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Former NATO Envoy Says Islamic State Is Afghanistan’s Biggest Threat

Afghan women at the scene of a rocket attack on Kabul Airport on August 26 that was claimed by the Islamic State.

Former British diplomat Sir Nicholas Kay served as his country’s envoy and NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan between 2017 and 2020. In a wide-ranging interview with Radio Azadi, he says the Taliban will need to demonstrate its counterterrorism commitments as Western nations will continue to see the Islamic State militants as a threat.

Radio Azadi: What was the main goal of the United States and NATO allies during their 20-year presence in Afghanistan, and do you see it as being achieved?

Nicholas Kay: As we look back to September 2001, I think we know that there was one very clear goal. And then a second was always a little bit less clear, but quite important. But the first clear goal was to stop any more international terrorist attacks like 9/11 from happening again, plotted from, organized from coming from Afghanistan. And for 20 years that has been successful. The question of course is, is that sustainable? Will that continue to be the case?

Sir Nicholas Kay
Sir Nicholas Kay

The second aim is also important. There were many people back in 2001, 2002 who were advising their governments that if you want Afghanistan never to be a haven and incubator of international terrorism, then really you are going to have to stay for a long time to help Afghans recover what they had lost in the last 30 years of war. What they had lost was functioning institutions, good governance; they had lost an economy that worked. They had lost much of the infrastructure. They had lost health care and education. And without helping Afghans recover that, there was always a question mark as to how long it would remain free from terrorist bases and international jihadist movements.

Radio Azadi: A UN report in June suggested the Taliban still maintains close ties with the Al-Qaeda terrorist network despite signing a peace deal with the United States in which it committed to fight militant groups. The Taliban slammed the report as “baseless and bigoted.” How can the Taliban's departure from such groups be verifiable and monitorable?

Kay: Yes, you are right. Al-Qaeda was the group behind the 9/11 attacks, and the aim was very much to ensure Al-Qaeda could not operate in Afghanistan successfully against the West and against international targets.

I have seen the UN report and I have seen other reports as well, and I am very much in the camp of those who believe the links between Al-Qaeda and the Taliban continue. There are links -- in some cases family links, practical links, hosting links, tolerating, and to some extent financial links, as well.

I don't think the agreement even with the U.S. the Taliban signed was necessarily about the Taliban agreeing to fight Al-Qaeda. They said they would not allow Afghanistan’s soil to be used for international terrorist attacks and they would sort of distance themselves from terrorist groups but nothing as specific as fighting them, and I think this is one of the biggest worries that the Taliban need to show very clearly that they are not harboring, supporting, nurturing, enabling Al-Qaeda.

Radio Azadi: The Islamic State-Khorasan branch recently claimed responsibility for a deadly attack near Kabul airport that killed dozens of Afghans as well as 13 American soldiers. How worrying is the presence of IS affiliates in Afghanistan?

Kay: Yes, it was a horrendous attack that rightly everybody has condemned for the loss of lives of Afghans and U.S. soldiers. The presence of ISIS is a worry. They have been as we know present now for about five years despite the efforts of the government of Afghanistan, the United States, and also the efforts of the Taliban.

They’ve continued to have operational capabilities that are based in different parts of Kunar in Nangarhar and one or two places elsewhere. They are able to conduct horrific terrorist attacks in Afghanistan. My worry is that they will also continue to attract foreign fighters, foreign Islamist terrorist groups and that they will not confine their operations to Afghanistan. This is the biggest concern for counter-terrorism work in Afghanistan.

Radio Azadi: NATO fought the Taliban for nearly 20 years. Is there any room for potential cooperation between NATO members and the Taliban similar to NATO's past cooperation with Afghan governments?

Kay: We are all now in a new reality where the Taliban control most of the country and are the de-facto authorities in Afghanistan. We have to adapt. I think we adapt slowly, cautiously, and step by step. We don't jump ahead and jump across rivers until you get to them.

The first [step] is to build confidence. The Taliban need to build confidence both with the international partners and with the Afghan people. And I think how they do that will determine how much we can cooperate with Afghanistan.

The first thing they need to do is to ensure safe passage for Afghans who want to leave the country and have the right to go to other countries. And that’s very important that they demonstrate that they are prepared that they give that safe passage. That will build confidence with international partners but also with Afghans.

Second, they need an inclusive government, a really inclusive government that brings all of the Afghans together. To do that, the Taliban need to create the conditions; they need to show that they are changed from what they were from 1996-2001.

If the Taliban start to demonstrate those kinds of characteristics -- trustworthy partner for Afghans, trustworthy partner for internationals about safe passage -- then I think there will be more cooperation that is possible. But it’s early days.

What’s clear is that there is no time for delay in humanitarian assistance for Afghanistan. It’s very important that the international community separates the question of humanitarian assistance, development assistance. Humanitarian assistance to keep people alive is very important.

Radio Azadi: The United States has frozen billions of dollars’ worth of Afghan assets. Is this the only way to put pressure on the Taliban? How can the international community avert a humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan?

Kay: Yeah. There [are] two points. The first point [is that] there is money needed for health, education, water, shelter, and essentially for food and there [are] big food shortages and insecurity. That money would normally go to UN agencies and international NGOs from Western countries and donors, and I see no reason at all why that should not continue to happen and should be increased because the needs are increasing.

The second is money that the Afghan government oversees which has been frozen. Not having access to that money is causing immediate harm to Afghans; the banks are closed, food prices are rising, inflation is increasing. There is an argument for allowing a certain amount of that money to be released, it's [the] Afghan people’s money. It’s not Taliban money. And that would help release some of the immediate pressure. But the $9 billion of Afghan reserves is something that for the moment would be wise to keep for the Afghan people and not to allow it to go to the Taliban.