The Taliban and the Islamic State Continue to Fight for Afghanistan’s Future

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Yves here. Reading about the struggles to control Afghanistan among the Taliban, IS, and Al Quaeda leads me to ask a dumb question: is Afghanistan properly a country? Just because it is a region of the world that has evaded sustained foreign control does not mean it has the makings of a country, as in enough cohesiveness on key axes (social and legal practices, citizens with bureaucratic skills, respect for law, as opposed to custom) to have a central government able to exercise power. My understanding is that much of the Middle East operates on a tribal/clientele-ist basis, which makes it hard for more modern authority structures to operate. This article gives me the impression that absent the rise of a personality or very tight group that can find a basis for unifying (and at least cautiously) modernizing Afghanistan, it’s going to remain a warlord-dominated hot mess.

By John P. Ruehl, an Australian-American journalist living in Washington, D.C. He is a contributing editor to Strategic Policy and a contributor to several other foreign affairs publications. His book, Budget Superpower: How Russia Challenges the West With an Economy Smaller Than Texas’, was published in December 2022. Produced by Globetrotter

On April 25, 2023, U.S. officials confirmed that the Taliban had killed the head of the Islamic State (IS) cell operating in Afghanistan. Though his identity has not been revealed, the IS leader is believed to have masterminded the 2021 Kabul airport attack that killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. military personnel.

His assassination marks the latest escalation of violence between the Taliban and IS in Afghanistan this year. Several senior Taliban officials were killed or targeted in March 2023 by IS, while several IS leaders in Afghanistan were killed by the Taliban in January and February.

The Taliban, a loose Pashtun-centric political movement active across Afghanistan and Pakistan, previously ruled Afghanistan from 1996 to 2001. The U.S. withdrawal and ensuing collapse of the Afghan government in 2021 allowed the Taliban to re-establish their rule over the country, but they have been prevented from gaining full control thanks to IS, which has existed in the country since 2014.

Initially, many Taliban members were supportive of IS’s ability to seize territory and challenge U.S. and Western forces in Syria and Iraq in 2013 and 2014. Yet despite their common U.S. and Western enemies and shared hardline Sunni interpretation of Islam, the Taliban’s animosity arose after IS began to establish itself on Afghan territory and attract Afghans to its cause.

At the time, Taliban forces had failed to make territorial gains and had recently begun another round of negotiations with the U.S. government. The Taliban had also traditionally suppressed the Salafist brand of Islam in eastern Afghanistan in favor of Hanafi Islam, making IS’s Salafist leanings attractive to many Afghans in the region. There was also significant division across the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban leadership, further allowing IS to poach members.

Several high-ranking members switched allegiance to IS in 2014, which also found support from smaller regional militant groups. But of significant importance was IS’s ability to attract disillusioned members of its rival, Al Qaeda, to its ranks. Disagreements over policies, tactics, and leadership caused Al Qaeda to disavow IS in 2014, and they have competed for dominance over the global jihadist movement since. The Taliban’s close relationship with Al Qaeda only made IS more resolute in challenging them in Afghanistan.

In January 2015, IS announced its vision to create the province of “Khorasan,” which would include much of Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent, and is part of IS’s effort to establish a global caliphate. The group began to expand more rapidly across Afghanistan while accusing the Taliban of being “filthy nationalists” and neglecting Islam in favor of their ethnic and national base.

As clashes between the Taliban and Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) intensified in 2015, the Taliban’s then-leader, Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, wrote a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi urging him to abandon recruitment in Afghanistan and insisting the war against the United States should be led by the Taliban. But it failed to dissuade the IS leadership, who were also aided in part by the Afghan Army’s initial decision to avoid fighting IS to focus on the Taliban.

As IS emerged as a serious threat to Afghanistan’s stability, however, both Afghan and U.S.-led international forces increasingly came to focus on the group in the country. IS targeting of religious minorities also brought it into further conflict with parts of the Afghan population. Despite an initial expansion, IS lost significant territory and fighters from 2015 to 2018, while from 2019 to 2020 many of its fighters and leaders surrendered to authorities.

