The Taliban has just won a 20-year war against America and its allies and sent them packing. The triumph is so complete that the US no longer represents any sort of threat to the Taliban’s long-held aim to rule the country according to its own interpretation of Sharia law. But the taste of victory is far from sweet, because the Taliban faces a home-grown challenge to its ambitions, and its enemy is all the more dangerous because it fights on the ground that the Taliban claims as its own – Islamism. The challenge to its authority comes from the shadowy group that claimed responsibility for the horrific bombing at Kabul airport on August 26 leaving some 170 people dead – the Islamic State Khorasan, known as ISIS(K), or simply IS(K). Khorasan is a historical term for a region that includes present-day Afghanistan and parts of the Middle East and Central Asia.
IS(K), an affiliate of ISIS, was formed in early 2015 when ISIS was at its heyday controlling large areas of Iraq and Syria. It was set up by disaffected ex-members of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban, who pledged their allegiance to the self-proclaimed caliph, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. A 2015 video caught the group’s leader at the time, Hafiz Saeed Khan, and other top commanders, swearing their loyalty to Baghdadi, and declaring themselves administrators of a new ISIS territory in Afghanistan. Khan was killed in 2016 during a US drone attack. Baghdadi died in 2019 after he set off an explosive vest to avoid being captured by US forces.
Currently estimated to number some 4,000 fighters, including jihadist prisoners released when the Taliban captured Kabul on 15 August, IS(K) is bitterly opposed to the Taliban on the most intractable of all grounds – religion. It believes the Taliban does not subscribe to the central purpose of the Islamic creed – to spread the faith throughout the world. IS(K) is at one with the central aim and intention of its parent body, ISIS – to create a worldwide Islamic caliphate of which Afghanistan would be a part. IS(K) is a segment of the global IS network that, in pursuit of its fundamental objective, seeks to carry out attacks on Western and international targets wherever it can reach them. The Taliban has no such ambition. Its objective is to establish an emirate in Afghanistan.
This clash of basic motivation also explains IS(K)’s bitter opposition to the Taliban sitting down with US representatives in a series of peace negotiations, starting in February 2020. It accuses the Taliban of abandoning jihad and the battlefield in favor of cozy conversations in “posh hotels” in Qatar’s capital, Doha. Reports suggest that, as the negotiations proceeded, a number of Taliban adherents opposed to the talks switched over to the more extremist IS(K). One report has the IS(K), increasingly incensed at the discussions, declaring that killing Taliban members is a higher religious duty than targeting Americans.
IS(K) is a formidable enemy. Unrelentingly savage, it has staged dozens of attacks over the past few years, killing scores of Afghans. It has been accused of attacking a girls’ school, a hospital, a university, and even a maternity ward where the militants reportedly shot dead pregnant women and nurses.
Nothing is simple in Afghanistan. Bitter enemies though they are, IS(K) and the Taliban have recently been linked operationally. The connection exists through a third body, the Haqqani network, which has strong ties with both. One expert on Afghanistan’s militant bodies says that “several major attacks between 2019 and 2021 involved collaboration between IS(K), the Taliban’s Haqqani network and other terror groups based in Pakistan.”
The Haqqani network is a jihad group incorporated in Pakistan. The US has offered rewards of millions of dollars for the capture of two of its members, Sirajuddin Haqqani and Khalil Haqqani. Both are senior members of the Taliban. Even so, the Biden administration has sought to distinguish between the Taliban and the network. State Department spokesperson Ned Price has called them separate entities.
“If this is the understanding of the State Department,” said the Hindustani Times on August 28, “then the war against terrorism globally is doomed.”
The newspaper considered the distinction false. “Everyone knows,” it wrote, “that Mullah Omar, the one-eyed founder of the Taliban, was radicalised in Darul Uloom Haqqania…from which the Haqqani network derives its name.” It believes the US tried to separate the two bodies in the public’s mind in order to justify liaising with the Taliban, while painting the Haqqani as the real terrorists.
However close the Taliban may be to the Haqqani network, and whatever the connection between the network and IS(K), there is now no community of interest between the Taliban and the IS(K). The two are at daggers drawn. Although IS(K) is vastly outnumbered at present, it is said to be counting on a rapid expansion as foreign fighters already in Afghanistan vie to join its ranks. In a June report, the UN estimated that there are between 8,000 and 10,000 fighters in the country, emanating from Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones. Many are still susceptible to the enticing ISIS message of eventual world domination.
The Taliban’s faults are manifold and egregious, but they have evinced no desire to dominate the world. Their aim is to dominate their native Afghanistan, and that they are on the verge of achieving. Only a succession of ruthless terrorist attacks or savage guerilla warfare could rob the Taliban of complete victory and plunge the country into a state of constant conflict. Is this what the Taliban face in the coming months from their worst enemy?