Afghanistan’s stability rests on a knife’s edge as a series of bloody attacks launched by Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) threatens the authority of the new Taliban government.
A regional affiliate of the Islamic State group, the ISIS-K has become more brazen in its attacks after US troops pulled out in August. Over the past few weeks, it has killed hundreds of locals, Taliban fighters and Shiite Muslims in a bid to sow sectarian hatred and make the country ungovernable.
Under mounting pressure from the international community to stop such extremist groups, the Afghan government has launched several operations against the ISIS-K.
However, the Taliban, which was an effective insurgent force during the US occupation of the country, is struggling with its new role — that of counterinsurgent.
US chairman of the joint chiefs General Mark Milley has said there is “a real possibility” that ISIS could formally reconstitute in Afghanistan in the next six to 36 months if decisive action is not taken immediately.
‘Will not work with US’
Taliban authorities, however, said ISIS-K poses no threat to the country and was at most a ‘headache’ that they can deal with internally, while ruling out any cooperation with the United States to contain such extremist outfits. “We can tackle Daesh [ISIS] independently,” Taliban political spokesman Suhail Shaheen told the Associated Press.
In the first face-to-face meeting between US and Taliban officials in Doha on October 11, the Afghan delegation skirted concerns over law and order while asking the US to end economic sanctions and to “unfreeze” assets worth $10bn. However, any substantial financial assistance is reliant on international recognition, which in turn is dependent on the Taliban regime introducing inclusive policies, and reining in militant groups.
This leaves the Taliban with little option but to take on the ISIS-K, which is considered extremist even by hard-right groups.
Experts say that with the Taliban now “seemingly implementing some moderate reforms”, the ISIS-K is likely to capitalise on its position as the main rejectionist group in Afghanistan to recruit more disaffected former Taliban supporters and to mount more attacks.
The Taliban, however, know their enemy and the terrain. They also have the potential support of two groups that also know the tactics of ISIS-K very well.
As a report from the US-based Soufan Centre explained: “To combat ISIS-K, the Taliban is going to rely on the powerful Haqqani network, Al-Qaeda, and other violent non-state actors for manpower, combat expertise, and logistical support.”
To stand any chance at succeeding, the Taliban is going to have to clamp down on internal divisions and mollify members within the organization that believe the group is being either too militant, or not militant enough.
Taliban, ISIS-K at odds
The Taliban and ISIS-K are both Sunni militant groups but, while the new Taliban-led regime in Kabul has promised to protect the minority Shiites, its rival wants to foment sectarian war.
Many of the fighters in ISIS-K fought for the Taliban or allied groups, or come from insurgent movements inspired by Al-Qaeda. But now the groups’ strategies have diverged.
The Taliban of 2021 has the goal of ruling Afghanistan under its interpretation of Islamic law, whereas ISIS-K is still wedded to the distant goal of a global “caliphate”.
Taliban spokesmen brand the group “takfiri” – Muslims who take it upon themselves to brand others apostates and thus condemn them to death – while ISIS-K propaganda paints their rivals as sell-outs to the Americans and the Chinese. ISIS-K, which was formed in late 2014, considers Taliban militants “apostates”, making their killing lawful under their interpretation of Islamic law.
Since 2020, the ISIS-K has been reputedly led by one ‘Shahab al-Mujahir’. He is variously rumoured to have been an Al-Qaeda commander or a former member of the Haqqani network, now one of the most powerful and feared factions in the Afghan Taliban.
Up until last year, overshadowed by the Taliban and targeted by a campaign of US air and drone strikes, the ISIS-K faction was losing influence.
But the arrival of the mysterious new leader seems to have marked a change in its fortunes. There is a renewed emphasis on urban warfare and symbolic violence. It allegedly carried out twin bombings at the Afghanistan airport in August that killed over 150 locals and 13 American soldiers. On October 8, an ISIS-K suicide bomber slaughtered 46 Shiite Muslims during Friday prayers.
ISIS-K also chooses soft targets and has been blamed for some of the worst atrocities in recent years, targeting girls’ schools, hospitals, and even a maternity ward. In March last year, the ISIS-K had attacked a Gurdwara, killing 25 Sikhs and several Afghans.
(With inputs from agencies)