The Taliban, in comparison, had steadily increased its influence in Afghanistan, convincing the Afghan and U.S. governments to commit to talks to end the war. The Doha Agreement in 2020 put forth a withdrawal timeline for foreign soldiers, saw thousands of Afghan and Taliban soldiers released in a prisoner swap, and the Taliban pledged to prevent terrorist groups from operating in Afghanistan. IS denounced the agreement, accusing the Taliban of deviating from jihad to please “their U.S. masters.”

But suggestions of IS’s demise in Afghanistan by then-Afghan President Ashraf Ghani proved short-lived, particularly as Afghanistan was engulfed by the power vacuum caused by the U.S.’s departure. IS’s numbers were also bolstered by thousands of prisoners who escaped or were freed from Afghanistan’s prisons.

While IS’s estimated 4,000 members in Afghanistan as of 2023 pale in comparison to the Taliban’s roughly 80,000 troops, its guerilla warfare campaign, similar to the one used effectively by the Taliban against U.S. forces, has made it a formidable opponent in parts of the country. By the end of 2021, the group had killed or injured more people in Afghanistan than any other country, and clashes between the Taliban and IS are common occurrences.

On top of attracting more members to IS’s ranks, the Taliban fears IS will erase what little legitimacy it has as a governing force by keeping Afghanistan unstable. The Taliban’s leadership remains plagued by division and lacks any international recognition. The Taliban is also now fighting IS-K largely alone and without the high-tech weaponry and air support enjoyed by the previous Afghan government forces. And having been beaten back in Syria and Iraq, Afghanistan provides IS-K one of the few places where it can expand, causing the group to double down in the country.

To shore up their position, the Taliban leadership has sought to engage with other governments. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are cautiously cooperating with the Taliban, while Pakistan, which has a complex history of working with the Taliban, continues to conduct dialogue with them. The Taliban is also courting India, China, and Russia, which seek to stabilize the country and potentially exploit Afghanistan’s estimated $1 to $3 trillion in mineral wealth.

Pressure is on the Taliban to get results. Chinese and Russian citizens and infrastructure in Afghanistan have been targeted by IS, drawing criticism. And though the Taliban has said it will not allow its territory to be used to attack its neighbors, IS has already tested this in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The Taliban’s ongoing cooperation with Al Qaeda (exemplified by the assassination of Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri in a U.S. drone strike in Kabul in 2022) continues to dissuade Western cooperation, coupled with the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s freedom in Afghanistan. Reversing their more radical policies could in turn instigate more defections to IS.

Having fought the Taliban for two decades, a rapprochement with the Taliban would be a difficult sell to Western audiences. But having already worked with the Taliban to evacuate its citizens in August, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley stated the possibility of coordinating with the Taliban to defeat IS in 2021. Nick Carter, his British counterpart, expressed a similar sentiment as well. U.S. officials have also stated that they “do not support organized violent opposition” to the Taliban.

With the Afghan government disbanded (many members have joined the Taliban or IS) and the weaknesses associated with the National Resistance Front, there is little viable opposition that Western forces can support. Yet The U.S. “over-the-horizon” approach to ignoring the Taliban to deal with IS and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan has its own consequences—a drone strike intended for the mastermind behind the 2021 Kabul Airport attack instead ended up killing 10 Afghan civilians, including seven children.

Nonetheless, the Taliban’s assassination of the individual responsible in April 2023 may encourage soft coordination and informal diplomacy with other countries, including the U.S. Yet because the Taliban remains dependent on cooperation with extremist groups like Al Qaeda, its formal international isolation risks becoming long-term.

Providing a haven for groups like Al Qaeda and promoting a strict interpretation of Shariah law is also a double-edged sword. These conditions helped IS establish itself in Afghanistan, aided further by the poverty and lack of basic services in many parts of the country. IS will continue to attempt to weaken the Taliban militarily, exploit its divisions, and erode its claims to have restored peace and stability to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s instability since the 1970s remains ongoing, and the country continues to be a hotbed of regional concern, great power rivalry, and ideological clashes. While most foreign governments view IS as a greater threat, this may not be enough for the Taliban to end its vulnerable isolation and help Afghanistan achieve peace and stability.

