreement. “But we spoke of ALL sides reducing violence by as much as 80% to pave the way for peace talks,” U.S. Forces-Afghanistan spokesman Col. Sonny Leggett wrote in a May 2 response to the Taliban. 

“Spoke”—not wrote. If the Taliban had truly committed to reducing violence after February 29, it would have been in writing. It isn’t. 

The reality of the Taliban’s ongoing war has come crashing down on the Afghan government, which was not a party to the bilateral U.S.-Taliban agreement. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani announced on Tuesday that security forces were going on the “offensive” against the Taliban and other jihadists. The Afghans had been in something called “active defense” mode—patiently waiting for the Taliban to make some genuine gesture toward peace. But the Taliban continued to reject both the U.S. military’s calls for a reduction in violence and Ghani’s ceasefire offers. 

Al-Qaeda lauds the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement. 

Without any progress toward peace on the ground, Pompeo and Khalilzad have trumpeted the Taliban’s supposed counterterrorism assurances as a diplomatic success. This has always been their No. 1 selling point for the deal. In exchange for an American withdrawal, the Taliban’s political delegation agreed that the group would prevent al-Qaeda or other anti-American terrorists from using Afghan soil to plan international attacks. There are many problems with the Taliban’s counterterrorism promises, as detailed previously in Vital Interests. For starters, the Taliban has lied about the terrorist threat to the West and its close relationship with al-Qaeda since the 1990s. There are no verification or enforcement mechanisms spelled out in the Doha agreement to ensure the Taliban isn’t lying now. 

In his public appearances after the deal was signed, Pompeo went well beyond the written text. He even claimed that the Taliban has agreed to help America “destroy” al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. 

More than two months have passed since the Doha accord was signed. While the Taliban has reportedly carried out thousands of attacks on Afghan forces and its other local foes during that time, it hasn’t conducted a single operation against al-Qaeda or affiliated groups in Afghanistan. Not a single one.  

The Taliban has many jihadist targets to choose from, ranging from Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent’s (AQIS) men to smaller ethnic jihadist groups that are clearly part of al-Qaeda’s international web. These al-Qaeda actors are embedded within the Taliban insurgency, fighting to overthrow the Afghan government and resurrect the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in its place. The Taliban hasn’t turned on any of them.

Nor has the Taliban renounced al-Qaeda. The Taliban’s propagandists publish daily messages in Arabic, Dari, English, Pashto and Urdu. They are prolific. Yet not one of these statements since February 29 has mentioned al-Qaeda, let alone renounced it. Al-Qaeda’s global leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has sworn his allegiance to Haibatullah Akhundzada, the top emir of the Taliban. Akhundzada hasn’t said a word about Zawahiri or al-Qaeda. Sirajuddin Haqqani, Akhundzada’s top deputy, runs a Taliban subgroup that has been intertwined with al-Qaeda since the 1980s. Haqqani hasn’t said or written a word about al-Qaeda since February 29. It would be easy for the Taliban to release a statement, in multiple languages, denouncing al-Qaeda. The group hasn’t done so. That’s telling. 

It is no wonder that al-Qaeda’s senior leadership endorsed the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement. In a three-page statement released online in March, al-Qaeda lauded the Taliban’s “historic victory” over the U.S. and congratulated Akhundzada as the “Emir of the Faithful,” a title usually reserved for a Muslim caliph. Al-Qaeda called on Muslims around the globe to support the Taliban’s Islamic Emirate, arguing that all jihadists should emulate the group, because of its success against the Americans. Al-Qaeda’s senior management team also instructed all of their followers to abide by the terms of the Doha accord. It is impossible to square such guidance with Pompeo’s claim that the Taliban is going to finally turn on its blood brothers. 

In its statement praising the withdrawal deal, al-Qaeda also lauded Mullah Omar for standing firm after 9/11, when the Taliban founder defended Osama bin Laden and his men against the might of America. “Allah has promised us victory, and Bush has promised us defeat. The world will see which of these promises will be fulfilled,” Omar vowed. Al-Qaeda has repeatedly these cited words, which look more and more prophetic with each passing day.

The Taliban continues to revel in Omar’s defiance as well. In a written eulogy posted on the seventh anniversary of Omar’s death in late April, the Taliban claimed that Omar’s obstinance in late 2001 and thereafter is what “brought down another idol of this age,” meaning America. At no point in the eulogy did the Taliban express remorse for, or disapproval of Omar’s decision to stand by bin Laden. 

Taliban apologists in the West have tried to rewrite history, claiming that Omar and his organization were never really that close to al-Qaeda. A mountain of evidencecontradicts their obfuscation. But there is an obvious problem with the claims made by the Taliban’s most ardent defenders. If the two are really wholly separate, then why, after all these years, does the Taliban still refuse to denounce al-Qaeda? The same type of question can be asked of Secretary Pompeo. If al-Qaeda is really a “shadow of its former self,” as Pompeo claims, then shouldn’t the Taliban find it easy to publicly and unequivocally renounce its relationship with Zawahiri’s organization? 

