By Antonio Giustozzi*
An agreement between the US government and the Taliban leadership is now an almost confirmed, and even if that did not happen, the peace-making genie is out of the bottle in Afghanistan. Reconciliation discussions will continue regardless, and the Taliban’s hardliners and their jihadist allies are upset. The trust between mainstream Taliban and the jihadists has evaporated, as it becomes abundantly clear that the Taliban were serious about a deal with the Americans and are seriously ready to dump the jihadists, perhaps even actively cooperate in forcing them out of the embattled country.
Indeed, jihadists of all stripes are now putting distance between themselves and the Taliban, even when, like Al Qaeda, they are trying to salvage some kind of relationship with the Taliban’s leadership. However, none of them wants to entrust their safety to the Taliban anymore.
Inevitably this trend is favouring the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), which also appears to have recovered from a serious funding crisis from last year. There have been substantial defections to IS-K from the ranks of Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) in recent months. But while for the Taliban these defections were expected, and perhaps even welcomed (as long as a deal with the Americans is effectively signed), jihadist turmoil is not merely external to the Taliban but has existed within the group as well.
However, within the Taliban several leaders and groups are unhappy about the cutting off the jihadists. The most obvious example is that of Serajuddin Haqqani, but there are many more like him, especially in eastern and north-eastern Afghanistan. These pro-jihadist Taliban now face essentially two options in the event of a deal with the Americans being signed:
- Stay within the Taliban and act as a lobby, trying to limit the impact of the ban on the jihadists;
- Leave the Taliban and form a jihadist alliance with other groups – IS-K is already working at this hypothesis.
The second option is only likely to materialise if a number of conditions are going to be in place.
- It is going to be much more likely that considerable numbers of Taliban might defect if the US-Taliban deal will allow some US military presence in country.
- The distribution of the spoils after the agreement is another factor that will influence the decisions made by pro-jihadist Taliban. Right now Taliban leader Haibatullah is trying to keep as many on board as possible, but the actual implementation of any deal will be the litmus test of his ability to keep the pro-jihadist Taliban aligned with him.
- Finally, any significant group of Taliban could only leave and remain operational if it secured sufficient funding. Autonomous Taliban groups, unconnected to any of the main Taliban Shuras, are not unheard of, but raising funds to relatively small groups is hard – especially as external funding is a must to carry on the jihad and fund raising abroad requires a well developed organisation.
Right now the only jihadist group that seems able to expand its ranks and absorb defectors from other groups is IS-K, but it is far from clear whether IS-K would be able to absorb thousands more of disgruntled jihadists. It would for sure need to expand its fund raising considerably. That perhaps could be achieved if external supporters of jihadist groups of Taliban were to follow them into IS-K, but there is no way of saying whether this could happen or not.
If IS-K were to be in a position to absorb large numbers of Taliban, on top of considerable numbers of TTP, IMU and other jihadists that it is already absorbing, an issue of internal appointments would also emerge. If for example Serajuddin Haqqani, leader of the Haqqani Network of the Taliban, decided in the end to join IS-K, he would certainly expect to get a very senior position. IS-K is a centralised and hierarchical organisation, and Haqqani would never accept to be working under orders of someone else. Making all prospective Taliban recruits happy with their appointments is going to be a mountainous challenge.
Meanwhile, large sections of the Taliban have already been ignoring orders to fight IS-K for years. This is primarily the case of the Haqqani Network, which has cooperation agreements with IS-K in a number of fields, including for carrying out terrorist attacks in the capital city of Kabul. The same is also the case with Qari Baryal, the struggling leader of the Shura of the North, and of several small Taliban fronts in eastern Afghanistan. All these groups have gone to considerable lengths to maintain relations with IS-K and other jihadist organisations like the IMU and related groups that the Taliban leadership has been trying to push out for years. If the Haqqanis, Baryal and the smaller fronts were to stay in the Taliban in the future, they would find very difficult to comply with orders to cut off all links to the jihadist groups, and even more so to actively fight against them. They would certainly try to shelter individuals and groups, and that would create friction with the Taliban leadership.
The Quetta Shura Taliban and IS-K have been fighting each other for years, especially in the eastern fronts, and had another round of fighting this year in Kunar and Nangarhar. IS-K went on the offensive, initially making impressive gains in Kunar, but then the Taliban counter-attacked, and IS-K lost a lot of ground especially in Nangarhar. It took the Taliban several weeks before they could counter-attack, as they had to move crack units from the south to boost local Taliban forces in the east.
As this effort suggests, the Taliban in the east are quite weak compared to IS-K. Fighting IS-K will become an even greater priority for the Taliban after a US-Taliban deal, as by fighting it the Taliban will be able to prove their anti-jihadist credentials. They will be able to concentrate forces against IS-K in the event of a ceasefire with Kabul’s forces, even if there might be morale problems within the Taliban’s ranks in focusing all efforts against a force largely composed of former allies of the Taliban. This would specifically be the case for the foremost jihadist sympathisers such as the Haqqanis. Taliban’s leader Haibatullah would therefore have many problems to handle if he signed a deal with the Americans and then moved with determination against the organisations of global jihad, based in Afghanistan.