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  1. fjallstrom

    Afghanistan was a functioning country before the US used it to wage a proxy war against the USSR. Not perfect, but functioning. Maybe it can become one again if the US stops bombing, meddling and stealing.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      I overstated the point to try to elicit discussion. But how strong a government did it have? How stable have its boundaries been over time? If it had a weak central government, it’s not hard for a country like that to fracture, or stay looking like a country but be mired in internal strife.

      1. fjallstrom

        Well, there has been some form of independent state between Persia and the Moguls and later the Brittish and Russian empires, going back to at least mid 18th century. I happen to know (because I have read the preceedings) that in the european conferences on the standardisation of telegraphy in the late 19th century, Afghanistan was represented.

        So more continous history then most post-colonial states, and longer than many European states (Italy was formed in 1861, imperial Germany in 1871).

        Whether Afghanistan can rebuild is an open question, but one that depends both on internal and external forces. And as long as there is too much foreign meddling, the answer is probably no.

    2. Tricia

      Those paying attention (and in this writer’s case, willing to be honest) know that the US has supported and continues to support terrorist groups in various places around the world to both destabilize and ‘legitimize’ its military presence, and Russia has hinted at- and Pepe Escobar for one has written about- the post-withdrawal US covert support for ISIS-K in Afghanistan (important to remember that the Taliban itself essentially emerged from an earlier US destabilization/terror effort AND that at one time US thought they could ‘do business’ w/ them until they couldn’t, so…).

      Russia, China and others have sought to aid and help stabilize & develop Afghanistan- what a coincidence that ISIS is targeting Chinese & Russian civilians and infrastructure. If the US can’t control, then better to keep the country a non-functioning war-torn mess no matter the human cost. Sociopathic.

    3. MCRN

      Sort of. Afghanistan’s hasn’t had a stable government since the early 70s, which had been in place for about a decade, and under which much of Afghanistan westernized. Though much didn’t. Mid 70s a communist government came to power which quickly split into two factions, and both factions wanted Soviet intervention. The Soviets resisted involvement for a few years as they watched the situation deteriorate. Somewhere in there the US started funding the Mujahideen who were already restive. The best book I have read on the Soviet war in Afghanistan is “Afghansty: The Russians in Afghanistan” by Roderic Braithwaite.

    4. Shahid Hassan

      Successive and multiple (numbers of invasions and global powers) foreign inerventions since 1839 have had a devastating impact on the Afghan society, with partitioning and imposed destructive actions shattering the slowly evolving administrative shifts and the rudimentary political economy. No other poor third world country has had to combat all the globes superpowers over the last 180 years. Ignoring this crucial aspect displays a deep seated ignorance of the relatively recent history of the subject matter being assessed.

  2. rob

    it seems like Afghanistan, is a semi-feudal state.
    The real…. all politics are local. The age-old way for humans to align themselves. local enclaves , run by local mafia-like lines of allegiance.
    All the layers, of those who have wrested control of whatever is in their grasp.coupled with an inability of anyone from the outside to do anything about it.
    Throw in the tribal dominance of religion/ and pseudo-legitimacy that grants.

    Isn’t that the way people the world over have “worked things out”… and still try to fall back to that type of sense of security?
    the early city-states of rome,or greece, or europe/asia/africa
    Even in the US, there are militia’s, the klan, patriot’s front, etc… trumpers, democrats,libertarians,etc.
    With nothing to force people into a community of interest, the strong take over. they pretend morality guides them while they use every immoral tool of dominance….
    then the weak, have no choice(in their minds), but to “live for today”… and “pray for tomorrow”… and the strong are left to do whatever despicable deed they find do-able.

    And the “big” get to sign contracts with multi-national interests for resource exploitation, while the “little” get to harass women and children and bully the men and women… into submission.. which , then lets them indoctrinate the young with their perverse educational system set up to create room for new monsters to grow.