Pompeo and Khalilzad portray their agreement as a diplomatic triumph, claiming the Taliban has finally agreed to “break” with al-Qaeda. But if al-Qaeda is already a spent force, as Pompeo insists against much evidence, then that wouldn’t be much of a concession, now would it? (And again, the Taliban has not actually agreed to renounce, “break” or “destroy” al-Qaeda.)

Pompeo more critical of Afghan government than the Taliban.

With the coronavirus pandemic taking hold in late March, Secretary Pompeo traveled halfway around the world to Afghanistan. Nearly a month had passed since the agreement at that point, but his deal with the Taliban hadn’t led to any real steps toward peace. Pompeo blamed the Afghan government. 

The secretary of state first met with President Ghani and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah. The two political rivals were at an impasse, bickering over how the Afghan government would be structured. The Afghans also dragged their feet on a prisoner exchange with the Taliban. Pompeo and Khalilzad promised that the Afghan government would release up to 5,000 jihadists in exchange for up to 1,000 prisoners held by the Taliban. Ghani and his administration weren’t allowed to take part in State Department’s talks with the Taliban. But Pompeo and Khalilzad agreed to this concession—an uneven swap—in exchange for the Taliban merely attending “intra-Afghan” talks.

Ghani and Abdullah didn’t settle their differences during Pompeo’s visit to Kabul. And Pompeo bristled in a statement issued immediately afterward on March 23. Pompeo wrote that the U.S. was “disappointed” in Ghani and Abdullah, claiming their “leadership failure poses a direct threat to U.S. national interests.” Pompeo announced that the U.S. was “immediately reducing assistance” to the Afghan government “by $1 billion this year” and is “prepared to reduce by another $1 billion in 2021.” The political talks between Ghani and Abdullah resumed in the days that followed, while the Afghan government began slowly releasing Taliban prisoners. 

Pompeo met with Mullah Baradar, a senior Taliban political official in Doha, immediately after his trip to Kabul. Judging by Pompeo’s description, his meeting with Baradar wasn’t nearly as acrimonious as his sit down with Ghani and Abdullah. During a press briefing that followed, Pompeo denied that he had harsh words for the Afghan government, even though he clearly did. Pompeo praised the Taliban’s actions since the agreement was signed, claiming the group had “committed to reducing violence” and “they have largely done that.”

That is simply not true. As the U.N., press reporting and the Taliban’s own claims make clear, the jihadists went on a rampage following the February 29 agreement. 

It’s true that the Taliban hasn’t directly attacked American forces. But why would they? The U.S. is withdrawing its forces, which has been the Taliban’s central goal all along. Why would the Taliban do anything to forestall America’s retreat? For the most part, the Taliban has also refrained from headline-grabbing operations inside Afghanistan’s cities, such as the one this week in Kabul, but that doesn’t mean the jihadists have reduced violence. All of the reporting says exactly the opposite is the case.

There is no indication in the State Department’s transcripts or statements that Pompeo pressed the Taliban on its relationship with al-Qaeda. Did Pompeo demand that Baradar orchestrate a formal Taliban renunciation of al-Qaeda? Did he insist that the Taliban turn over AQIS leaders or fighters, or at least divulge their locations to the U.S.? Did he ask Baradar why al-Qaeda’s senior leadership thinks the U.S.-Taliban withdrawal agreement is a “victory” for the jihadists, and not a blow to their agenda?   

If Pompeo addressed any of these concerns, then it is a well-kept secret. 

We are left with a situation in which Pompeo believes that the political squabbling in Kabul is “a direct threat to U.S. national interests,” but apparently the Taliban’s unbroken, decades-long alliance with al-Qaeda is not. The Afghan government deserves much criticism, but it isn’t the Taliban. There was a time when this basic distinction would have seemed obvious. 

All President Trump wants is to withdraw American forces from Afghanistan. None of this is necessary to accomplish a full withdrawal, or close to it. It isn’t necessary to absolve the Taliban on the way out the door.  

Photograph of a March 2020 attack on Kabul by STR/AFP via Getty Images.

Explaining the Intense Diplomatic Battle Between the U.S. and China

The Chinese Communist Party’s ‘Wolf Warriors’ have Secretary Pompeo in their crosshairs right now, but their agenda will outlast the Trump administration.

During an interview on ABC News’ This Week on May 3, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stumbled when Martha Raddatz asked him if he thought COVID-19 is “manmade or genetically modified.” Pompeo responded: “Look, the best experts so far seem to think it was manmade. I have no reason to disbelieve that at this point.” 

