Taliban fighters atop vehicles with Taliban flags parade along a road to celebrate the U.S. pulled all troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar, on September 1, 2021.

Taliban fighters atop vehicles with Taliban flags parade along a road to celebrate the U.S. pulled all troops out of Afghanistan, in Kandahar, on September 1, 2021. AFP via Getty Images / JAVED TANVEER

‘It’s Possible’ US and Taliban Will Target ISIS-K Together, Milley Says

But SecDef Austin cautions, “I would not make any leaps” beyond recent coordinated airport evacuation ops.

The U.S. is planning more retaliatory strikes against ISIS-K in response to a suicide bombing last week that took the lives of 13 service members. But with no troops on the ground, options for targeting those terrorists are limited. 

The U.S. could leverage the connections made during the airport evacuation to work with the Taliban to target their common enemy. However, the Pentagon’s top civilian and military officers seemed split on that approach as they spoke to reporters Wednesday. 

“We're going to do everything that we can to make sure we remain focused on ISIS-K, understand that network, and at the time of our choosing, in the future, hold them accountable,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said. 

ISIS-K  has about 2,200 fighters in Afghanistan, according to the UN. It seeks not only to target the U.S., but also to destabilize Taliban rule.

Last week, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the suicide bombing attack at Kabul airport’s Abbey Gate that killed 11 Marines, a Navy Corpsman, and a soldier. 

Given the common enemy, and the coordination that occurred during the evacuation, “it’s possible” that the U.S. could coordinate with the Taliban on those strikes, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley said Wednesday. 

“We don't know what the future of the Taliban is. But I can tell you from personal experience that this is a ruthless group,” Milley said. “Whether or not they change remains to be seen.” 

Before he could continue, Austin interjected. 

“We were working with the Taliban on a very narrow set of issues,” Austin said. “And it was just that, to get as many people out as we possibly could. And so I would not lead to, I would not make any leaps of logic to, you know, a broader set of issues.”

The U.S. shouldn’t count on the Taliban to help, said Bill Roggio, senior fellow for the Foundation of Defense of Democracies, which tracked the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan. 

“In this case, the enemy of my enemy is my enemy,” Roggio said. “The Taliban should not be trusted, especially given the reporting on what the Haqqanis have done with the Islamic State in the past.” 

Experts suspect there are ties between ISIS-K and the Haqqani network, which is now running security for the Taliban in Kabul.

However, even if ISIS-K launches additional attacks in Kabul to destabilize Taliban governance efforts, they are outnumbered, Roggio said. 

“ISIS will last in Afghanistan as long as the Taliban wants them to,” he said. 

The ideological differences between the Taliban and U.S. on women’s rights and other issues will also likely make full future cooperation impossible, said Dan Byman, a senior fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute. But in a limited form, there’s room for cooperation. 

“I can imagine indirect cooperation at times through a country like Pakistan, where the Taliban share information that some, you know, IS-K folks are holed up in a particular part of the country. And if a 500-pound bomb happened to drop on that, they wouldn't really mind too much.”