Turf War in Afghanistan Adds to the Country’s Woes
The country of Afghanistan has in recent times seen much change. Last August, Taliban forces took Kabul and re-established control over most of the country. With the defeat of the Afghan military and the fall of the government in Kabul, many saw this as an end to major conflict in Afghanistan. A sad and resigned peace, but a sense of peace nonetheless. But this has not been the case.
Even after taking Kabul, the Taliban had to face an insurgency by forces in the Panjshir Valley. With resistance leaders Amrullah Saleh and Ahmad Massoud having fled to neighboring Tajikistan, fighting has mostly stopped.
However, a bigger problem has emerged for the Taliban in the form of the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISIS-K). ISIS-K is a terrorist organization in Afghanistan and Pakistan which is the local branch of the Islamic State. They have carried out horrific attacks as well as assassinated key Taliban figures.
The conflict has comprised mainly of ISIS-K attacks on Taliban checkpoints and small groups of soldiers, as well as suicide bombings and terror attacks both on Taliban and civilian targets. In response, the Taliban has carried out raids and punitive attacks on ISIS-K safe houses. They have also carried out a harsh counterinsurgency in the areas where ISIS-K is strongest, namely the Nangarhar and Kunar provinces in eastern Afghanistan.
The Taliban has arrested, detained, tortured, and killed many suspected ISIS-K fighters. This has also resulted in a large number of human rights abuses against Afghan civilians. ISIS-K has also assassinated key Taliban figures such as Abdul Ghani, as well as Hamdullah Mukhlis, the leader of the Kabul Corps, somewhere around late 2021.
ISIS-K has conducted suicide attacks on schools, mosques, and hospitals. On 29th April, they destroyed two high-voltage towers, cutting off power to Kabul and nearby provinces. The very next day, they again targeted the power grid, cutting off power to close to a dozen provinces. These suicide bombings have become a trademark of ISIS-K and are a major security issue for the Taliban. While most of their actions have been in eastern Afghanistan, they have also targeted Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in Pakistan, which borders Afghanistan.
Taking a cursory look, one might question why two ideologically similar factions like the Taliban and ISIS-K might be in conflict, especially such a bloody one. But if we delve deeper into the history of ISIS-K and its relationship with the Taliban, we can find that there is ample reason for conflict. ISIS-K originally broke away from both the Afghan Taliban and the Pakistani Tehrik-i-Taliban. They broke away due to disagreements with the leadership of both organizations and some ideological differences.
While both are radical Islamist militant organizations, ISIS-K and the Taliban differ in their specific ideologies, goals, and theological origins. ISIS-K follows the Salafist school of Islam while the Taliban follows the Deobandi school. The two ideologies are distinct but competing for a similar position of Islamic reform, hence both groups are ideologically at odds. Along with this, the ideology of the Taliban has been heavily influenced by Pashtun nationalism and the tribal laws of the Pashtun people, called Pakhtunwalli. This means that ISIS-K sees them as more local, and nationalist rather than truly Islamist alongside ISIS-K also being a possibly better option for those jihadists in Afghanistan who are not Pashtun.
This can be seen through the fact that a fair number of former members of the Afghan military have switched over to ISIS-K after the fall of Kabul. Alongside this, their cooperation with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, an Uzbek militant Islamist group, points toward them at least to some extent attempting to appeal beyond the Taliban’s Pashtun nationalism.
There is no end in sight to the conflict. In June, ISIS-K fighters carried out a barbaric attack on a minority Sikh temple in Kabul killing at least two and injuring many more. Seven ISIS-K fighters were killed by Taliban forces in fighting after the attack. This shows that ISIS-K has the ability to carry out major attacks in the capital.
Their attacks on the power grid are concerning as they point towards an understanding of high-value targets and how crippling the infrastructure can cause more chaos. Alongside this, the Taliban are not exactly suited to both fighting an insurgency and governing at the same time. Until ISIS-K is defeated, the Taliban will be unable to form a functioning state. This is a major issue as it is already very difficult for the Taliban to form a functional internationally recognized state. They do not have access to international funding, loans, and assistance due to their radical views and laws, especially regarding women’s education and personal freedoms.
Alongside this, they do not have access to much of the financial resources the previous government had, with their accounts being frozen due to their abovementioned pariahdom. In order to rebuild a country fractured by more than three decades of war and conflict, they will need all the resources they can get. They will require outside help from the international community to improve infrastructure and living standards, especially in the rural areas the previous government ignored and where the Taliban found most of its support.
The Taliban will also need to moderate its policies regarding women and girls. If the Taliban want to rule Afghanistan in the long term and rebuild, they need access to international funds. This can only really be achieved through some form of moderation. A rigid Taliban regime simply cannot survive and rebuild Afghanistan at the same time. The inability of the Taliban to govern, compounded by their brutal counterinsurgency campaign is a major issue for the Taliban which could help ISIS-K. The Taliban lacks basic government and administration skills and is mainly a ruler by and of the sword.
The Taliban’s conflict against ISIS-K makes this even more integral as they cannot rebuild a country constantly riddled by suicide bombings and terror attacks. Conversely, they also cannot receive aid and funding from the rest of the world until they improve their human rights record. The current regime which was developed through years of guerilla warfare against American and Afghan forces will have to change its ideology in order to find a place in the international order. A more moderate stance could also bring foreign assistance against ISIS-K.
For a country that has witnessed incredible suffering for decades, this only means more chaos and misery.