Raddatz quickly pointed out that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), which oversees the sprawling U.S. intelligence community (IC), rejected this claim in a statement just a few days earlier. The IC “concurs with the wide scientific consensus that the COVID-19 virus was not manmade or genetically modified,” the ODNI explains.

“That’s right. … I agree with that,” Pompeo said, contradicting his response from just a few moments earlier. “I have no reason to doubt that that is accurate at this point.” 

‘The secretary of state’s misstep was unfortunate given the stakes. The U.S. and Chinese governments remain deadlocked in an information war over the coronavirus, its origins, and which parties are most culpable for the pandemic. And the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) “Wolf Warriors”—diplomats who brashly defend the Communist party against all critics—are gunning for Pompeo. Along with President Trump, he’s their No. 1 target. As the Los Angeles Times reports, the CCP’s “Wolf Warriors” get their name from popular action movies starring a Chinese commando who battles various foes “led by a villainous American named Big Daddy.”

Pompeo likely garbled two different theories of COVID-19’s origin. The theory that the Chinese engineered or weaponized COVID-19 in a lab is unsupported by the evidence. Scientists examining the genome of the virus can tell whether or not there has been any human tampering. To my knowledge, no credible scientist has come forward with evidence to suggest that is the case. This is why the ODNI has dismissed this claim. Absent any firm evidence to the contrary, the “Made-in-China” storyline will be relegated to the online fever swamp.  

The “leaked from a lab” theory is a bit murkier. The Trump administration and others have questioned whether or not the virus originated in a Wuhan research lab. According to the ODNI, the IC is still working “to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was a result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan.” Questioned about this version of events on Wednesday, Pompeo said that while there is no “certainty,” there is “significant evidence” showing that the virus came from a lab—and not an exotic animal eatery. We don’t know what this evidence is, but the ODNI says this possibility hasn’t been ruled out. 

America’s intelligence analysts currently can’t say for certain whether it came from a lab or not. Why? This type of assessment requires more than the expertise of virologists or other scientists. It requires evidence of what exactly transpired inside Wuhan, including how the virus was spread by Patient Zero. This is no easy puzzle to crack, in no small part due to the CCP’s own pattern of obfuscation.

The lab in question rejects both theories of what transpired. On April 28, Reuters published a report based on written responses by Yuan Zhiming, a professor at the Wuhan Institute of Virology (WIV). Yuan is also the director of the WIV’s National Biosafety Laboratory, the same facility America’s spies are currently scrutinizing. Yuan dismissed the weaponization speculation as “malicious,” dismissing the theory as having been “pulled out of thin air.” He also rejected the notion of an accidental infection. Yuan didn’t offer an alternative hypothesis, writing only that there are “still no answers” regarding the virus’s origins.

China’s “Wolf Warriors” chase Pompeo.

China’s “Wolf Warriors” have been even more aggressive in their pushback—especially in their rhetoric aimed at Pompeo. During a press conference on Wednesday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying demanded that Pompeo present the “enormous evidence” he claims to have. Hua is one of China’s alpha “Wolf Warriors.” She maintains an active Twitter account, with more than 400,000 followers. If you watch her perform in front of journalists, you can tell she is itching to fight. 

“The origin of [the] virus is a complex and controversial issue, but there is a broad consensus in the international community that it is a very serious scientific issue that must be studied by scientists and medical experts on the basis of facts and science,” Hua said, in response to a question about Pompeo’s claims. “At present, almost all the top scientists in the world, including famous scientists in the United States and experts in the field of disease control and prevention, believe that novel coronavirus originated from nature, not man-made, and there is no evidence of any so-called virus leakage from the laboratory.” 

Hua repeatedly blasted Pompeo, claiming he can’t present any evidence showing the virus leaked from a lab. “How could he bring it out?” she asked herself. And then she answered: “Because he didn't have it!” She also went into a Blame America First diatribe about how the U.S. “used germ weapons during the Korean War and Agent Orange during the Vietnam War.” It was her attempt to deflect from the issues at hand.

As far as the intelligence on Pompeo’s mind, it may not be as simple as Hua claims. It is possible that the evidence Pompeo is relying on comes from secretive intercepts, or other intelligence concerning the CCP’s behavior in and around the lab as the coronavirus outbreak became known. This evidence may not be a slam dunk, but like much intelligence collection, uncertain. 

China pursues “discourse power”

Hua is right that “facts and science” are crucial for our understanding of COVID-19. But it is rich to hear her say that. Her colleague at China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, infamously claimed on his own prolific Twitter account that the U.S. military may have brought COVID-19 to Wuhan. This was part of the “Wolf Warriors” aggressive disinformation campaign as the war of words between the U.S. and China heated up. While Twitter is banned inside China, the “Wolf Warriors” use multiple Twitter accounts to spread their own messages on behalf of the CCP.

