Over the past decade Afghanistan had been eclipsed by the surge of violence in the Arab World. Once a target of the world’s attention, Afghanistan was neglected by the mainstream media busy covering the chopping of heads and storming of cities across the deserts of Iraq and Syria by the Islamic State (ISIS), which seemed far more dangerous than the Taliban had ever been during their notorious rule in Afghanistan (1996-2001).
With the fall of Kabul yesterday, Afghanistan is very firmly back in the media headlines, and ISIS in the country is likely to soon return to the limelight, too. In Afghanistan, ISIS goes by the name “Khorasan Province” (ISKP), a reference to a historical region incorporating parts of modern-day Afghanistan and Pakistan, and it will have a lot more operational room once the chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces is completed to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks that triggered the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan back in 2001.
On 9 June, ISKP attacked members of the Halo Charity, an international mine-clearing organization operating in the northern Baghlan province, killing ten people and wounding sixteen. They were prevented from slaughtering more people by none other than the Taliban, who came to the rescue. During the Eid al-Adha prayers earlier last month three rockets were fired at the Presidential Palace in Kabul, also claimed by ISKP. These attacks prove that all government statements about the eradication of ISIS in Afghanistan are incorrect. Far from being finished, ISKP remains “a serious threat”, according to John T. Godfredy, the acting U.S. Special Envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS.
The Taliban-ISIS Feud
According to intelligence reports, foreign fighters affiliated with ISIS have recently managed to escape the Al-Hol Camp in north-eastern Syria and find their way to Afghanistan. Most had been held captive at this Kurdish-controlled camp since defeat of ISIS’s “caliphate” at their last stronghold of Baghuz in the Albukamal district, back in March 2019. They had nowhere to go as their home countries would not allow them back, and nor would Syria and Iraq. Afghanistan, it seems, will become their new home, and base of operation, used to strike within country itself, and possibly far beyond. What’s certain is that they will be become a problem for the Taliban, who have moved heaven and earth to contain their growth within Afghanistan.
In some ways, it is the Taliban who pose the most serious challenge to ISIS’s plans in Afghanistan—and, indeed, vice versa. The two speak the same jihadi language, after all, share the same fundamental ideology, and recruit fighters from the same community of impoverished Sunni Muslims. Neither group likes working with competitors and will try to eliminate one another, by the sword when needed. ISIS are Salafis and the Taliban follow the Hanafi school of Sunni Islam, putting them at rival ends of the religious spectrum, and ISIS’s experience in Syria proves they can’t work well with others, even those who share a jihadi agenda. ISIS in Iraq displayed such brutality to other Islamist insurgents that it provoked “the Awakening”, and in Syria a decade later fought a bloody war of extermination against Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al-Qaeda branch that is now called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS).
In 2015, ISKP and the Taliban began taking jabs at each other, and fighting broke out in the eastern Nangahar Province. That June, the Taliban published an open letter from its deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor, warning ISIS’s leader and self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi to stay out of Afghanistan. He also called on him to stop recruiting Taliban members. The founder of ISIS in Afghanistan, Abdul Raouf Aliza (aka Mullah Abdul Raouf Khadim), was a former member of Taliban and ex-inmate at Guantanamo Bay. After his defection to ISIS, Aliza began recruiting members from the Taliban into ISIS, given that they were properly indoctrinated, knew the terrain inside out, and were well-trained in guerrilla warfare. They also knew exactly where Taliban jails were located, along with their arms storehouses, tunnels, and gold.
As ISIS makes its comeback, the Taliban has secured control over much of the geography and territory in the country, including not only the capital but major cities like Kandahar, Herat, and Kunduz. Before the latest lightning offensive that began on 6 August, 1,600 civilians had been killed this year and another 300,000 displaced. Those figures have risen sharply in the last ten days and are expected to rise yet further in the coming days.
Herat, on the western border with Iran, had been the fiefdom of Ismail Khan, officially the province’s governor, a former Mujahideen commander from the Soviet times. Khan is the only major Mujahideen figure who consistently fought the Taliban before 2001. In the run-up to this latest crisis, Khan had said he was ready to fight the Taliban again. With Khan’s forces now broken and resentful of the Taliban, it potentially makes ISIS an attractive option. This is a pattern that will repeat across the landscape as defeated warlords will have to either overcome their fractiousness and reform the Northern Alliance to resist the Taliban, or else continue their anti-Taliban fight through the ISKP vehicle.
A Political Roadmap
One idea, currently making the rounds in international circles and particularly popular with states like Russia, is to empower the Taliban to fight ISIS. This resembles the policy of U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, when he tilted toward Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in its long war against Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran. If there had to be a victor, Saddam was the lesser evil, he reasoned, and, ideally, they would both be destroyed. This time around, the Taliban is regarded as the lesser evil.
The U.S., under President Donald Trump, struck a so-called deal with the Taliban on 29 February 2020. The Taliban promised—among other things—to help curb Al-Qaeda’s influence in Afghanistan and negotiate a power-sharing arrangement with the Afghan government. Meanwhile, the U.S. forced the release of 5,000 Taliban jihadists from government jails.
The deal was a fiction intended only to dampen the political costs of withdrawing U.S. troops. The Taliban, having pocketed the concessions—including the return of hardened fighters to the battlefield and an air of international legitimacy from being engaged by the West—never implemented anything it promised, and instead set about imposing a military solution, which it has now completed.
As the Taliban now tries to consolidate, it will have to deal with opposition on two flanks, from those who want to keep some aspects of the pluralism that has been introduced over the last twenty years and from those who want to go much further and faster in implementing Islamic rule. If the Taliban does not find a way to manage this latter group, the ranks of the disaffected will find ISIS standing ready to recruit them with open arms.
The Hekmatyar Factor
A dog that hasn’t barked—yet—is Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the 72-year-old veteran leader of Hizb-i-Islami (HII), an extremely influential warlord-turned-politician-turned kingmaker. The most powerful Mujahideen commander in the 1980s because of the sponsorship of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency, which began long before the Soviet invasion of 1979, Hekmatyar switched patrons to Iran for a time.
There were initial reports back in 2015 that Hekmatyar had called on his followers to support ISIS against the Taliban, but he quickly came out to refute the statement, describing it as baseless, and has acted against ISIS ever since. This made him a potential ally to both sides, albeit Kabul remained wary—his public visit to Pakistan last October did not set well with the now-former Afghan leadership. Still, before his flight, President Ashraf Ghani was trying to court Hekmatyar to have him place his weight on the side of the government against the Taliban.
Ghani was not having much success, but a breakthrough seemed possible. Now the question is what role Hekmatyar will play: how much support he can rally and how he will choose to use it. Such questions also apply to former presidential contender and head of the Higher Council for National Reconciliation, Abdullah Abdullah, and the ex-jihadi leader Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf, both of whom were being engaged by Ghani’s proposed High State Council.
As in the 1990s, in the face of rapid Taliban conquests, Afghanistan’s leaders were bickering among themselves, and in many places making opportunistic alliances with the Taliban to undermine rivals. For the Taliban and their Pakistani backers, this was music to their ears and made their conquest that much easier. The difference this time is the ISIS factor, a more dangerous and uncontrollable element even than Al-Qaeda.
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