Unconfirmed reports arguing that the Afghan Taliban has neutralised Sanaullah Ghafari alias Shahab al-Muhajir, the Emir of Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) during a raid in Kunar (bordering Pakistan), have trickled in gradually this month. However, besides speculative rhetoric, there is little to go on, considering there is a lack of eulogising by pro-ISIS media or celebratory announcements by the interim leadership on the decapitation of a rival leader.
Nonetheless, if proven correct, it would serve as a continuance of the de facto government’s counter-insurgency measures in the face of targeted attacks on civilian infrastructures and senior officials among its ranks. The Afghan Taliban has ploughed through the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) strongholds over the last two years, often eliminating key leaders such as Qari Fateh (Intelligence Chief) and Umer alias Dr. Khalid (Deputy Emir) earlier. This is despite the Taliban struggling to hold its own during different phases amid any covert in-fighting and targeted assassinations of key leaders such as Rahimullah Haqqani (a former senior Taliban cleric). The lattermost statement is made considering that as per the United Nations’ (UN), at least 1,900 attacks have been carried out by the ISIS wilayat (province) for over a year, demonstrating more significant lethality vis-à-vis in the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover in 2021.
Mapping ISKP’s Recent Attacks
Furthermore, attacks suspected of or claimed by ISKP have been reduced to single digits and, for nearly three months, have been few and far. The most recent attack occurred in Faizabad, Badakshan province (Northeast Afghanistan) on 6 June 2023, where Nisar Ahmad Ahmadi’s (the former deputy provincial Governor) memorial service was being held after a week following his death in a car bombing. His assassination was also claimed by the ISIS affiliate in which their suicide bomber, Tariq Khorasani detonated the explosives-laden vest he wore to the service.
Unsurprisingly, there were contradictions in the figures regarding the death toll and those wounded. While the Taliban officials claimed that 11 died while at least 30 others were injured, ISKP asserted that 20 individuals lost their lives and 50 others were wounded. The exaggeration or underplaying of losses incurred is a common tactic employed by rival organisations to boost the rank and file’s morale while using the death of their members to bolster their overall strength.
For example, the UN’s 14th Monitoring Report on the Taliban, released on 1 June 2023, has underscored that Muzammil’s death “raised ISIL-K morale, prevented defections and boosted recruitment, including from within Taliban’s ranks.”
Key AT-ISKP Battlegrounds
Although the interim government appears to have chipped away at ISKP’s numbers through detention, raids, and infiltration of cells, it has struggled to eradicate the country of Salafi jihadist ideology’s influence. This challenge has been exacerbated due to contiguous Central Asian countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, where ISIS initially drew its recruits from during its heyday, and its Khorasan affiliate has drawn a number of its fighters of Uzbek or Tajik origins.
Interestingly, during the 1990s, Badakshan served as Northern Alliance’s (the anti-Taliban front) bastion. However, in the days leading up to the foreign forces’ withdrawal in August 2021, the Taliban fighters captured it, and today it has become a new battleground. Today, the conflict lies between Afghanistan’s new rulers and arch-jihadi nemesis. Moreover, Ahmadi was the second leader in Badakshan, after Mohammed Dawood Muzammil (assassinated on 9 March 2023), whose death was claimed by ISKP in a suicide bombing attack.
Furthermore, the media is another fundamental cornerstone of the AT-ISKP conflict in the domain of competitive jihadism. Official and pro-ISIS media outlets like al-Azaim have been pitted against pro-Taliban al-Mersaad news agency, both attempting to demonstrate superior religious and moral authority while branding the other as ‘Khwarij.’ However, per the recent announcement, all pro-ISIS outlets responsible for translating texts in various languages, including Pashto, have recently consolidated under Fursan al-Tarjuma.
The use of media and cyberspace has been exploited by violent jihadi organisations such as the Taliban and ISKP. Drawing on lessons imparted by its parent organisation, the ISIS wilayat had gained the upper hand while disseminating propaganda and weaponising media to overthrow rival actors in Afghanistan and neighbouring countries. Nevertheless, the Taliban has increasingly begun using the al-Mersaad agency as a counter-response to hostile media manoeuvres by its primary nemesis. Media has been weaponised (more so in the digital space) in Afghanistan to serve the interests of competing violent extremist jihadi groups. Moving forward, this will continue to be a critical battle arena that will determine the fate of the rival outfits and their ideological agendas.
What is more worrying as far as national and regional security framework is concerned is that in the battle of competing violent extremist ideologies of Hanafi Deobandism (AT) vs. Salafi jihadism (ISKP), there is a sufficient vacuum for allied and hostile terrorist networks to spring up and further destabilise Afghanistan. With the world’s attention broadly focused on China’s belligerent rise and potentially de-risking from it on the one hand and the Ukrainian crisis on the other, the stakes of the country being pushed towards a period of long-term instability have increased multi-fold.
Pervasive threats related to terrorism, humanitarian crisis, food insecurity, and narco-trafficking (propelled by persisting opium production regardless of the narrative pushed by the interim regime) will further hamper prospects of infrastructural development within Afghan society and connectivity projects envisaged by regional stakeholders in Central and South Asia. All the while, women and locals encompassing the lower strata will continue fading into obscurity. Overall, such potential developments bode a deteriorating future for Afghans and state actors with vested interests in its future trajectory, including India.
In its quest to be the unchallenged authority in the country, the Taliban has forgotten that it is treading on the road travelled since the inception of physical power struggles. Brute force and neutralisation of key leaders of the opposition movement, an insurgency, or a rival jihadi organisation diminishes their influence or strength for an undefined period. Nonetheless, it never eradicates the group members’ and supporters’ ideological indoctrination, the unyielding belief in their group or movement’s core belief systems and manifestoes.
Why the Taliban envisages their strategy could prove more effective against ISKP vis-à-vis the Karzai or Ghani administrations and the international coalition forces against the Taliban before August 2021 is debatable. Undoubtedly, guerrilla warfare (key to ISKP’s armed battle against the Taliban) demonstrates that the group relying on this as part of their military strategy engages in asymmetrical warfare with the more potent actor. Nonetheless, regardless of their weakened position, as precedent indicates, this form of warfare has often confounded opposing (and more militarily capable) powers by sustaining over long durations. Its sustenance in the face of robust military responses has been lethal for territorial integrity and security in the long term. Additionally, groups like ISIS or any of its prominent affiliates have been infamous for their demonstrated adaptability in response to on-ground circumstances. This has posed a grave security threat to the affected states. Afghanistan is poised to be caught in this dilemma for a prolonged duration.