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Afghanistan’s Awaited Battle Between the Islamic State Caliphate and Taliban Emirate

“An Apostate Group” is how the Islamic State (IS) – or rather the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) – has always labelled the Taliban. Since its inception on 23 January 2015, IS-K has seen the Taliban as a major threat that is challenging IS’ presence in Afghanistan. 

Between 2017 and 2018, four-fifths of IS’ combat operations were with the Taliban, and fighting between the two groups is expected to spike in the upcoming period, which makes IS the biggest challenge for the Taliban and the toughest for Afghanistan following the US full withdrawal by the end of August.

For months, IS Farouk fighters have been flocking from Syria and Iraq to Afghanistan and South Asian countries. On 28 July, Russia’s Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu warned against the threat of infiltration of IS terrorist fighters into Afghanistan from Syria, Libya, and other countries. Indeed, these moves of IS militants are in line with IS strategy of poaching terror hotbeds and contesting other armed religious groups, particularly those with sectarian and ideological differences betting on sectarian strife. 

Just think of the recent Kabul Airport bombings on 26 August: that was IS’ 96th operation since last May (i.e. within three months), a number that is larger than IS’ declared operations in other rival provinces in Iraq, West Africa, and Syria.

Kabul Airport’s attack left behind 60 deaths including 12 soldiers and 150 civilian injuries. The attack was revealing as it uncovered the grave danger that awaits for Afghanistan following the US withdrawal and the US impaired vision of a post-US Afghanistan, providing no stability guarantees following the withdrawal and no protection against potential terrorist threats, IS being the major one given its anticipated conflict with Taliban, not to mention the latter’s separatist conflicts with other ethnic and sectarian forces. 

Having 12 of its troops killed in the attack, the US administration addressed the international and US public opinion seeking justifying its stance on withdrawal and reviewing its successes in putting an end to Al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, preventing recurrence of the September 11 Attacks, and ensuring the country will no longer be a target for foreign jihadists, i.e. commitments made by Taliban in Doha January talks 2021, up against the US pouring billions of dollars and sending thousands of US troops to Afghanistan, as President Joe Biden stated.

Since the September 11 Attacks till its upcoming withdrawal of its forces from Iraq and Afghanistan on 31 December and 11 September, respectively, as well as from other parts of the world, the United States would have lost 4380 soldiers in Iraq and Syria from 2013 till 2019 whereas losses in Afghanistan were greater with 2448 troops killed until April 2021, 20,000 injured, and $820 billion spent on military operations besides $140 billion aid handed over to Taliban after Kabul’s government last prime minister fled.

The US pull-out offers IS a new opportunity to solely engage in an armed conflict, seeking implementing its enablement strategy and restoring its state following the fall of its caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2017 and 2018. This comes as a new episode of armed Islamist struggles similar to episodes that existed for long years in Syria, Iraq, among others. For its part, IS considers the Taliban apostate, did not welcome the American withdrawal seeing it as just a replacement of a shaved tyrant with a bearded one, as they put it.

The Caliphate vs the Emirate 

Since its establishment till its fall in the aftermath of the 11 September attacks, the Taliban has sought to establish what is called a local and national “Emirate of the Faithful”. This view was maintained until Mullah Omar died on 23 April 2013, whose death was reportedly hidden for two years for the integrity of the organization, and is still dominating the group’s discourse, its publications, and its conception of the Islamic rule after surging back to power and taking control of Kabul on 15 August. According to the Taliban, the rule would be imposed by a governing council headed by the Commander of the Faithful to be pledged allegiance by Al-Qaeda – as has always been the case. Notably, while pledging allegiance to the Taliban Commander of the Faithful, Al-Qaeda rejected allegiance to Al-Baghdadi of IS as the caliph in 2014.

IS, however, adopts the concept of forming an international Islamic caliphate, which requires allegiances. IS’ announcing its expansion to the Khorasan region and declaring the IS-K on 23 January 2015 through its late spokesman Abu Muhammad Al-Adnani (killed in 2016), and seeking to take it as a safe haven after the fall of its strongholds in Syria and Iraq in 2017 and 2018 is not only a declaration of its power struggle with the Taliban who frequently fight each other – a situation that is expected to become of a higher-intensity in the coming period – but also a confirmation of the symbolic ideological struggle between IS’ Islamic Caliphate (which Al-Qaeda and some of its affiliates and other jihadist organizations rejects) and Taliban’s Emirate of the Faithful (which Al-Qaeda accepted, pledged allegiance to, and hid the death of its leader for two years, a situation to which IS responded by describing Al-Zawahiri as “a liar who had lost his shadow”). Now, with the US withdrawal scheduled to be completed by 31 August, symbolism and power struggles will intensify in a country strongly poised to a struggle of fundamentalisms.

