By: Simon Fischer
President Donald Trump has made waves in the international community for a number of reasons. One of the more controversial countries where his views have been criticized is Afghanistan. He reversed on his promise to end the US’s longest-running war, which drew the ire of the Taliban, the Islamic militia movement that controls most major cities in Afghanistan. They claim that Trump is “wasting his time” committing troops to the country and that Afghanistan would become a “graveyard” for US soldiers. Trump, on the other hand, countered with the notion that by withdrawing, they would be leaving a void in the country ripe for the likes of Al-Qaeda and ISIS to fill. The verdict may not yet be in on who’s right and who’s wrong in this disagreement, but I believe that the US shouldn’t be worrying about the Taliban in the first place.
The Taliban, an Islamic political movement currently waging a “jihad” in Afghanistan, came to power in 1980’s following the Soviet Union’s attempt to occupy the region. The CIA and Saudi Arabia funneled money and weapons to the Afghan mujahideen fighters, and up to 90,000 fighters were eventually trained by the Pakistani intelligence forces to fight the Soviets. Over the course of a decade, these fighters utilized Western training to fill the power vacuum created by the 1989-92 civil war and became the Taliban we are familiar with today.
However, in contrast to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, the Taliban never demonstrated a commitment to the objective of establishing a global caliphate. Our foreign policy leadership should reevaluate whether or not we ascribe too much credit to the organization for the current chaos in the Middle East for two main reasons. Firstly, according to former US Ambassador to NATO Douglas Lute, there are consistently around 25,000 Taliban members. Despite American success on the battlefield, the number of fighters remains nearly the same. Based on our experiences in the past decade, a continued strategy of attrition and fighting the Taliban tooth and nail would likely produce limited results. Secondly, we tend to associate the Taliban with transnational terrorist groups because of their violent methods and terrorizing tactics. While there are some similarities to ISIS and Al-Qaeda, such as the violence and the fact that both groups are Islamist, a key difference remains: the Taliban threatens no one outside of Afghanistan, including the United States.
In conclusion, foreign policy officials and the Trump administration should take a long, hard look at what kind of role the Taliban plays in our future Middle East plans. Although it may seem easy to link the group to transnational terrorist organizations, in reality, they differ in many ways. We should ultimately reconsider our Afghan foreign policy strategy because it is becoming apparent that groups like ISIS are a bigger threat to the US, especially after another Islamic State-inspired attack recently taking place in New York City. When was the last time you heard about a Taliban-inspired attack on US soil? Instead of wasting his time (and breath) worrying about troop commitment to an entity that does not endanger homeland safety, Trump should focus more attention toward ISIS, which does, in fact, pose a threat to us. ISIS has no “home base”, since it is solely unified by religion, and is able to operate in many countries across the Middle East and Africa, making the group much harder to contain. Trump claims he wants to narrow the focus of our Middle East involvement to threats that pose a risk to major countries outside of the region. So, if he wants to accomplish this goal, he should consider reevaluating the Taliban in our future plans there.