The Taliban never kept secret what their reaction would be if the Biden administration delays the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan, and now that it’s happened, U.S. forces may have to deal with a new, unbridled wave of violence and bloodshed in the months leading up to the new September pull-out deadline.
Hours after news broke on Tuesday that following a “rigorous policy review,” President Joe Biden is planning to have all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11—a break away from the previously agreed May 1 deadline—Taliban military leaders sat down for a policy review of their own. The group then announced it would be boycotting peace talks unless “all foreign forces completely withdraw from our homeland.”
Speaking to The Daily Beast on Wednesday, Mullah Salih Khan, a Taliban group commander from Afghanistan’s Helmand Province, said that the insurgent group is “very much prepared to strike,” against U.S. and Afghan government forces, warning that the militants will turn Afghanistan “into a nightmare” for them.
Mullah Mujahid Rahman, a Taliban subcommander from the Ghazni province, added that the U.S. has “proven they can’t be trusted after retreating from the May 1 deadline,” and that the group is willing to “fight till the end” of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.
“We have the pride of defeating about 100,000 invaders from [different] countries in Afghanistan. A few thousand won’t be a problem at all,” he said, referring to the 3,500 American troops still stationed in the country.
Experts say this reaction shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Afghanistan will likely see an unrestricted fighting season, with attacks on Afghan provincial capitals as well as against foreign forces,” Andrew Watkins, Crisis Group's Senior Analyst for Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast. “It is hard to say if the talks have been entirely halted, but it’s also difficult to see any reason for the Taliban to continue, if, as they seem to suggest so far, the Doha deal has been broken by the U.S.”
There were signs of the violence-to-come even before U.S. officials shared news of the extended deadline, when rumors of a seemingly inevitable delay were swirling both domestically and abroad.
Most dramatic among them was one video shared across their social media platforms last week, portraying what appears to be the Taliban’s training facility, somewhere between the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The 50-second clip, made in English for the benefit of international parties, shows an assortment of 50 odd young men—part of the Taliban’s martyrdom-seeking forces of suicide bombers and fighters—dressed in military fatigues and with their faces covered.
Wearing a jacket with the initials “I.E.A”, an acronym for the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan—the Taliban’s self-given name—one of them issues a warning against the Americans: “God willing, if they do not abide by the agreement they will be responsible for the killing in the next war,” he said, adding that the martyrdom forces are “waiting the order of the Emir and the establishment of the Islamic system all around the world.”
“It seems clear from the Taliban’s response that even if they privately celebrate the news of a U.S. withdrawal, the primary mood is mistrust, and they reject the announcement as an abrogation of the U.S.-Taliban deal,” said Watkins, adding that while the Taliban may resume talks with Americans, “there is very little chance of the Taliban committing to real compromise in peace talks with other Afghan stakeholders.”
Other stakeholders believe that the seeming disintegration of the peace process might not entirely be on Biden, but can also be attributed to developing fractures within the Taliban’s insurgency.
“Not all of the Taliban have been in favor of power-sharing, inclusive governments. Many among them want a monopoly over everything,” Rahmatullah Nabil, a former Afghan spy chief, told The Daily Beast.
He was referring to the many recent proposals made public that detail a potential deal between the Taliban and the Afghan government. One such proposal from the U.S. recommended a power-sharing agreement between the warring parties and has been criticized by the members of the U.S. Congress.
Nabil continues to maintain strong intelligence networks and had previously warned of the Taliban’s lack of commitment to the process and the U.S.-facilitated deal, which seems to have emboldened the insurgent group.
“The Taliban is consulting with their leaders in Pakistan… but with no actual pressure on the Taliban’s main backers like the Pakistani military and ISI, we will plunge into another crisis if the peace process collapses and Americans withdraw,” he warned.
Hekmatullah Azamy, deputy director of the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, an Afghan think tank closely observing the political and security developments, gave a similar assessment.
“The Taliban’s military wing feels compelled to teach the Americans a lesson for not abiding with their promised deadline, and as such, they will restart the violence. Unfortunately, the political wing that is conducting the negotiations is unable to convince them otherwise,” Azamy told The Daily Beast.
In any case, an increase in violence seems inevitable.
“Such units are already prepared for battle,” Azamy said, referring to the information gathered by his organization. “They understand that it won’t be easy, and the U.S. is fully equipped to respond to their attacks. But many among them are willing to engage in conflict anyway.”
Meanwhile, Afghan government officials are opting to remain optimistic, as the U.S.’s extended stay in Afghanistan gives them a little more time to develop diplomatic and political pressure on the Taliban to agree to a possible ceasefire.
“I think the U.S.’s extension on troop withdrawal could be a good thing for Afghanistan. It will force the Taliban to reconsider their stance,” a senior Afghan security official told The Daily Beast. But the official was less certain that the Taliban would actually escalate violence against the U.S. right away: “They have gained so much, it is unlikely that they will risk it all,” he said.
Some in the Taliban, however, continue to promise otherwise.
“We never paused our Jihad after the U.S.-Taliban deal,” said Mullah Salih Khan, one of the Taliban commanders who spoke to The Daily Beast. “There is nothing for the Taliban to lose, but the puppet Afghan government will lose everything.”