When it comes to international diplomacy, the CCP isn’t really beholden to “facts and science.” Instead, the party is attempting to increase what it calls its “discourse power” —a concept Xi Jinping and his comrades use to explain their objections to a U.S.-led global order. As with many Chinese terms, it is difficult to define. 

In essence, the CCP complains that the current international system was established by the U.S. and its allies before China’s rise to power over the past four decades. According to Beijing, current international laws and rules were written mainly by the West and need to be either erased entirely or substantially rewritten. Once this global order is reset in Beijing’s favor, the CCP’s word will carry more weight, because material power (both military and economic) determines whose version of the truth is victorious. It is a version of power politics that is opposed to Western values. “Discourse power” doesn’t rely on who has the better of the facts. It’s all about the power to shape narratives to one’s own liking.

China’s “discourse power” was one of the key subjects discussed at a public roundtable discussion held by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission in late April. Some of the experts who remotely testified at the event defined the Chinese concept for Americans, who may find it puzzling.

“As China’s power has grown, the Chinese leadership now feels entitled to follow a path similar to the U.S and to set the terms for institutions and norms that will reflect China’s preferences and serve as the building blocks of a new order,” Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, explained in her written testimony. “However, even though China’s material or ‘hard’ power has undoubtedly increased, the leadership believes that it still lacks ‘discourse power’,” Rolland added. She explained that the CCP doesn’t have “any appealing substitutes to the existing set of international norms and values,” as the party’s ideology has evolved into an “idiosyncratic mix” that is difficult to export. This hurts the CCP’s ability to shape the public discourse.

Nevertheless, according to Rolland, “Chinese strategists” have defined “discourse power” as an “ability to voice concepts and ideas that are accepted and respected by others, and by extension, the power to dictate the rules and norms that form the basis of the international order.” 

Similarly, David Shullman, a senior adviser at the International Republican Institute, explained that the CCP “seeks greater control over the formulations and ideas that underpin the international order.” After the CCP has obtained this “discourse power,” it can “water down norms around liberal democracy as China takes on a more central global role.”

COVID-19 threatens China’s “discourse power.”

Once you begin to understand China’s novel view of international diplomacy, you see why COVID-19 threatens the CCP’s vision of its own role both at home, and in the so-called global order. Although the mask was already starting to slip on the CCP’s intentions, coronavirus has exacerbated some of its “Wolf Warrior’s” worst tendencies. 

In late April, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison endorsed calls for an independent inquiry into COVID-19’s origins. Morrison said it is “entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.” He didn’t go out of his way to blame China. Morrison even refused to repeat President Trump’s claim that the virus could have originated in a lab, saying it was more likely to have come from a wet market. But the CCP’s propaganda organs quickly went to work anyway. 

CCP media accused Australia of “panda bashing,” describing Morrison’s country as “gum stuck to China’s shoe.” China’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, suggested in an interview with the Australian Financial Review that an economic boycott may be in the works. “[M]aybe the ordinary people will think why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef,” Cheng said. “Why couldn't we do it differently?” 

Australia isn’t the only country experiencing the brunt of China’s aggressive diplomacy. The New York Times reports that countries throughout Europe and Africa are part of a “global backlash” to the CCP’s “Wolf Warrior” Diplomacy. America isn’t the only country deeply suspicious of the CCP’s actions surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As Rolland told the Los Angeles Times, the criticism from foreign countries “strikes right at the heart of one of the myths that the party has been cultivating to bolster its legitimacy at home: that the [CCP] is efficient, competent and capable, and that it is the only one able to effectively lead the nation.” It also further jeopardizes the CCP’s quest to claim the mantle of global leadership.

Facts vs. “discourse power.” 

Pompeo clearly sees much to fault in China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. The secretary of state isn’t wrong in this regard, even though President Trump’s domestic political considerations are always a factor and the administration is keen to avoid blame for any of its own missteps. The president is also notoriously fact-challenged. Pompeo’s jumbled response on This Week didn’t help matters either.  

But this is an opportunity for America to check the CCP’s attempt to remake the global order. And that’s what makes the facts so vital. Nations need to be assured that the American-led order adheres to something more than just the raw power to shape discourse.  

The precise origin of COVID-19 is important, not just for public health reasons, but also in the diplomatic gun fight between the U.S. and China. Yet, that is not the only issue that matters in this war of words. 

The State Department is on safer ground pointing to the CCP’s suppression of early whistleblowers in Wuhan, outrageous disinformation campaign, heavy-handed diplomacy, publication of dubious statistics on the number of infections within China, reported concealment of the virus’s severity, and general lack of transparency regarding what exactly transpired inside Wuhan. The State Department also accuses the CCP’s National Health Commission of destroying early samples of the virus. 

All of these issues require a careful analysis of the facts, whether one has “discourse power” or not.

Photograph of Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying by Artyom Ivanov/TASS/Getty Images.

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