  3. Aurelien

    It depends what you mean by “country.” In the 1970s, Afghanistan was a country in the sense that France was in the 16th century: the power of Kabul and the King was acknowledged, but there was a great deal of local autonomy, and little reason to fight. The Monarchy, under Soviet influence was slowly modernising the country, but there was a long way to go. Things fell apart after the 1978 coup, which brought to power a temporary alliance between two Marxist-Leninist groups, the Khalq (People’s) Party and the Parcham (Banner) Party. Temporarily united, they engaged in violent and rapid political change which alienated huge sections of the population and provoked the first armed resistance, before turning to fight each other. The Soviet intervention was designed to prevent the country falling into total chaos by supporting the Banner Party, but had the perverse effect of strengthening the resistance and providing it with a degree of unity. From that point, you can say that Afghanistan basically no longer existed as a nation.

    Afghanistan before 1978 was a state: it was safe enough, for example, for my contemporaries to go backpacking there in the 1970s. Even today, Kabul is quite a modern city. If you look at a map (or even better fly over it) you see that it has two characteristics. One is that it is mountainous, with poor communications, which has always made central control difficult. The other is that, because of the mountains, it does have a reasonably clear geographical identity, and has been hard for outsiders to conquer. (Its borders, though have never been fully settled, since neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan accepts the British Durand line demarcation.) Most invaders (the British for example) were therefore content to run the country from a distance, without trying to dominate it militarily.

    As the article suggests, there is a real conflict now between the IS and the Taliban. (AQ doesn’t really seem to be a player.) The difference, simply put, is that the Taliban consider themselves Afghan nationalists, who fought the Russians and the West and will fight anyone else. The IS, of course shares the Taliban’s ideology of Political Islam, but disdains nations, borders and cultures, and seeks to impose an Emirate over the whole world. It’s a bit like the difference between Stalin’s and Trotsky’s visions of revolution.

  4. ambrit

    Afghanistan has been rightly called “The Graveyard of Empires.” It knocked the British Empire back on it’s heels almost two hundred years ago. It baffled Alexander of Macedon. It stymied the old Soviet Empire, and it now gives the finger to the American Empire. The Russians and the Chinese are right to be wary of the region and it’s fractious peoples. In such a situation, keeping the lid on the boiling pot is the best outcome that can be reasonably expected.
    The Cynic in me wonders if perhaps this divided mess of an excuse for a country is the preferred state as regards Imperial American policy. Create and foster a cauldron of dangers for the surrounding nations will keep those nations quite a bit occupied. Meanwhile, the Imperium uses the “quiet” to promote and further other of it’s ‘interests.’
    “The Great Game” is alive and well in the Twenty-first Century.

    1. Piotr Berman

      On religious side, Taliban represents traditions from Indian subcontinent, hence Hanafi, of puritan Deobandi variety, al-Qaeda and IS (a splinter group) are Salafi immigrants and converts, al-Qaeda is for cooperation with Hanafis, and IS is not. All three are Wahhabi-like puritans, but theology matters. Recall bloody strife in late Roman Empire cause by different views on the nature of Christ, something very weakly reflected in daily life.

      1. digi_owl

        Or more recently, the 30 year war.

        We humans find the silliest things to fight over. But i suspect once you brush away all the justifications it all comes back to economics. Religion and such is just a nice way to get the masses riled against the competition.

    2. Yves Smith Post author

      Yes I am aware of that but the fact that Afghanistan has been difficult to conquer does not mean that’s the result of a strong government/nation. The locus of the effective defense could just as well have been at the tribal/regional level, aided by the famously daunting terrain.

