There is a saying in the Dari language, “Fighting is done with swords, agreements are made with money.” However, when it comes to Afghanistan, nothing has proven to fix a never-ending conflict. In the green glow of the departing U.S. forces’ night vision goggles, they could see Taliban fighters wave as their planes lifted off from Kabul’s international airport in August. Like the saying in Dari, the struggle for Afghanistan continues.
The Taliban’s new regime quickly had to pivot from twenty years of battling against the militarily advanced armies of an international coalition and their Afghan allies, to setting their sights on a shadowy underground network of a few thousand ultra-hardline Islamists. The Taliban had fought against the so-called Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) since it appeared in war-torn Afghanistan in 2015. More than once, the United States even informally acted as the Taliban’s air force, helping the group achieve victories in order to remove IS-K from the scene in an unofficial alliance.
The Taliban had fought against the so-called Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) since it appeared in war-torn Afghanistan in 2015.
The Taliban has also been accused by IS-K for cooperating with the United States in its evacuation of Afghanistan by providing security around the airport, as well as signing the infamous Doha Agreement that helped facilitate Washington’s exit from its long-running military engagement in Afghanistan. Although thousands of IS-K prisoners managed to escape from prisons as the Taliban captured territory, many returned to the ranks of IS-K rather than joining in the Taliban’s new Emirate being established in Kabul. It did not take long for the new mini-war to get started. As the Taliban moved to defeat the resistance groups of Ahmad Massoud in Panjshir, IS-K returned to its brutal methods of conducting suicide bombings and hit and run attacks on the Taliban. The Taliban in turn executed a high-ranking IS-K leader in prison within the first days of their rule.
Gaining the Upper Hand
Regional countries that once loathed the presence of the United States in Afghanistan must now grapple with the potential for IS-K to reconstitute itself and spread throughout Central and South Asia. Iran watches warily as IS carried out devastating suicide attacks on Shia mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar Provinces. IS-K has also demonstrated the ability to reach the Taliban’s high-ranking members, targeting a funeral for the mother of Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid at the Eid Gah Mosque in Kabul on October 3. Though several were killed, none of the Taliban’s key officials were harmed during the attack.
Russia has repeatedly voiced concerns about future security in Central Asia and has been running numerous military drills with Tajikistan and other allies along the border region with Afghanistan. Moscow has yet to grant official recognition to the Taliban and also expressed dismay about the new regime in Kabul gaining representation at the United Nations. It is clear that Russia, along with other key countries, wishes for the Taliban to form some sort of unity government that includes non-Taliban figures and make clear inclusive policies regarding the status of women and girls in Afghan society.
The Taliban can help assuage the international community’s fear by helping eradicate the Islamic State group in the country.
Most importantly, military aid and direct financial assistance will not begin flowing to the Taliban until the international community has been assured that they are committed to fighting terrorism in Afghanistan. Despite all of this, Russia is adamant that the United States should not be permitted to reestablish a military foothold in Central Asia to conduct counter-terrorism operations. The Taliban can help assuage this fear by helping eradicate the Islamic State group in the country. The Taliban have been stepping up recruitment and training hundreds of new fighters for their security forces, including their elite military units, such as the Omari, Badri, and Mansoori units.
Fighting has been especially brutal in Nangahar Province, where bodies, rumored to have been IS-K members or sympathizers, have been turning up on the streets, killed by the Taliban in extrajudicial targeted killings. In addition, IS-K has also been relentless in attacking Taliban military units, not just in Nangahar, but across other parts of the country as well. Moreover, there have been reports that some former members of the Afghan government’s security forces have joined IS-K, but sources have said this is primarily for money rather than ideology.
One unnamed Western official even told The Wall Street Journal that this defection was not unlike the phenomenon of former Iraqi Baathist military elements that switched over to the terror group in Iraq. The Taliban are attempting to negotiate some surrenders for the IS-K cells in Nangahar with the help of local tribal leaders. In late October, a group of 65 IS-K members agreed to give up their struggle but will be closely monitored by the Taliban’s intelligence. The Taliban will continue to downplay the threat the group poses and assert that they have no real organic following in the country.
Ideology is Power
In addition to being a battle for military might, the showdown between these two groups will be a struggle of ideas that will ultimately allow the Taliban to reign supreme. The Taliban have even begun persecuting members of the Afghan Salafist community, which they believe could serve as a potential source of recruitment and support for IS-K. These Taliban members primarily follow the Deobandi school of Islamic thought, with its roots found in northern India.
