By Arun Anand
This is the 30th and final part of the series on ‘The Taliban’. You can share your feedback at [email protected].
The Taliban 2.0 regime, instead of bringing stability, may plunge Afghanistan to another round of conflict and civil war. The Taliban itself is quite faction ridden and while it may have militarily dominated its rivals for the time being, this dominance is already facing challenge from a new threat -Islamic State of Khorasan Province, also known commonly as ISKP or IS-K.
ISKP is a known arch rival of the Taliban. There is increasing evidence that after Taliban, now the ISKP could be another player being pushed into the Afghan jihad theatre by the ISI to keep Taliban in line which would mean that the next round of conflict is imminent in Afghanistan where both the arch rivals would be controlled by the ISI. ISKP also has close links with Lashkar-e-Taiba which is likely to make the forthcoming conflict even more complex.
Scholar Anand Arni explains the relationship between the LeT and IS-K: “Pakistan’s attempts to prop up the IS-K or to create a new entity which is essentially influenced by the LeT fits in with the long-held expectation that Pakistan will create a pressure group to (a) keep the Taliban in line with their interests if the peace deal works, (b) give the LeT an element of deniability in future operations which cannot be attributed to the Taliban or the Haqqani Network, (c) counter the militias equipped and funded by the CIA, and (d) provide military assistance to the Taliban. It is also to safeguard against the Pashtun Tahafuz Movement (PTM) becoming a militant movement and possibly give deniability to the ISI if they venture into training foreign (Indian) insurgents on Afghan soil.” Arni’s views give a glimpse of the multiple cogs of the Afghan jihad wheel that move simultaneously, catering to various domestic, regional and international interests.1
Origin and History of ISKP
ISKP emerged in 2014 with the defection of Tehrik-e-Taliban (TTP), al Qaeda, and Taliban fighters active in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the wake of these defections, the Islamic State dispatched emissaries from Iraq and Syria to meet with local fighters, including a number of TTP commanders. In January 2015, these efforts were formalized when the Islamic State announced the formation of its “Khorasan” province. At the same time, Islamic State emir Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi appointed Hafiz Khan Saeed as the first ISKP emir. Khan Saeed had previously served as a TTP commander with responsibility for operations in Orakazi in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), affording the newly formed ISKP deep Pakistani networks through which to recruit. Among ISKP’s early leaders who pledged allegiance were several TTP commanders responsible for areas of Pakistan’s FATA, deepening ISKP’s toehold in this strategic border area.2
ISKP’s history since 2015 has been one of violent expansion and retrenchment, with periodic fighting against Afghan security forces, the Taliban, and international forces. In 2015, then-Taliban leader Akthar Mansour urged ISKP fighters to coalesce “under one banner,” alongside the Taliban. A war of words escalated into a Taliban campaign to recapture ISKP-controlled territory and degrade ISKP-aligned groups, such as factions of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. Leaders in the Taliban’s Quetta Shura authorized additional offensives and deployed elite “Red Unit” commandos to fight ISKP beginning in December 2015. In Jowzjan Province, ISKP surrendered to the Taliban in the summer of 2018 following a sustained campaign. 3
International actors have also played a role in various counterterrorism operations against ISKP. U.S. and former Afghan government forces conducted an aggressive campaign against ISKP forces in eastern Afghanistan, killing several of their mid- and senior-level leaders. Afghan forces captured ISKP leader Aslam Farooqi and several other commanders, such as Qari Zahid and Saifullah (also known as Abu Talaha), in Kandahar Province in March 2020. The Iranian military has also collaborated with the Taliban to secure Iran’s land border with Afghanistan and deny ISKP fighters’ freedom of movement.4
In the wake of these setbacks, ISKP went through internal transformations while retaining the ability to carry out deadly attacks in Afghanistan. In May 2019, the Islamic State announced the existence of new provinces in Pakistan and India—areas which had previously fallen under ISKP’s geographic remit. In June 2020, the Islamic State appointed Shahab al-Muhajir as ISKP’s new emir following the capture of his predecessor, Aslam Farooqi. Al-Muhajir was previously an ISKP planner for attacks in urban areas in Kabul, and reportedly was once a mid-level commander in the Haqqani Network. Throughout 2020, ISKP successfully executed high-profile attacks despite controlling little territory. These included a May 2020 attack on a Kabul maternity ward that killed 24 people and an attack on Kabul University in November 2020 that left 22 people dead.5
In June 2021, the United Nations estimated that ISKP consists of a core group of fighters numbering between 1,500 and 2,200 based in provinces such as Kunar and Nangarhar. These fighters are dispersed into relatively autonomous cells operating under the Islamic State banner and ideology. While these groups lack the capability, coordination, or local support to control significant territory, they retain the ability to launch individual attacks, such as the August 26 attack on Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul that killed approximately 170 Afghans and 13 U.S. military personnel.6
The Islamic State’s—and subsequently, ISKP’s—commitment not to compromise with the West initially attracted some former Taliban members outraged with negotiations in Afghanistan. ISKP condemned the Taliban’s peace negotiations with the United States in its March 2020 newsletter al-Naba, stating that the Taliban and the [U.S.] “crusaders” are “allies.” In 2021, ISKP propaganda specifically vowed retaliation against the Taliban for their peace deal with the United States. Furthermore, ISKP subscribes to the concept of tawhid al-hakimiyyah (the unity of governance) and rejects a Muslim leader who does not rule by the entirety of sharia law. ISKP refuses to acknowledge the Taliban as a legitimate Islamic leader and accuses the Taliban of being “filthy nationalists” for only appealing to a narrow ethnic and nationalistic base instead of committing to a universal Islamic jihad.7
The deadly attack on the Kabul Airport on 26 August, 2021 is an indication that ISKP has regrouped and is well entrenched to lead a fight against the Taliban. The support from the ISI in Pakistan would come handy to enhance their striking capability and escalate the conflict in Afghanistan. The jihadi factions and groups which are disgruntled and unhappy with the new Taliban regime are bound to join hands with ISKP.