      1. ambrit

        The next level of strategy, once one stops viewing Afghanistan as a unitary state, is to occupy and rule parts of it, and let the rest go their own way. America is trying that idea out right now in Syria.
        This might be considered as an after effect of the end of Western Colonialism. It is the Post Colonial rectification of the artificial borders imposed on the so called “Third World” lands by the colonial powers. Neighboring nations all across the old colonial zone are fighting over the ‘proper’ location of their borders. Many ‘states’ are trying to impose racial and cultural “purity.” Conformity may be the ideal, but it is often the best target for anti-State movements.
        In a counterintuitive idea, we could see smaller “tribal” and “ethnic” states become the norm. Sometimes the “melting pot” boils over. America is beginning to see such a time of troubles begin. As economic conditions deteriorate for the “masses,” the encouragement of the immigration of fresh waves of ‘cheap labour’ strains the social fabric of the regions. When ‘things’ go ‘bad,’ the “funny looking” foreigners become a convenient scapegoat. Such has happened before and can happen again in America. Thus, the Imperial experience in Afghanistan should be a teachable moment for our Elites. Be very careful that our own country doesn’t fall apart. No Revolution needed. Simple entropy will do the trick.
        Stay safe.

  5. JonnyJames

    The Taleban were around back in the Anglo-Afghan war days and before. I think they are simply a Pashtun tribal group that has been one of the largest tribal/ethnic groups in what is called Afghanistan. The modern borders of Afghanistan were drawn up by the British (Sir Mortimer Durand) and so one could say that the borders are arbitrary and imposed by foreign powers. (but that is true of many modern states)

    One definition of state is a defined territory, recognized by other states, controlled by a central administration or govt. with sole legal authority for the monopoly of the use of violence in that territory. (or something like that)

    Afghanistan does not conform to the modern, western definition of a Westphalian state. So, I would say not a state, but a quasi-state. As others note: maybe in the 1970s it was coming closer, but not now. IS and Al qaeda are funded and controlled by foreign powers. It is another form of meddling

    One thing that is yet another tragedy (upon more tragedy) for Afghans: The US stole their central bank reserves and imposed an illegal blockade. As if the Afghan people haven’t suffered enough: it is arguably the poorest, and I believe it has the lowest average life expectancy in the world. US policy will no doubt make this even worse. The history books in the future will not be kind to the US Empire

    1. ambrit

      America has become adept at stealing foreign nations gold. Just ask Venezuela or Libya or Russia.
      America, the Pirate Empire.

      1. skippy

        So much for the decades of banging on about ***property rights*** being sacrosanct as the cornerstone of neoliberal markets everything.

  6. Dick Swenson

    If one wanted to be cynical, one could ask, Given the inability of the US government to effectively manage the US , is the USA a country?

    I have begun to think of the proper abbreviation of our area as S.A. There is no U any longer.

    More interestingly, just what are the answer to Yves opening question,

    does not mean it has the makings of a country, as in enough cohesiveness on key axes (social and legal practices, citizens with bureaucratic skills, respect for law, as opposed to custom) to have a central government able to exercise power. My understanding is that much of the Middle East operates on a tribal/clientele-ist basis, which makes it hard for more modern authority structures to operate.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      This government is very able to exercise power. It crushed Occupy Wall Street in a 17 city coordinated paramilitary crackdown. It has been increasingly using military gifts to increase its influence over local policing, which has been a key bastion of local protection. It was able to implement nationwide lockdowns despite the CDC being a very weak agency and public health being under state control.

      The fact that we are seeing random violence as opposed to effective protests is proof of state power.

      1. ambrit

        We need to watch out for the ‘defection’ of units of the Armed Forces. This could be to either “side” of the political spectrum. Think, Oath Keepers in Space, or a People’s National Guard of the State of XYZ.

      2. Victor Moses

        The Taliban government crushed or more accurately ground down the US military in the country albeit over a 20 year period. The group exercises effective control over the entirety of the country. By any measure it fully controls its defined territory. I don’t think referring to tribes or ethnicities is useful in understanding the situation. All too often it becomes shorthand for deploying an unfair metric for third world countries whose functioning is impaired for any number of other reasons having nothing to do with ethnicity or tribe.

    2. skippy

      America is administrated by neoliberalism which has a clearly defined goal and supersedes both legacy political parties. The economics is baked in from Academia and infiltrated all social media and MSM. No one can paint outside the lines, sure people or groups can have a wobble in isolation, but not allowed to become some national movement.

      At the end of the day they are just waiting for the generation that just complies blindly too the paradigm, tweaking it along the way.

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