IS’ Takfiri Views on the Taliban

In all of its spoken or written discourses, IS describes the Taliban as “apostates”. This is not a new phenomenon, though. It is a continuation of the IS’ long standing position of Taliban even before its Khorasan province was declared. For instance, the December 2014 edition of Dabiq’s Magazine published an article accusing Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban of renouncing from Islam by upholding tribal law over Sharia, failing to effectively conquer and control territory, disregarding targeting of the Shiite population, and recognizing international borders. Earlier, in September 2014, IS sent representatives to Pakistan to meet with leaders of various jihadist movements, including the Pakistani Taliban. These meetings resulted in a number pledges of allegiance and maybe it is these meetings that gave rise to IS-K declared on 23 January 2015.

With regard to its position on the US drawdown, in the foreword Al-Naba’ June 2021 newsletter titled “The US Withdrawal from Afghanistan”, we read IS’ position on Taliban’s awaiting leading role in Afghanistan: “Whatever the situation after the US withdrawal, soldiers of IS will continue their jihad on Prophecy platform, igniting flames of fighting with the clear insight of what they are doing, never harmed by betrayers nor dissenters, as they have burnt the unbelievers [meaning the Americans] and the apostates [meaning the Taliban and other factions] by flames of their bombs and felled them by bullets of their guns, causing daily deaths and injuries through intensive security operations in Kabul, Nangarhar, and Baghlan, among others, by Allah’s grace”. 

In this same edition, IS describes the Doha agreement concluded in January 2021 as “an agreement between the Crusaders and the apostates, in exchange for a commitment from the apostate Taliban to provide security guarantees that achieves the goal of the US invasion of Afghanistan. And what was the goal?”

Following the Doha agreement, IS once again accused the Taliban of betrayal and apostasy, underscoring the seriousness of the agreement extending beyond Taliban’s acceptance of tribal laws and international agreements as is stated in the foreword of the edition: “What Apostate Taliban pledged to the US was more dangerous than the details that made the headlines. Besides undertaking not to allow any person or group to threaten security and stability of the US and its allies, Taliban is obliged under the agreement to keep them from conscription and training and prevent them from fundraising. Taliban even undertakes not to grant passports or Afghanistan entry visas to anyone who threatens the security of the United States.” IS sees that Taliban’s coming to power doesn’t pose a threat to the United States.  

In An-Naba’ newsletter edition of 20 August, IS addresses Taliban’s new image. The edition’s foreword is titled “Finally, They Promoted Mullah Bradley”, mocking Abdul-Ghani Baradar, Taliban’s Deputy Leader and in it we read: “We have seen the large-scale promotion for “Taliban’s New Model” not only after the Taliban has entered Kabul but since signing the “Peace Agreement” in Doha 14 months ago. Since that day, Al-Qaeda and its sister organizations never hesitated to describe this suspicious agreement as being a “victory” and “empowerment”. Even apostate Hamas, for the first time in its history, have congratulated [Taliban], blessed the agreement, and posted photos of a meeting that brought together a delegation of its leaders with the Taliban delegation in Doha. Hamas would not have congratulated the Taliban unless it had known –from official sources– that the new Taliban is no longer branded a terrorist and there is no longer any harm in praising it.” The newsletter then adds, “The Taliban leaders have announced the liberation of Afghanistan from inside hotels of Qatar, a country that houses the US Al-Udeid Air Base from which planes are launched to bomb Muslim lands. Their illusory victory came from where the decisions of war against Islam are announced. So, what victory are they claiming? America did it and finally promoted Mullah Bradley and undoubtedly other “mullahs” are currently being made in the hotels and embassies of the tyrants, waiting for another ‘victory’, the US or otherwise, grants them.”

Implications of the Rise of IS against Taliban in Afghanistan

The rise of IS and its hankering to get into conflict with the Taliban perhaps played a role in Taliban’s reassuring messages to its inside and outside opponents over the past few weeks. Indeed, IS rise is likely to increase Taliban’s desire to contain its allies and opponents, including the Hazaras ethnic group which ISIS takes revenge on them, and has previously launched special operations targeting them in November 2015, where seven Hazara Shiites from the Gelan district in Ghazni province, including two women and a child, were kidnapped and their bodies were found in Khak-e-Afghan district in southern Zabul province. While IS is widely believed to be behind the attack, it did not however –nor the Northern Alliance led by Ahmad Shah Massoud– claim responsibility for the attack.

The rise of IS will increase the US and international community betting on Taliban’s strength and stability, as a stubborn opponent capable, or not, of fighting IS and defeating it, as it used to do before the US withdrawal, where battles, in the period between 2018-2020, were mostly shifted in Taliban’s favor. Being more moderate than IS, months ago, Taliban freed members of the United Nations mission from IS and chased IS members. And while the Taliban accepts negotiations, ISIS rejects it, and considers it blasphemy and apostasy.

In addition, IS’ potential opportunity in Afghanistan makes it a stubborn opponent preventing stability in the country and exhausting the Taliban and its allies. This will make Afghanistan an arena for armed terrorist conflicts that are more terrible and deeper than before, and cause the Taliban to lose its aura that almost gives hope to all excluded Islamist groups in the Middle East and worldwide that welcomed Taliban’s seizure of Kabul.

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