Image Courtesy: Aljazeera

Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) and Afghan Taliban

The recent suicide bombing of a Shia mosque in the southern city of Kandahar in Afghanistan which is the stronghold of the Afghan Taliban during Friday prayers killed more than forty people and has been claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) also known by its Arabic acronym Daesh. A week before, the Islamic State had conducted suicide attacks against another Shia mosque in the northern city of Kunduz which had resulted in the deaths of at least fifty people. The attack in Kandahar is especially an attempt to challenge the claims of the Taliban to maintain order and security in the country. The attacks especially appeal to extremist Salafi Jihadi Sunni groups and individuals in the region who harbor strong sectarian anti-Shia sentiments. These include groups that could have fought for the Afghan Taliban against US and NATO forces that are more Salafi Jihadi in orientation than the majority of the Afghan Taliban who are affiliated to the Deobandi movement. The sight of the Afghan Taliban cooperating with withdrawing US forces for providing security to the Kabul International Airport and not taking drastic action against Afghan Shias including those of the Hazara ethnic community would not have appealed to these groups.

There are also operational reasons for these attacks as the Islamic State is not in a position to capture huge swathes of territory in Afghanistan and retain them as they did in the borderlands of Iraq and Syria in 2014. This is because it had far more worthy opponents in Afghanistan in the form of US/NATO forces and the Taliban itself. Territories that were captured by the Islamic State in the northern province of Jowzjan and the eastern province of Nangarhar were lost due to attacks by US and Afghan troops and the Taliban. The remnant of the Islamic State fighters dispersed inside Afghanistan and stationed themselves as sleeper cells in Afghan cities. In such circumstances, the only possibility for the Daesh to make a mark in the conflict was to conduct terrorist attacks as it is doing now rather than capturing territory. But the timing is particularly useful for the Daesh as it politically weakens the Taliban now that it is in complete control of the country.

The Haqqani Network As Part of the Afghan Taliban

Perhaps a major worry for the Afghan Taliban is the possibility of its own recruits going over to the side of the Islamic State. There are reports that there was cooperation between the Haqqani Network which is part of the Afghan Taliban and the ISKP in the conduct of some of the attacks in Kabul which were claimed by the latter group. Examples of such cooperation include the attack on a Sikh gurdwara in Kabul in 2020. This is not surprising considering the transnational jihadist nature of the group led by the late Jalaluddin Haqqani, which later became the Haqqani Network, ever since the Afghan War during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He had strong links with jihadi fighters from other parts of the Islamic world such as Arabs including figures such as Osama bin Laden who later formed the Al Qaeda. Also, the Haqqani Network is most known for being a protégé of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). This brings to the fore another major challenge for the Afghan Taliban, factionalism within its own ranks.

The Afghan Taliban which captured Kabul in 1996 was more united with the leadership mainly consisting of clerics from the Greater Kandahar region in southern and parts of western Afghanistan who had formerly fought with the Afghan Mujahideen against the Soviets during the 1980s. But almost twenty years of insurgency against US/NATO and Afghan army troops after 2001 has transformed the movement with the emergence of more diverse factions. A case in point is again the change in the nature of the relationship between the Haqqani Network and the leadership of the Afghan Taliban. After Jalaluddin had joined the Afghan Taliban at the behest of the ISI in the 1990s after the Pakistani state had decided to fully back the movement, he had not been provided any important positions by the Taliban leadership. But the insurgency against the US and Afghan army forces have led to the rise in influence of new factions within the Taliban because of their contributions to the military campaign and prominent among those is the Haqqani Network. Accordingly, Jalaluddin’s son by an Emirati wife, Sirajuddin Haqqani, who is now the leader of the network, has been given the position of interior minister in the interim Taliban government in Afghanistan.

The Afghan Taliban’s Policy Towards Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan

Last but not the least is the possible support that the Afghan Taliban is likely to provide to the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) or the Pakistani Taliban in its battle against the Pakistani state. There is the mistaken notion among some experts that both the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Taliban are entirely different entities fighting two different wars. But deeper analysis points out that the elements that later officially formed the TTP initially provided shelter to Afghan Taliban members fleeing Afghanistan in 2001 and later provided funding, logistics, arms and men to the Afghan Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan. It was because of the need for the continued support of the Pakistani state that the late Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Amir-ul-Mu’minin of the Afghan Taliban and his successors did not openly support the campaign of the TTP. Now that the Taliban has gained almost complete control of Afghanistan, the chances of it clamping down on the TTP in accordance with Pakistan’s wishes is unlikely to happen. Any such step on the part of the Afghan Taliban is likely to turn its own commanders against the Taliban leadership. Now that military campaigns within Afghanistan itself have subsided, fighters and commanders who fought for the Afghan Taliban are likely to join the TTP in Pakistan which is already stepping up its campaign of attacks within the country. The developments in Afghanistan have serious consequences for the security of Pakistan even if the Pakistani government under Imran Khan, the Pakistan Army and the ISI might have not fathomed it completely. 

Views expressed by the author are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny
Dr Shelly Johny is Senior Fellow (West Asian & Security Studies) with Centre for Public Policy Research

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