Why a U.S.-Taliban Peace Deal Could Strengthen ISIS in Afghanistan

The U.S.-led war in Afghanistan began nearly two decades ago in a post-9/11 bid to kill Osama bin Laden, destroy Al Qaeda and oust its ruling ally, the Taliban.

More than 18 years and tens of thousands of deaths later, the Trump administration is negotiating with a resurgent Taliban — and both sides have said that they are prepared to sign a peace deal on Feb. 29. The signing of the deal, which is contingent on the successful completion of a week-long reduction in violence meant to show the U.S. that Taliban leadership has control over its fighters on the ground, is expected to involve an agreement to draw down U.S. troops in the country and to open the door to talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

But according to recent FRONTLINE reporting from inside Afghanistan, a U.S.-Taliban peace deal could have unintended consequences inside the country: an increase in membership for ISIS, as Taliban fighters unhappy with their group’s participation in the peace process defect.

“With this peace deal, you will see the caliphate rise,” an ISIS commander in Afghanistan told FRONTLINE correspondent Najibullah Quraishi. “Taliban fighters have promised to join us. We won’t rest until we implement the caliphate across the entire world.”

The commander’s comments came in Taliban Country, a documentary that FRONTLINE released on Jan. 21. Filmed late last year, as peace talks unfolded in fits and starts, the documentary followed Quraishi, an Afghan journalist, on a rare and dangerous journey inside both Taliban- and ISIS-held territory in Afghanistan.

“I wanted to find out, if the Taliban come to a deal, if the fighting in Afghanistan will finish or not,” Quraishi said. “But the answer is very clear: not. Most of my sources are telling me that as soon as a peace deal is signed, most of the Taliban’s foot soldiers will join ISIS.”

According to the Washington Post, if the potential deal is signed, the U.S. would shift the bulk of its counterterrorism operations in Afghanistan towards combating ISIS.

In addition to conversations with Taliban and ISIS fighters, the recent FRONTLINE documentary included an exclusive interview with Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, one of the founders of the Taliban and the group’s chief negotiator with the U.S. In the January interview, Baradar told Quraishi that “the war will end when the U.S. withdraws from Afghanistan,” and said the Taliban would defeat ISIS militants.

Before the U.S. invasion, the Taliban imposed a harsh interpretation of Islamic law under which girls were not allowed to attend school, women were extremely limited in their ability to work, and their movements and appearance were strictly policed. Baradar answered ambiguously when Quraishi pressed him on how the Taliban would treat women if the U.S. left Afghanistan: Women would have rights, he said, but only according to the Taliban’s interpretation of Islamic Sharia law.

“There has been no change in the Taliban in this regard,” he said. “We accept all the rights that God has granted to women…. Under Islamic law, if they want to live and work, of course we will allow it.”

Taliban Country is the latest installment in FRONTLINE’s years of reporting on what has become America’s longest war. As the potential signing of a peace deal approaches, watch the documentary to understand what’s been happening on the ground inside Afghanistan in recent months — and revisit FRONTLINE’s collection of streaming documentaries to explore how the war began, how it evolved, and its consequences:

As part of this investigation of former Vice President Dick Cheney’s push for war in Iraq and his battle with the Bush administration’s intelligence community in the wake of 9/11, Michael Kirk looked at how power struggles and disagreements within the administration shaped the war in Afghanistan — including Osama bin Laden’s 2001 escape from the mountains of Tora Bora.

FRONTLINE first began reporting on Osama bin Laden in 1999, after he masterminded the U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania. A number of our early films on bin Laden and/or the post-9/11 U.S.-led war in Afghanistan — including Hunting bin Laden, Campaign Against Terror, and In Search of Al Qaeda — are no longer available for streaming online, but you can still explore interviews and transcripts on the documentaries’ individual websites.