Our secret Taliban air force
Inside the clandestine U.S. campaign to help our longtime enemy defeat ISIS
Inside the clandestine U.S. campaign to help our longtime enemy defeat ISIS
Tyler Comrie photo illustration for The Washington Post; Getty Images, iStock
By Wesley Morgan
Wesley Morgan @wesleysmorgan has reported on the U.S. military and its wars since 2007. He is the author of the forthcoming book “The Hardest Place: The American Military Adrift in Afghanistan’s Pech Valley.”
OCTOBER 22, 2020
Army Sgt. 1st Class Steve Frye was stuck on base last summer in Afghanistan, bored and fiddling around on a military network, when he came across live video footage of a battle in the Korengal Valley, where he had first seen combat 13 years earlier. It was infamous terrain, where at least 40 U.S. troops had died over the years, including some of Frye’s friends. Watching the Reaper drone footage closely, he saw that no American forces were involved in the fighting, and none from the Afghan government. Instead, the Taliban and the Islamic State were duking it out. Frye looked for confirmation online. Sure enough, America’s old enemy and its newer one were posting photos and video to propaganda channels as they tussled for control of the Korengal and its lucrative timber business.
What Frye didn’t know was that U.S. Special Operations forces were preparing to intervene in the fighting in Konar province in eastern Afghanistan — not by attacking both sides, but by using strikes from drones and other aircraft to help the Taliban. “What we’re doing with the strikes against ISIS is helping the Taliban move,” a member of the elite Joint Special Operations Command counterterrorism task force based at Bagram air base explained to me earlier this year, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the assistance was secret. The air power would give them an advantage by keeping the enemy pinned down.
Last fall and winter, as the JSOC task force was conducting the strikes, the Trump administration’s public line was that it was hammering the Taliban “harder than they have ever been hit before,” as the president put it — trying to force the group back to the negotiating table in Doha, Qatar, after President Trump put peace talks there on hold and canceled a secretly planned summit with Taliban leaders at Camp David. Administration officials signaled that they didn’t like or trust the Taliban and that, until it made more concessions, it could expect only blistering bombardment.
In reality, even as its warplanes have struck the Taliban in other parts of Afghanistan, the U.S. military has been quietly helping the Taliban to weaken the Islamic State in its Konar stronghold and keep more of the country from falling into the hands of the group, which — unlike the Taliban — the United States views as an international terrorist organization with aspirations to strike America and Europe. Remarkably, it can do so without needing to communicate with the Taliban, by observing battle conditions and listening in on the group. Two members of the JSOC task force and another defense official described the assistance to me this year in interviews for a book about the war in Konar, all of them speaking on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to talk about it. (The U.S. military headquarters in Afghanistan declined to comment for this story.)
With the Taliban fighting the Islamic State in Konar, a peace deal was always going to require at least tacit U.S.-Taliban cooperation against their mutual foe. In March, days after U.S. diplomats and Taliban representatives inked a withdrawal deal in Doha, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the top U.S. commander for Afghanistan and the Middle East, told the House Armed Services Committee that the Taliban had received “very limited support from us.” He declined to elaborate, and the form that support took has not been publicly revealed.
But inside JSOC, the team working on this mission is jokingly known as the “Taliban Air Force,” one task force member told me. As negotiators closed in on their deal in Doha, officers repurposed tools honed against the Taliban: Reaper drones and an intelligence complex with nearly two decades of practice spying on Afghan guerrillas. Unwilling to communicate directly with Taliban commanders, the task force worked to divine where and how its old foes needed help by listening to their communications.
By using such signals intelligence, members of the task force told me, they could tell when and where in the mountains the Taliban was preparing thrusts against the Islamic State, then plan airstrikes where they would be most useful. Taliban units on the ground appeared willing to take the help, waiting to assault Islamic State positions until they heard and saw the explosions of bombs and Hellfires. “It’s easy to capture the Taliban’s communications — a lot of it is just push-to-talk radio comms,” meaning walkie-talkies that anyone can listen in on, SAID Bill Ostlund, a retired Army colonel who led the JSOC task force in Afghanistan earlier in the war. “Why directly coordinate with them when you can do it that way?”
The Konar operations may offer a glimpse of what lies ahead for the United States in Afghanistan: the outsourcing of what has long been a core U.S. military mission — fighting the Islamic State and al-Qaeda — to the uneasily coordinated forces of the Afghan government and the Taliban, with U.S. counterterrorism forces in some cases helping both. Under the Doha agreement, the Trump administration hopes to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan next spring, but a CIA presence reportedly may remain. And if a new U.S. administration halts the military withdrawal, it will have to find ways to hunt the Islamic State and al-Qaeda with just the 4,500 uniformed troops the Pentagon has said will remain by November, or even fewer — a smaller force than the United States has had in the country since the early months of 2002.
The precursor to this strategy has been in place for years. Joseph Votel, a retired Army general who commanded JSOC, told me that during his 2016-2019 tenure heading Central Command, even before the U.S. military provided air support, it “deconflicted” with the Taliban — refraining from bombing Taliban units that seemed to be preparing for attacks against the Islamic State. “I can understand a certain distaste for doing it,” Votel said about the new approach. “But if you buy into the overall strategy of bringing the Afghan government and the Taliban into reconciliation while maintaining pressure on international terrorist groups, it’s the kind of thing that needs to happen.”
