Behind the agreement with the Taliban that enabled the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, writes Lorenzo Vidino, is a tacit understanding that has emerged in the past six or seven years between the U.S. and various jihadist groups:
The roots of the unspoken pact can be traced to the second half of 2014, when Washington assembled an international coalition to fight Islamic State. To jihadist strategists—and most people in the region—the rationale behind U.S. intervention was clear: Islamic State faced military attacks not when it conquered a territory the size of France between Syria and Iraq and ruled it with medieval barbarity, but only when it began beheading Westerners in Hollywood-style video productions and attracting thousands of Western foreign fighters who, from the safety of the caliphate, issued threats against their home countries.
The lesson was clear: lay low, don’t behead Westerners, don’t plan attacks in the West, and Washington lets you be. . . . Few in Washington would dare articulate it in these terms, but a deal that allows the United States to spare lives and money by entrusting “moderate jihadists” to govern spaces that seem to be ungovernable by any other force is a form of realpolitik that appeals to many. If it is accompanied by a narrative that paints “moderate jihadists” as an authentic expression of the local population and is sprinkled by occasional condemnation of human-rights abuses or even some toothless sanctions to clean one’s conscience, it all seems quite reasonable.
But there are solid reasons to temper enthusiasm for this deal with the devil. . . . [M]ost importantly, its fatal flaw is in the deal’s underlying assumption. Dividing the jihadist movement into “moderates” (the Taliban, and even al-Qaeda) Washington can do business with and extremists (Islamic State) that are the only real enemy is a misguided approach.
A more fitting categorization is between gradualist and impatient jihadism, the former pragmatically willing to bend its strategic posture temporarily to attain goals while the latter is more uncompromising. Gradualist jihadism is not more moderate but simply tactically smarter, adapting in the short term so as to be in a better position to do what is in the DNA of all jihadists: destabilize the larger region and attack the West. The difference between the two is not so much in the end goals but in the time frame.