On April 25, US officials confirmed that the Taliban had killed the head of the Islamic State (ISIS) cell operating in Afghanistan. Though his identity has not been revealed, he is believed to have masterminded the 2021 Kabul Airport attack that killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 US military personnel.
His assassination marks the latest escalation of violence between the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan this year. Several senior Taliban officials were killed or targeted in March by ISIS, while several ISIS leaders were killed by the Taliban in January and February.
The Taliban, a loose Pashtun-centric political movement active across Afghanistan and Pakistan, previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The US withdrawal and ensuing collapse of the Afghan government in 2021 allowed the Taliban to re-establish their rule over the country, but they have been prevented from gaining full control thanks to ISIS, which has existed in the country since 2014.
Initially, many Taliban members were supportive of ISIS’ ability to seize territory and challenge US and other Western forces in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014. Yet despite their common enemies and shared hardline Sunni interpretation of Islam, the Taliban’s animosity arose after ISIS began to establish itself on Afghan territory and attract Afghans to its cause.
At the time, Taliban forces had failed to make territorial gains and had recently begun another round of negotiations with the US government. The Taliban had also traditionally suppressed the Salafist brand of Islam in eastern Afghanistan in favor of Hanafi Islam, making ISIS’ Salafist leanings attractive to many Afghans in the region.
There was also significant division across the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban leadership, further allowing ISIS to poach members.
Several high-ranking members switched allegiance to ISIS in 2014, which also found support from smaller regional militant groups. But of significant importance was ISIS’ ability to attract disillusioned members of its rival, al-Qaeda, to its ranks.
Disagreements over policies, tactics, and leadership caused al-Qaeda to disavow ISIS in 2014, and they have competed for dominance over the global jihadist movement since. The Taliban’s close relationship with al-Qaeda only made ISIS more resolute in challenging them in Afghanistan.
Rise of ISIS-K
In January 2015, ISIS announced its vision to create the province of “Khorasan,” which would include much of Central Asia and the South Asian subcontinent, and is part of ISIS’ effort to establish a global caliphate. The group began to expand more rapidly across Afghanistan while accusing the Taliban of being “filthy nationalists” and neglecting Islam in favor of their ethnic and national base.
As clashes between the Taliban and Islamic State in Khorasan (ISIS-K) intensified in 2015, the Taliban’s then-leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, wrote a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging him to abandon recruitment in Afghanistan and insisting the war against the United States should be led by the Taliban.
But it failed to dissuade the ISIS leadership, who were also aided in part by the Afghan Army’s initial decision to avoid fighting ISIS to focus on the Taliban.
As ISIS emerged as a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability, however, both Afghan and US-led international forces increasingly came to focus on the group in the country. ISIS’ targeting of religious minorities also brought it into further conflict with parts of the Afghan population.
The Taliban, in comparison, had steadily increased their influence in Afghanistan, persuading the Afghan and US governments to commit to talks to end the war.
The Doha Agreement in 2020 put forth a withdrawal timeline for foreign soldiers, saw thousands of Afghan and Taliban soldiers released in a prisoner swap, and the Taliban pledged to prevent terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. ISIS denounced the agreement, accusing the Taliban of deviating from jihad to please “their US masters.”
But suggestions of ISIS’ demise in Afghanistan by then-president Ashraf Ghani proved short-lived, particularly as Afghanistan was engulfed by the power vacuum caused by the US departure. ISIS’ numbers were also bolstered by thousands of prisoners who escaped or were freed from Afghanistan’s prisons.
While ISIS’ estimated 4,000 members in Afghanistan as of 2023 pale in comparison to the Taliban’s roughly 80,000 troops, its guerrilla warfare campaign, similar to the one used effectively by the Taliban against US forces, has made it a formidable opponent in parts of the country.
By the end of 2021, the group had killed or injured more people in Afghanistan than any other country, and clashes between the Taliban and ISIS are common occurrences.
On top of attracting more members to ISIS’ ranks, the Taliban fear ISIS will erase what little legitimacy they have as a governing force by keeping Afghanistan unstable. The Taliban’s leadership remains plagued by division and lacks any international recognition.
The Taliban are also now fighting ISIS-K largely alone and without the high-tech weaponry and air support enjoyed by the previous Afghan government forces. And having been beaten back in Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan provides ISIS-K one of the few places where it can expand, causing the group to double down in the country.
Seeking outside support
To shore up their position, the Taliban’s leadership has sought to engage with other governments. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are cautiously cooperating with the Taliban, while Pakistan, which has a complex history of working with the Taliban, continues to conduct dialogue with them.
Pressure is on the Taliban to get results. Chinese and Russian citizens and infrastructure in Afghanistan have been targeted by ISIS, drawing criticism. And though the Taliban have said they will not allow their territory to be used to attack their neighbors, ISIS has already tested this in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.
The Taliban’s ongoing cooperation with al-Qaeda (exemplified by the assassination of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a US drone strike in Kabul in 2022) continues to dissuade Western cooperation, coupled with the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s freedom. Reversing their more radical policies could in turn instigate more defections to ISIS.
Having fought the Taliban for two decades, a rapprochement with the Taliban would be a difficult sell to Western audiences. But having already worked with the Taliban to evacuate its citizens in August, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mark Milley, stated the possibility of coordinating with the Taliban to defeat ISIS in 2021.
With the Afghan government disbanded (many members have joined the Taliban or ISIS) and the weaknesses associated with the National Resistance Front, there is little viable opposition that Western forces can support.
Yet the US “over-the-horizon” approach to ignoring the Taliban to deal with ISIS and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has its own consequences – a drone strike intended for the mastermind behind the 2021 Kabul Airport attack instead ended up killing 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.
Nonetheless, the Taliban’s assassination of the individual responsible in April may encourage soft coordination and informal diplomacy with other countries, including the US. Yet because the Taliban remain dependent on cooperation with extremist groups like al-Qaeda, their formal international isolation risks becoming long-term.
Providing a haven for groups like al-Qaeda and promoting a strict interpretation of sharia law is also a double-edged sword. These conditions helped ISIS establish itself in Afghanistan, aided further by the poverty and lack of basic services in many parts of the country.
ISIS will continue to attempt to weaken the Taliban militarily, exploit its divisions, and erode its claims to have restored peace and stability to Afghanistan.
Afghanistan’s instability since the 1970s remains, and the country continues to be a hotbed of regional concern, great-power rivalry, and ideological clashes. While most foreign governments view ISIS as a greater threat, this may not be enough for the Taliban to end their vulnerable isolation and help Afghanistan achieve peace and stability.
Source : AsiaTimes