BACKGROUND: The reported joint attack by Taliban and ISKP fighters at Mirsa Olang village has taken many by surprise. Relations between the two armed groups were hostile from the start and their fighters have clashed repeatedly. Among the reasons for the hostility is the ISKP’s poaching of Taliban fighters; it recruited from among disgruntled Taliban commanders and fighters. This did not go down well with the Taliban leadership and in In June 2015, in an open letter Taliban deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansoor wrote to ISIS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, warning ISIS to keep out of Afghanistan and stop “creating a parallel jihadist front.” The “jihad against the Americans and their allies,” the Taliban said, “must be conducted under one flag and one leadership” – its own. A week later, ISIS spokesman Abu Muhammad al-Adnani issued a statement wherein he specifically mentioned the group’s opponents in Khorasan, Libya and Syria and ordered ISIS fighters to “have no mercy or compassion” in dealing with those who did not “repent” and “join the Caliphate.”
The Taliban and the ISKP are Sunni insurgent groups. They have a medieval outlook and both use barbaric methods such as beheading to deal with their enemies. However, they also have serious differences. The ISKP has a global jihadi agenda – the “Caliphate” it seeks to establish spreads across North Africa; West, Central and Southeast Asia as well as parts of Europe that were under Muslim rule in the past. By contrast, the Taliban’s ambitions are local and aim to set up a “pure and clean Islamic state in Afghanistan.” Although the Hazaras have been persecuted historically in Afghanistan, this has been in the context of ethnic strife rather than sectarian conflict. In contrast, ISIS views Shiites as heretics worthy of death and its strategy in Afghanistan, as in Iraq, is to divide the population along sectarian lines.
Over the past three years, the ISKP has carried out several high-profile attacks. As the Taliban’s dominance of the insurgency in Afghanistan has come under challenge from the ISKP, the Taliban has responded robustly, even deploying “special forces” to drive out the ISKP.
This and limited local support has prevented the ISKP from expanding its base beyond some pockets in Afghanistan’s eastern districts. It has also suffered losses from operations of Afghan security forces and U.S. air strikes. In April 2017, the U.S. dropped its largest non-nuclear bomb on an ISKP cave and tunnel complex in Nangarhar, killing almost a hundred ISKP fighters including four commanders.
IMPLICATIONS: The attack at Mirza Olang is significant for several reasons. One is the high civilian death toll. Over 50 people were killed, including women and children. Around 235 people were taken hostage and subsequently released.
Importantly, the attack is believed to be a rare Taliban-ISKP joint operation. Although the Taliban denied co-operating with ISKP to carry out the attack – dismissing such allegations as propaganda aimed at discrediting them among locals – government and United Nations officials as well as local witnesses said it was a joint attack. It appears that the attack was led by Sher Mohammad Ghazanfar, a local Taliban commander who pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. If the operation was indeed a collaborative effort of Taliban and ISKP forces, this is a matter of concern for the Afghan government forces as the latter will be confronted with their combined strength in future attacks.
Analysts argue that the enormous differences in the composition, ideology and goals of the Taliban and the ISKP makes cooperation between them impossible. However, collaboration cannot be ruled out. Differences existed between the Taliban and al-Qaeda too and yet they cooperated. However, such cooperation was possible because al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden expressed allegiance to Taliban leader Mullah Omar. Will ISKP be willing to accept the Taliban’s leadership of the insurgency in Afghanistan? Is it willing to be a junior partner in Afghanistan? Although it seems unlikely, it is possible especially if ISIS proves unable to recover from reverses in Iraq and Syria. Any cooperation between the Taliban and the ISKP is likely to be ad-hoc and more in the nature of collaboration or coordination for specific attacks.
Afghan security forces have said that the Taliban and the ISKP have collaborated in at least three instances in the past. These were attacks on the government forces. The attack at Mirza Olang would then be the first collaborative one directed against civilians.
Even if Taliban co-operation with ISKP is limited to the local level, the possibility of the former coming under the influence of the ISKP’s sectarian agenda cannot be ruled out. In the past, the Taliban have criticized ISKP attacks on Shiite gatherings as attempts “to divide the nation,” and a “plot to ignite civil war” in Afghanistan. However, at Mirza Olang, the Taliban seemed to have no compunction about killing the village’s Shiite Hazara community. Is the gap between the Taliban and the ISKP narrowing?
Greater future tactical collaboration between the Taliban and the ISKP has serious implications for Afghanistan. Security forces will need to face their combined strength. In addition, the conflict in Afghanistan would risk acquiring a sectarian dimension.
Collaboration with the ISKP, however minimal, will leave the Taliban in a stronger position to take on the Afghan and international security forces. Already, the Taliban’s reach on the ground is growing. It is said to be in control or exerting influence in about 40 percent of Afghanistan, an area where around a third of the Afghan population lives. Especially at a time when Afghanistan’s National Unity Government is tottering, collaboration between the Taliban and the ISKP could boost the insurgency.
CONCLUSIONS: The reported collaboration between the Taliban and the ISKP does not bode well for the Afghan government, the international forces or the Afghan people as it can be expected to increase violence in the country. If the Afghan conflict would turn sectarian, the role of Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and Iran in arming the various militias, which is already substantial, would increase exponentially. The only silver lining in an otherwise grim scenario is that such collaboration is likely to be relatively limited, restricted to local coordination for attacks and short-lived.
Image source: By Daniel Wilkinson (U.S. Department of State) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons accessed on 11.13. 2017