A recent Washington Post article has reported alleged cooperation between US forces and the Afghan Taliban in the fight against Daesh in Eastern Afghanistan. This has provoked reactions from commentators from all corners alike. The significance of this was not difficult to grasp; the Washington Post’s report implicated the US and the Taliban with having worked as allies in Afghanistan’s eastern Kunar province whilst waging a brutal war against one another in other parts of the country.
JSOC in Bagram
It is alleged, on the basis of entirely unnamed sources from the US airbase in Bagram, that the counterterrorism task force of the elite US Joint Special Operation Command (JSOC) effectively operated as a ‘secret Taliban Airforce’. This was whilst the Taliban were engaged in fierce battles with Daesh in Kunar. The unnamed sources quoted claim that JSOC observed battle conditions in Kunar, conducting strikes against Daesh positions in order to allow Taliban ground troops to move. The strikes included aerial bombardment as well as Hellfire missiles launched from drones, playing a decisive role in allowing the Taliban in Kunar to finally defeat Daesh.
Taliban and Daesh in Kunar
The riveting story, coupled with its eye-grabbing headline, raised many eyebrows. This was specifically amongst those acquainted with the battles between the Taliban and Daesh in Kunar. Khalid Zadran travelled to Kunar in 2019 along with Taliban fighters during the anti-Daesh campaign, claiming he witnessed quite the opposite of claims being made in the Washington Post article.
I spent time on the front line against ISIS in Kunar, where we witnessed the US forces delivering ammo to ISIS.
The people of Kunar still recall such incidents.
I am ready to take any reporter to Kunar & ask eye-witnesses about the truth.@washingtonpost
— Khalid Zadran (@khalidzadran15) October 23, 2020
We asked Khalid Zadran to explain his criticism of the recent Washington Post report. Zadran said that having visited Kunar in 2019 at the apex of the war between the Taliban and Daesh, he witnessed first-hand battlefield developments. This included US aerial bombardment against both Taliban and Daesh positions in Kunar’s Chales, Watapoor and Kandegal districts. Zadran accompanied the battalion of the famed Taliban commander Bilal Fateh, who spearheaded the anti-Daesh campaign in Kunar.
Airstrike against Daesh
Zadran retells instances where the communications of Daesh fighters, under attack from the Taliban, would be intercepted. The Daesh fighters would complain of a lack of ammunition, following which US aerial bombardment would rain upon the area. “The next day” Zadran said, “the same fighters would launch offensives against Taliban positions with seemingly endless ammunition, leading the Taliban to believe that the Americans were supplying Daesh.”
— Khalid Zadran (@khalidzadran15) August 25, 2019
Airstrikes against Taliban
Zadran went on to narrate that the Taliban were decimated by heavy American bombardment. One instance he witnessed was when 18 Taliban were killed in Watapoor district. Still, the Taliban managed to clear villages from Daesh. Another seeming proof for the support of the Americans for the Daeshis occurred when an old man was apprehended after being discovered communicating with Daesh. As a result, his house was searched; wherein were found U.S military ration biscuits. Amongst the fighters, this further reinforced the Taliban belief that Daesh were receiving food supplies from the Americans.
Perhaps most disturbing were accounts of villagers who retold Zadran their experiences living under Daesh rule. Zadran recounts:
“I spoke to villagers who retold that after seizing control, Daesh would raise their black banners. They instructed villagers to raise red flags by their front doors if they had a young virgin woman in their households. This outraged people as it offended Pashtun cultural sensibilities. One widow told me that whenever a man died, Daeshis would forcibly marry their widows after four days. This was in flagrant violation of Islamic requirement of iddah, in which widows were to wait for a period of time following the death of their husbands before marrying again. I spoke to some women, who, in violation of both cultural norms and Islamic practise, forcibly married up to half a dozen Daesh fighters.”
Daesh hospital ward in Jalalabad
Zadran related that there were numerous government offers to the Taliban to join forces against Daesh, which were promptly denied. The Taliban doubting the sincerity of the government offers; rumours were abundant that the government too, like the Americans, were assisting Daesh. According to Zadran, many in the region speculated that in Jalalabad City’s central hospital there was a special ward tending to wounded Daesh fighters.
Civilian casualty toll from airstrikes in #Afghanistan continues to rise. Latest verified data: 20 & 22 May attacks in #Helmand (Greshk) & #Kunar (Chawki) killed 14 civilians, inc 5 women & 7 children. Parties must respect international obligations to protect civilians from harm. pic.twitter.com/zQQ7lUa5CX
— UNAMA News (@UNAMAnews) May 23, 2019
Civilian casualties of drone strikes
The Washington Post article vis-à-vis an alleged U.S-Taliban joint venture in Kunar thus fails to explain two critical realities. In 2019 there were many reports of airstrikes in Kunar where civilians were killed. The claims of the unnamed sources cannot and do not explain why so many civilians were being targeted. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism has cited many instances of such airstrikes in Kunar where civilians and Taliban were either killed or injured.
Naturally, important questions arise here. The same unnamed sources referenced to in the article, seemingly working for JSOC in Bagram airbase, claim that their role was to monitor the ongoing battlefield situation between the Taliban and Daesh in Kunar. The areas in Kunar which this would have covered are characterised by densely forested and steeply mountainous terrain naturally difficult to traverse and navigate. In such a restricted geographic context, how could JSOC actually identify Daesh aerially? Moreover, assuming this were the case, why are there numerous reports of not just Daesh, but Taliban fighters and even civilians being bombarded? Other times, civilians were the victims of joint Afghan and foreign raids. The 2019 time frame is replete with reports of such incidents, some of which local officials stated were aimed solely at Taliban fighters.
In short, the authenticity of the claim of allegedly intimate cooperation between the US and the Taliban does not and did not warrant the absolutist, hyperbolic nature of a headline asserting the US was acting as a ‘secret Taliban airforce’. Not only is it countered by sources on the ground such as Zadran, but the barrage of articles available detailing the pounding of Taliban positions in Kunar by US aerial power. Then there is the fact that the sources from Bagram are entirely anonymous. This isn’t the first time anonymous sources have precipitated a whirlwind of reactions to news stories in Afghanistan. Not too long ago in June, the New York Times reported another bombshell: Russia had been paying bounties to the Taliban to kill US soldiers. This caused not only a whirlwind of emotions but a diplomatic storm. The Taliban and several Russian officials denied it emphatically, whilst President Trump claimed that news he had been briefed on the alleged bounties program was ‘fake news‘ and that he hadn’t been briefed on it because the information was not ‘credible’.
Yet the theatre of anonymous sources making gob-smacking claims continues. Whilst being careful to not discard anonymous sources entirely, given the undoubted value that is forthcoming from many an insight from an unnamed source, caution must be exercised. Especially if these are difficult to reconcile with other realities: the veracity of which tend to be authenticated by named sources.