It’s not clear whether the government in Kabul — which was not a party to the Doha negotiations but is now in its own talks with the Taliban — is aware of the role U.S. airstrikes have played in Konar. (Afghan government officials declined to comment for this story.) But government troops have cooperated with the Taliban there, too, even as they fight bitterly in most other parts of the country. When U.S. soldiers visited the province in 2018 to support an Afghan military offensive against the Islamic State, Afghan troops would sometimes bring in tough-looking, heavily bearded locals from the battlefield for American medics to treat. It was clear, some of the U.S. advisers told me, that the men were Taliban fighters who were collaborating with government troops as guides and scouts, although Afghan officers wouldn’t say so explicitly since they knew that the United States considered the Taliban a hostile force. And during Afghanistan’s presidential elections in September 2019, Taliban fighters guarded some villages in Konar’s Pech Valley against the Islamic State, burning the houses of suspected members of the group and encouraging residents to vote.
The silent rapprochement with the Taliban puts the U.S. military in an odd spot. Even though the group is fighting the Islamic State, it remains allied with al-Qaeda, the enemy that brought U.S. troops to Afghanistan in the first place.
Yet Konar veterans I spoke with seemed realistic about the calculus, seeing this as necessary to keeping U.S. troops out of harm’s way. “I don’t think Americans should be on the ground in firefights with the Taliban, and we need somebody fighting ISIS, so I don’t see a problem with it. That doesn’t mean I want to break bread with them,” said Jason Dempsey, a retired Army lieutenant colonel who fought in Konar in 2009. “Emotionally it’s hard partly because we’ve spent nearly 20 years conflating al-Qaeda with the Taliban, but the Taliban didn’t strike the United States on 9/11.”
Votel, who spent time in Konar in 2007 and 2008, drew a comparison to the way U.S. forces handled Iranian-backed Shiite militias — including some that had previously fought against U.S. troops — during the campaign to push the Islamic State out of Iraq. “It’s not a whole lot different,” he said. The Shiite groups “were playing a role against a common enemy, and we tried not to do anything that might make ISIS’s job easier fighting them.”
Other veterans were less sure that the United States is backing the right horse. The Islamic State’s Afghan branch doesn’t appear to have plotted any attacks on the West, as its counterparts in Iraq and Syria have; the Taliban, meanwhile, has yet to break its long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda. “Just as an American taxpayer, are we more concerned about ISIS taking over Afghanistan, or the Taliban?” asked Loren Crowe, a two-time Konar veteran who was shot in the leg as an infantry company commander there.
What if the U.S. withdrawal plan has its calculus backward? The Doha agreement requires the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups from using its territory to plan international attacks, but not for the Taliban to break its ties with al-Qaeda — and last summer, a top Taliban spokesman refused to acknowledge that al-Qaeda was responsible for the 9/11 attacks. Although its numbers are always hazy, the U.S. military guessed last year that the Taliban hosts 300 al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan’s east and south, more than double its estimate a decade ago, when nearly 100,000 U.S. troops were in the country. And there’s no indication yet that the Taliban has any plans to break with its old ally after the U.S. withdrawal, which will take away most of the tools — like aerial surveillance and drone strikes — long used to keep a lid on al-Qaeda.
The Afghan branch of the Islamic State, meanwhile, appears to be composed mostly of local fighters from Konar and surrounding areas, not foreign terrorists. Some have joined for ideological reasons, but many others have done so because the organization offers high wages and the promise of advancement. “We’re not seeing foreign fighters up there. These are localized folks,” two-time Konar veteran Brig. Gen. Joe Ryan told me of the Islamic State last year in a book interview. “I’m not saying there aren’t worrying indicators, but I don’t believe that a transnational terrorist attack is going to emanate from Konar anytime soon.”
If it’s true that the Islamic State doesn’t pose much threat to the United States or its allies from Afghanistan, and that the Taliban can keep that group under control or even defeat it with a little help from the U.S. military on its way out, it’s a point in favor of the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan. But officials expect that al-Qaeda can be finished off in much the same way. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. envoy who negotiated the withdrawal deal, told an audience in Washington last month that the remaining al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan are on the run. But if U.S. counterterrorism strikes can’t defeat them in the coming months, that could scuttle the pullout and force Washington to keep troops in the country after all. In which case, the JSOC task force would keep pursuing al-Qaeda and the Islamic State indefinitely, and weighing what to do about the Taliban day by day and valley by valley — using drone strikes in some provinces to aid the group against the Islamic State and in others to kill off the al-Qaeda operatives who are the Taliban’s allies.
That answer is too convoluted for some to stomach. Crowe, the former company commander wounded in Konar, told me that with U.S. drones helping the Taliban fight a group that didn’t even exist in Afghanistan during his deployments, he worried that the military was acting like a hammer seeking nails to pound, inflating the threat posed by local and regional militants whose decision to take refuge in inhospitable terrain reflects their weakness and inherently constrains their actions. “How much do we really need to worry about dudes in the back of these valleys, no matter what flag they’re flying?” Crowe asked. “If ISIS in the Korengal is mostly a bunch of Korengalis, why do we care?”
As long as the soldiers, intelligence officers and contractors charged with America’s counterterrorism mission go looking for people to kill there, that is, they will keep on finding them. “There will always be dragons to slay up there,” Crowe said.