As the battle for Afghanistan was in full swing, and the Taliban were at Kabul’s doorstep, the road to Hamid Karzai International Airport was choked: in fear of the Taliban’s return to power, scores of citizens looked to flee abroad. Exploiting this chaos of power transfer, and slipshod security, ISIS-K attacked the airport killing 160 people, including 23 US servicemen. Since then, there have been 4 major attacks, including last week’s attack on a military hospital in Kabul. As they transition from insurgency to government, the hardline Taliban grapple with the biggest threat to their fragile hold on power. So, who are the ISIS-K, and why do they seek to destabilise the Taliban?
The ISIS-Khorasan, a splinter of the parent ISIS, locally known as Daesh, is a hardline Islamist organization based in Afghanistan. Their objective is to establish a caliphate, of the ilk that ISIS had in Iraq and Syria, that encompasses the ancient Khorasan province (now Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, and Pakistan). Formed in 2015, they have established a stronghold in Eastern Afghanistan- along the disputed Durand Line and drug routes of Pakistan- in the provinces of Nangarhar, Farah, Kunar, and Helmand. It derives its cadre from militants of the Pakistani Taliban, rebels of the Taliban, and scores of foreign fighters. Although sharing the purist Islamic vision with the Taliban, the ISIS-K differs in scope and goals: they are now sworn enemies, as ISIS-K seeks to topple the Taliban.
For starters, the Taliban has nationalist goals: to establish an Islamist emirate in Afghanistan guided by the principles of Sharia. On the contrary, ISIS-K seeks to establish a transnational caliphate. The ISIS-K consider the Taliban as ineffectual in their embossing of Sharia and deem them sellouts for negotiating peace with the Americans in Doha. As the Taliban 2.0 puts up a more moderate image, it risks losing its core Islamist base to ISIS-K: reports of Taliban’s rebels defecting have been frequently reported. Aided by US airstrikes, the Taliban was successful in driving out the Taliban from Jowjhan. But with the Americans gone, ISIS-K has renewed its offensive against the Taliban: it has started to attract US-trained members of the former Afghan army.
The Taliban’s ‘tough on crime’ image, with its harsh punishments, gives it some sort of legitimacy in the wild Afghan countryside (people were interviewed celebrating the Taliban’s takeover with the optimism of public safety). ISIS-K seeks to demonstrate the ineffectualness of the Emirate through repeated attacks on minorities and Taliban installations, helping to dent the Taliban’s law and order image.
The Taliban’s response has been unequivocal: within hours of an attack, they destroyed a terror cell in Kabul. Bodies of suspected members of ISIS-K have been dumped in Jalalabad. The Taliban is up against tactics such as suicide bombings, car attacks, and hit-and-run incidents. These techniques were primed during their own 20-year insurgency: in principle, they should be able to contain the ISIS-K challenge. They are well versed with such strategies and have a stronger cadre, now armed with American weaponry.
It is important for the Taliban to quell the ISIS-K challenge: under the Doha Agreement, the Taliban vowed to make sure that Afghanistan would not become a breeding ground for terrorist organizations. The Taliban, desperate for international legitimacy and a ‘seat at the table’, will be accorded some sort of legitimacy in the international community if they hold the fort against ISIS. This could open doors to recognition and aid, something the Taliban desires.
The biggest fear for the international community should be a tacit understanding between Taliban and ISIS- like that of the Al-Qaeda and Taliban relationship in the 1990s. Indeed, they do have a common link: their shared connection to the Haqqani network, whose members are now in the Afghan cabinet (Sirajuddin Haqqani is the Interior Minister, and Khalil Haqqani is the Minister for Refugees). This could be a major threat for the region and the world at large. In a volatile region, with Khyber and Kashmir in proximity, ISIS-K can destabilise the region surrounded by nuclear-armed India and Pakistan; Iran and Central Asia, too, stand to lose from a resurgence of Islamic extremism.
The Taliban is treading a thin line: it needs to promote a ‘neo-moderate’ image on the world stage, while preserving its domestic support. The fear of hardliners defecting to ISIS-K remains persistent. The Afghan people face grave challenges. The economy is collapsing, with the UN estimating that 97% of people will live below the poverty line by December. Another war simply isn’t permissible. Therefore, the Taliban must neutralise ISIS-K to prevent further violence and anger from the Afghan people. They have already suffered too much.