The last few hours of US presence in Afghanistan have been tumultuous, in tune with the 20-year war in the country which came to an end as Major Gen Chris Donahue, Commanding General of the US 82nd Airborne Division, became the last US soldier to exit Afghan soil. However, the botched US exit has given way to uncertainty in Afghanistan, as the Taliban sets itself up with the daunting task of governing a state with over 35 million people.
The terror attack on Kabul airport on the evening of August 26, which killed over 150 people, was a precursor to what the country must deal with going forward while rebuilding itself under the Taliban rule. The attack, claimed by the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), the so-called Islamic State’s Afghanistan arm, brings with it one of the first challenges faced by the Taliban-led administration, i.e., of moving away from being a decades-long insurgency to providing counterinsurgency, policing, and pushing back against adversaries such as the ISKP.
The ISKP’s ideological and military battle against the Taliban is not new. Ironically, the Taliban saw the now former President Ashraf Ghani’s government as one that was installed by the US and as a puppet regime which was not representative of either the Afghan people nor Islam itself; this is the same view the ISKP now takes of the Taliban, viewing their victory and ascension to power as being backed by the US and the West. The ISKP strength in Afghanistan is not known to be large, with US CENTCOM estimating the numbers to be around 2,000. The ISKP online propaganda machinery has been railing against the Taliban, Pakistan, and US for many months, clubbing the trifecta as part of one plan against Islam and Muslims, highlighting how the first generation of the Taliban, coming out of the war with the Soviets as the mujahideen in the early 1990s, had the correct ideas, but the generations that followed went wayward led by Pakistan’s Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI).
“The Taliban continuously spoke against the Islamic State after the so-called peace deal was brokered between them and the United States by the Pakistan government. It was not surprising anymore for anyone who has followed the events in Afghanistan as “the ranks had been purified and the good had been separated from the evil and as the so-called peace talks went on, the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan was prioritised by the Taliban,” read a write up in the pro-ISIS publication Sawt-al-Hind, released in July 2021.
Both for the Taliban and the ISKP, a new era of strategic and tactical tug-of-war may be on the horizon. The Taliban has made, on the face of it, ideological concessions to not only sign an exit deal for the US, but to also present themselves as an acceptable version of the Taliban who are still known better for blowing up the Bamiyan Buddhas in March 2001, and running a hermit, isolated, Islamist state between 1996 and 2001 that housed Al-Qaeda. Strategically, the next few months for the Taliban are critical from an ideological point of view. The group will have to maintain a balance between not becoming what they were in the 1990s, which still remains a reference point for the global discourse, against what they are marketing themselves as of today. However, there is limited wiggle room for the Taliban in this regard, tilting too much on one side could potentially alienate a large section of the group’s cadre, which include both those who have been in this fight for years, and those who are first generation Talibs, in their 20s, and have known Islam only in one way—that of the fight against foreign powers to disallow their view of the world.
Strategic concessions for the Taliban will have to be led by ideology, now that militarily, they have declared victory against another superpower after the Soviet Union. To gain legitimacy and access to the world, and more importantly the global economy, the Taliban will look to cement its “moderate” approach to Islam, and by extension, implementation of Sharia. How the Taliban will market this to its more extreme units, of which there are many, will determine the group’s success when it comes to its outreach to the world. Much of the narrative of a ‘new’ Taliban ideology is for the moment coming from Kabul and the spokespersons from the Doha process, along with the Haqqani Network—a smorgasbord of narratives that still do not cement ideological policies on issues such as women’s rights, arts, education and so on beyond the capital. Meanwhile, we are yet to hear from the likes of Taliban chief Hibatullah Akhundzada, and Mullah Yaqoob, son of Taliban ideologue Mullah Omar, both of whom are considered the spiritual and ideological bearings of the movement.
On the other hand is ISKP, smaller, yet arguably more driven, having a tactical advantage of entering the territory of insurgent and terror attacks in places such as Kabul, once seen as the Taliban’s exclusive area of kinetic operations. The Kabul airport attack, which was preceded by strong intelligence by the US to expect a strike, brought the ISKP back into the limelight. Previously, the group had largely been confined to provinces such as Nangarhar and Kunar, and US air strikes against the group, Afghan military operations aiding the US, and the Taliban also pushing back against ISKP had diminished the group’s capabilities. Nonetheless, at regular intervals, the ISKP was able to conduct significant strikes, such as the one against a Sikh gurdwara in the heart of Kabul in March 2020, which left 25 dead and dozens more injured.
A critical point to remember on the ISKP is that it remains a quintessentially Afghan group. While the narratives of a larger fight for an Islamic ummah, and to setup a caliphate are prevalent, they are also not new and consistent with Taliban ideologies. The initial stages of ISKP were basically former Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) fighters, former Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other smaller jihadist groups coming under a brand in 2015 which was already making a big name in Iraq and Syria. This gave the ISKP instant recognition, both by the US and NATO forces, and the Taliban as well. Despite its current, limited size, a strong resolve along with a move towards more urban warfare is sufficient for the ISKP to inflict damage on a governance-less Afghanistan, with people looking for both security under various umbrellas of ethnic divisions, tribes, and war lords, as public governance is expected to remain absent in the short term at least. The ISKP is also in a position to attract further cadres, for example those who disagree with the Taliban softening its ideology to pander an outreach to the West, and also those who may get short changed in whatever political structure prevails in Kabul. Analyst Abdul Sayed notes: “It (ISKP) started building an urban network by elevating leaders and recruiting operational fighters from cities such as Kabul, including battle-hardened, educated, and highly radicalised adherents of Salafism and some Ikhwani militia members of former Afghan militant groups. The Kabul network also absorbed splinters and defectors from the Taliban’s radical Haqqani network.”
While the Taliban may have strategically won the battle in Afghanistan, the wish to mainstream itself not only within the political fissures of Afghanistan, but also the international community while simultaneously holding an ideological high ground will give the ISKP an opportunity to exploit. While the ISKP remains a small entity, it may arguably have an ideological upper hand mixed with a tactical commitment against the Taliban that could attract some influential figures once the Taliban’s political system unravels and once some battle-hardened figures are handed the short end of the stick when power sharing comes into play. Reports of a possible cooperation between Taliban and the US on counterterror issues also may intensify ideological divides.
The strategic play of the Taliban may push it to strengthen its relations with Al-Qaeda, a much more pragmatic and politically astute version of the ISKP. And the ISKP, may benefit from having an upper hand in marketing a much more puritanical view of Islam to some Afghans, who always supported and knew the Taliban as an insurgency against the very things they are open to inculcate as part of their governance today.
The Taliban–ISKP dynamic may unravel as something much more than just terror strikes and one-upmanship in this “new” Afghanistan.