Ideology, thus, will be a central part of how Kabul’s new rulers will assert their control over the entire country. At its heart, the Taliban are a nationalist movement that aims to present the narrative that they have eliminated foreign occupation in Afghanistan. The newly painted murals that stretch across the city are adorned with messages congratulating Afghans on their independence. The Taliban’s flags and new patches on their military uniforms are white to symbolize Islamic purity, a color that evokes a sense of washing away the old corruption and building a new, cleaner order.
The Taliban’s victory over Western forces has earned them acclaim from Islamist groups in faraway conflicts.
The Taliban’s victory over Western forces has earned them acclaim from Islamist groups in faraway conflicts, such as from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in Syria’s Idlib Province and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Hence, IS-K faces an uphill struggle to attract new supporters when a hardline Islamist movement has already secured a victory and established power in Kabul. The terror group is also the subject of relentless conspiracy theories that it is backed by foreign powers, such as the United States, in order to sow the seeds of disruption in the newly liberated Afghanistan.
Still, even within the Taliban, the movement was fraught with some internal tensions on whether the victory was due to the skills of its negotiators or the military prowess of its commanders on the battlefield. For its part, IS-K has been utilizing the Taliban’s positive outreach to China to undermine the Taliban’s narrative as the guardian of Islamic Sharia, a trend that will continue as Beijing pursues relations with Kabul.
After forty years of unimaginably cruel warfare, many Afghans appear resigned to accepting an era of dictatorship if it means peace and security. The Taliban have a special commission that has visited regional officials and its members have explicitly stated that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan would never tolerate any disorderly members of its rank and file, specifying that anyone found guilty of harassment, looting, arbitrary justice, or the abuse of authority would be severely punished.
However, the Taliban will need to rely on asserting their ideology in order to maintain their grip, not just over the Afghan citizens, but over their own fighters as well. In late October, armed assailants attacked and killed attendees of a wedding in Nangahar Province. The wedding had earlier obtained permission from local Taliban officials to play music during the festivities.
The Taliban are making an all-encompassing effort to implement their version of Islamic values to Afghan society.
Though the Taliban denied the shooters were indeed Taliban members, it is possible that some of the group’s fighters wish for the Taliban leadership to enforce stricter rules for playing music in public. Along with artwork, street murals, and places named after martyred mujahedeen leaders from the war against the Soviet Union, the Taliban are making an all-encompassing effort to implement their version of Islamic values to Afghan society. If the Taliban do not present a strict enough enforcement of their interpretation of Sharia Law, they could potentially see factions splinter off and join IS-K.
A Battle for Legitimacy
Establishing security, a new enforcement of justice (albeit within the Taliban’s harsh vision), ending corruption, and providing public services will all determine how well the Afghan public responds to the Taliban’s new regime. This is paramount as Afghanistan is in the midst of a dire humanitarian crisis. The economy has ground to a halt and the Afghani currency has become so worthless that the Taliban have begun offering a “wheat for labor” scheme in order to help provide assistance to the public.
Furthermore, the international community is loathed to grant official diplomatic recognition to the Taliban. Former U.S. special envoy for Afghan reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad, who recently stepped down from his post, suggested that the United States could even offer some type of support to the Taliban in their fight against the Islamic State group. Such a prospect of enemies cooperating is not completely unfounded. The United States once indirectly worked with the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces in Iraq to combat a common IS opponent.
The U.S. could even offer some type of support to the Taliban in their fight against the Islamic State group.
Taliban spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid bemoaned the slow state of the Taliban’s ability to gain official recognition and remarked at a recent press conference in October, “There are issues in numerous countries vis-a-via international laws, but [those countries] have been formally recognized,” he said. “They have no democratic systems, they have dictatorships, kingdoms and other ruling systems. Why have they been recognized and why are conditions being set for us?”
Across the broader Middle East, authoritarian governments rely on powerful assistance from foreign patrons in order to maintain stability and security. Other governments, such as Iran and Syria, fall outside the realm of this regional security architecture due to the current geopolitical situation. The future of Afghanistan looks certain to become a dictatorship, but the question of whether the new regime’s system can gain support from abroad is still unclear.
How the Taliban’s complicated fight unfolds will be closely watched in the coming months. IS-K has consistently demonstrated that it has the ability to pull off devastating and complex terror attacks. A recent assault on a Kabul hospital killed a top Taliban commander. As the harsh winter descends on Afghanistan, the spring fighting season will reveal how the new regime in Kabul has progressed in securing not only the country, but new support from a world that is gravely concerned.