Cover photo by Francesco Cito, Afghanistan, 1989

Afghanistan Between ISIS and the Taliban

The contrast in the fortunes of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), or Daesh as it is commonly known, and the Afghan Taliban in the last few years is striking. While Daesh continued to lose territory and influence in its Middle East strongholds, the Taliban steadily gained ground in Afghanistan both militarily and politically. 

The world shunned Daesh and many countries actively fought against it, but the Taliban leadership was engaged and courted to persuade it to join the Afghan peace process. Daesh was designated as a terrorist organization from the beginning with the objective to eliminate it through every possible means. The Taliban group wasn’t declared terrorist as the United States and many other stakeholders in the Afghan conflict were convinced it is possible to negotiate peace with it.

Though both Daesh, inspired by Salafism, and the Taliban, Hanafi Sunni adherents of the Deobandi school of thought, are primarily armed groups using force to achieve their goals, their makeup and methods are different. Daesh is transnational in character like Al Qaeda and unbelievably brutal in its actions. Taliban, on the other hand, continue to insist the group’s ambitions are limited to Afghanistan as it never had a global agenda. Taliban attacks have no doubt caused civilian casualties and brought immense grief to scores of families, but the group is no match to Daesh in terms of the brutality unleashed by the latter on innocent people.

Though many are rushing to write the obituary of the Daesh-led caliphate after its defeat in Syria with the loss of Baghouz village near the Iraqi border on March 23, 2019, it would be premature to claim that it has been obliterated. Daesh was resilient enough to withstand multiple military operations spread over four years after capturing about one-third of territory in both Iraq and Syria and there is concern it is capable of resurgence elsewhere. It may have been finished on the ground as a standing army, but the Daesh threat remains around the globe directly or through its affiliates.

Francesco Cito, Afghanistan, 1980

Some of the reasons that created favourable conditions for Daesh’s quick rise in 2014 haven’t been addressed. Sunni grievances in Shiite-dominated Iraq where they wielded power under Saddam Hussein could sustain sympathy for militant groups like Daesh. The Sunni anger in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian rule may lead to a similar reaction. The US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 created conditions for the emergence of Al Qaeda, which later transformed into the ultra-militant Daesh. Terrorist incidents like the killing of 50 Muslim worshippers by an Australian white supremacist in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand could inflame emotions and serve as a catalyst for a violent reaction.

There is already talk of existence of fertile ground for “Daesh 2.0” even though the group has suffered an irreversible defeat. A recent Daesh audio message said the fight isn’t over, but the circumstances are no longer favourable for its rise again as it doesn’t control territory where it can regroup or financial resources to fund its operations. Still Daesh earlier found a foothold in the Philippines by exploiting sentiments of the minority Muslim community of the Mindanao islands in the Christian-majority country and attracting recruits from armed terrorist groups such as Abu Sayyaf. It also found affiliates in Yemen, Egypt’s Sinai, Somalia, Nigeria and elsewhere in Asia and Africa and continued to gain ground at the expense of Al-Qaeda. In Pakistan, Daesh claimed responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks conducted through its affiliates such as Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ) despite the government’s denial of organized existence of the group in the country. The arrest of university educated young men from well-off families inspired by Daesh’s caliphate project prompted the Pakistan government to take remedial measures.

Infographic by Alberto Bellotto

Of far greater concern, however, is the stubborn presence of Daesh in neighbouring Afghanistan. For the last more than four decades, Afghanistan has been a battleground for two superpowers, USSR and US, and their allies and certain regional countries as well as Afghan mujahideen and Taliban and several transnational terrorist organizations. The battle between Daesh’s Khorasan chapter and the Taliban for control of territory is the latest manifestation of the complexity of the Afghan conflict. Daesh has to contend with the powerful Taliban who consider it as a threat backed by domestic and foreign sponsors. As Daesh hasn’t attracted many fresh adherents to its cause in Afghanistan, it has been banking on divisions in the ranks of Afghan and Pakistani Taliban to augment its strength. In 2014 it was able to attract some Afghan Taliban members, including the former Guantanamo Bay prisoner Mulla Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was made deputy head of Daesh-Khorasan before getting killed in a US drone strike in February 2015 in Helmand province. Daesh’s first local emir (head), late Hafiz Saeed Khan Orakzai, was a former member of the Pakistani Taliban and so was a subsequent slain leader Abu Saeed aka Mulla Abdul Rahman Ghaleb. Other emirs were Afghans and all are now dead as Daesh leaders have had a very short span of life.

Even in Daesh’s stronghold in Nangarhar province, Taliban arguably inflicted more harm on it than the Afghan and US forces

Though Daesh and its local partners in the Af-Pak region suffered setbacks at the hands of both Afghan and Pakistan governments and also due to US drone strikes, the biggest losses were inflicted by the Afghan Taliban. Taliban fighters uprooted Daesh from its bases in Jauzjan province in northern Afghanistan in August 2018 and forced the survivors to seek refuge with the Afghan security forces. Taliban earlier in November 2015 defeated the Daesh affiliate, Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), and its allies comprising dissident Taliban fighters, in Zabul province. Even in Daesh’s stronghold in Nangarhar province, Taliban arguably inflicted more harm on it than the Afghan and US forces.

At the ongoing Taliban-US peace talks in Qatar, the two sides agreed in principle on a draft framework for a deal under which the Taliban would prevent Afghanistan from becoming a “platform for international terrorist groups or individuals” in return for US troops’ withdrawal. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, has been pushing Taliban to agree to a comprehensive ceasefire and direct talks with the Afghan government. The Taliban may not make these concessions until the withdrawal of foreign forces gets underway. Besides, concessions may be linked to acceptance of Taliban demands for release of prisoners, lifting of UN Security Council sanctions and the opening of a formal Taliban office in Qatar.

A peace deal with the Taliban could prevent attacks on the US, which is desperate to avoid a repeat of the 9/11 terrorist strikes planned by Al-Qaeda in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. It is a fact that Taliban harboured foreign militants from Al-Qaeda and other groups while in power from 1996-2001, but its leadership has become pragmatic and is now willing to prevent the use of Afghan territory by terrorists to undertake attacks against the US, its allies and other countries. Taliban fighters appear capable of checking Daesh activities not only to maintain their dominance, but also prove that they are indispensable for keeping Afghanistan stable and preventing it from again becoming a safe haven for terrorists. The West, as well as China, Russia and Iran, could seek Taliban cooperation despite the group’s dismal record in power with regard to human, especially women’s, rights in case a peace deal is concluded to tackle Daesh and other terrorist organizations and eradicate opium poppy-cultivation and drug-trafficking.

Cover photo by Francesco Cito, Afghanistan, 1989