A study done by Centre for Strategic and International Studies on ISKP says: “One 2016 analysis of the group found that a majority of mid-level ISKP leaders were former Taliban fighters. More recent examinations of the group’s leadership have found an even broader range of prior group affiliations, including former Lashkar-e-Taiba and al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent fighters. These fighters often have significant local knowledge and expertise in insurgent warfare, raising their tactical efficacy.”
It further adds, “ISKP has found recruitment success through exploiting divisions between existing jihadist groups, offering cash incentives, and promoting battlefield gains by the Islamic State’s core group in Iraq and Syria. While there are some foreign fighters in ISKP’s ranks, this recruitment has been likened to a “trickle” rather than a windfall, and the destruction of the Islamic State territorial caliphate in Iraq and Syria did not spur a large influx of Islamic State fighters to Afghanistan. As a province of the Islamic State, ISKP maintains contact with Islamic State leadership in Iraq and Syria but also retains a degree of freedom in the conduct of its operations. For example, unlike other Islamic State affiliates in Asia, ISKP has rarely utilized women fighters in combat.”
According to the study, ISKP doesn’t have any paucity of funds as it relies on several revenue streams to finance its operations. “The U.S. Department of the Treasury assesses that ISKP raises funds through a combination of local donations, extortion, and financial support from core Islamic State leadership. Additionally, the Treasury concludes that ISKP held modest financial reserves as of 2020 while also relying on a significant network of hawalas—informal money brokers—in cities like Kabul and Jalalabad to transfer funds.”
According to the UN Sanctions Committee Report in May 2017, ISKP pays its fighters US$200 to $500 every month. In addition, it also exploits the rich deposits of minerals in areas under its influence. There are three key minerals in areas under ISKP influence-talc, chromite and marble. All of them are in high demand in global markets and ISKP smuggles them to these markets.
Power Struggle within Taliban
After Taliban 2.0 had set up its interim government, the factionalism came to the fore immediately. According to a BBC report (15 Sept. 2021) which echoed the facts reported by many other media outlets, “A major row broke out between leaders of the Taliban just days after they set up a new government in Afghanistan.
Supporters of two rival factions reportedly brawled at the presidential palace in the capital Kabul. The argument appeared to centre on who did the most to secure victory over the US, and how power was divided up in the new cabinet… The dispute came to light after a Taliban co-founder, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, disappeared from view for several days.
One Taliban source told BBC Pashto that Mr Baradar and Khalil ur-Rahman Haqqani – the minister for refugees and a prominent figure within the militant Haqqani network – had exchanged strong words, as their followers brawled with each other nearby.
A senior Taliban member based in Qatar and a person connected to those involved also confirmed that an argument had taken place late last week.
The sources said the argument had broken out because Mr Baradar, the new deputy prime minister, was unhappy about the structure of their interim government.
The row also reportedly stemmed from divisions over who in the Taliban should take credit for their victory in Afghanistan.
Mr Baradar reportedly believes that the emphasis should be placed on diplomacy carried out by people like him, while members of the Haqqani group – which is run by one of the most senior Taliban figures – and their backers say it was achieved through fighting.”8
This is a strong indication of the way things are going to unfold.
Anti-Taliban government formed in exile
Meanwhile, on 29 September, 2021, around a month and a half after Taliban’s taking over the Kabul, political leaders’ part of the Ghani administration in Afghanistan also announced the formation of a government in exile led by ‘caretaker president’ Amrullah Saleh.
According to Khaama Press news Agency, a newswire primarily focused on developments in and about Afghanistan, “A statement released by the Afghan embassy in Swiss reads that, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is the only legitimate government of Afghanistan that is elected by the votes of people and no other government can replace a legitimate one.”
The statement read that Afghanistan had been occupied by external factors and “based on the historic responsibility of the Afghan government after consultations with the elders of the country, they decided to announce government in exile.”
“After the escape of Ashraf Ghani and his rupture with the Afghan politics, his first vice-president (Amrullah Saleh) will be leading the country,” read the statement.
The statement also announced the support of the government in exile to the anti-Taliban, Resistance Front, led by Ahmad Masoud.9
The biggest challenge for Taliban 2.0 would be to deal with a humanitarian crisis with majority of Afghan population not having access to food, shelter, clothing, education, health and other basic services. The world is wary of recognizing the Taliban regime. The humanitarian aid, once it became clear that Taliban was coming back to rule in Afghanistan, had trickled and subsequently dried down to almost a naught. The present Taliban regime hasn’t helped it cause and its anti-women and anti-minority stands as well as gross violations of human rights and principles of natural justice are going to isolate Afghanistan further. It wouldn’t be easy to find the aid workers who would be willing to work and could deliver effectively on the ground in such an authoritarian sharia-based regime.
How Taliban could be a liability for the Afghan people was reflected in the statement by Deborah Lyons Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA). In her statement to the UN Security Council on 9 September, 2021, she said that with the fall of Kabul on 15 August, the country’s people were confronted with a new, and for many, worrying reality. The lives of millions of Afghans will depend on how the Taliban choose to govern, she added, describing the de facto administration announced by the group as disappointing. There are no women on the list of names announced, no non-Taliban members, no figures from the former Government and no noted leaders of minority groups, she remarked, pointing out that it contains many of the same figures who were part of the Taliban leadership between 1996 and 2001. Of the 33 names presented, many are on the United Nations Sanctions List, including the prime minister, the two deputy prime ministers and the foreign minister, she stated. 10