CATF Reports Jun. 27, 2016, 2:19pm


As the Taliban’s sustained military campaign against Kabul enters its bloodiest period in years, the Afghanistan-based insurgent group faces a new, sweeping competition against elements of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in Afghanistan. While both groups have encountered genuine threats to their existence, from within and through outside attacks, the Taliban and elements of ISIS continue to clash in eastern Afghanistan with grave implications on the local population. Yet, the war between the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan extends far beyond the battlefield. The surprising emergence of a capable rival in ISIS has forced the Taliban in Afghanistan into a struggle for religious legitimacy, a compelling public image to attract new recruits, and an efficient system to fund their operations.

Strains on the Taliban

The increase in bloody encounters between the Taliban and the self-proclaimed Islamic State has come at a particularly inopportune time for both groups. The Taliban, who are mourning the death of their second leader in a year following the murder of Mullah Mansour in May, are facing serious threats from former members of the insurgency. Although Mullah Mansour effectively modernized what was largely a patronage-based military system and even succeeded in opening up a political office in Qatar, the former leader also presided over a period of fractionalization within the Taliban.

Immediately following the announcement of Mullah Mansour’s succession in July 2015, after having been the de facto leader for six years while news of Mullah Omar’s death remained hidden from the public, three members of the Taliban’s highest decision-making body openly declared their disapproval of the new leader. The dissidents, who gathered a substantial following within the Taliban, accused Mansour of manipulating the succession process and using nepotism to replace senior-level leaders with loyal, less-experienced members of the Taliban. The opposition to Mansour led to the creation of diverse factions within the Taliban and intense infighting focused in the southern region of Zabul.

Although Mansour was mostly effective in quelling the rival Taliban factions before his death in May, new Taliban leader Haibatullah Akhundzada has adopted a group with a lack of unity, the hallmark of the Taliban’s resurgence. The Taliban’s disunity became clear as a wave of militants, including the deputy of military commission, defected to ISIS and ISIS-affiliated groups in eastern Afghanistan. Despite the fact that ISIS’ Salafi stance differs from the Hanafi interpretation of the majority of Afghan Sunnis, the presence of a competing group and the opportunity to claim piousness as the cause of defection has introduced a new threat to the Taliban’s future.

Strains on ISIS

Operating primarily from Iraq and Syria, ISIS has also endured a wave of setbacks in recent months. Although attacks led by those inspired by their objectives and image have cast a shadow of fear over Europe and the United States, ISIS is facing increasing difficulties in their self-proclaimed “caliphate.” In Iraq, the army is on the brink of retaking the important central city of Fallujah from ISIS as clashes have moved to neighborhoods on the city’s perimeter. Meanwhile, ISIS’ territorial progress in Syria has largely been halted under constant coalition airstrikes. In Libya, pro-government forces are making progress in their offensive in Sirte with ISIS’ prospects of carving out a state in Libya seemingly over.

Since emerging in Afghanistan in late 2014, ISIS has made very little progress on the ground. ISIS in Afghanistan, self-labeled the Islamic State in the Khorasan in reference to the historical region covering parts of Iran and Afghanistan, is comprised more of a splintering of the Taliban along with Uzbek and Pakistani militants than an evolution of the group based in Raqqa. Officials report that the militants raising the black flag in Afghanistan hold minimal coordination with ISIS leadership in Iraq and Syria. Furthermore, the Taliban has largely dominated the battles between the two groups and has cornered ISIS in eastern Nangarhar along the border with Pakistan, an area that has long been out of Kabul’s control. Confined to eastern Nangarhar, ISIS’ influence in Afghanistan is severely limited.

ISIS-Taliban Competition in Afghanistan

As ISIS was in the early stages of establishing a presence in Afghanistan in early 2015, Mullah Mansour warned the terror group to stay away from Afghanistan in an open letter to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. When Mansour’s pleas fell on deaf ears, the Taliban led the charge by sending their best trained fighters to engage ISIS in the city of Herat, Zabul province, and Nangarhar province. Although the Taliban offensive has dislodged ISIS from southern Zabul and led to progress in Nangarhar, hundreds of fighters on both sides have been killed in the clashes since November 2015, and ISIS continues to maintain a firm grip over several districts along the border with Pakistan. Caught in the middle of both of the Taliban’s bloody assaults, Afghan citizens are paying the price for the insurgent group’s wars on ISIS and Kabul.

Despite the importance of the ongoing Taliban-ISIS clashes in eradicating a terror group with global ambitions, the real war between the two groups is being fought beyond the battlefield and increasingly on the Internet. The Taliban, faced with the growing ideological clout of ISIS in the region, finds itself in a delicate competition with the terror group for the claim to be a more pious defender of Islam. In claiming their religious legitimacy, the Taliban has taken to social media to emphasize its adherence to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, in line with the majority of Afghan Sunnis, and reject ISIS’ Salafism as a foreign diversion from Afghan clerical tradition. The Taliban also reminds their Afghan audience of the historical roots of their insurgency by referring to the “jihad against the British empire, Russian invasion, and current jihad against the Americans.” In comparison, ISIS is often exposed as a young movement lacking roots in Afghan religious and ethnic tradition.

Needless to say, ISIS has not gone quiet in the midst of the Taliban’s attacks on their religious legitimacy. In ISIS propaganda magazine Dabiq, the group accuses the Taliban of religious deviations for associating with the Deobandi movement and the Hanafi school of jurisprudence. According to ISIS, and most Salafi groups, membership to the Hanafi jurisprudence constitutes a deviation from the faith of the salaf (the early generation of Muslims during and after the life of Prophet Muhammad). ISIS has also accused the Taliban of not being restrictive enough in defining a Muslim (ijra) and idolatry (shirk) attributed to practices such as the “circumambulating of graves” and “wearing of amulets.” According to ISIS, these “shariah mistakes” discredit the Taliban’s claim to religious legitimacy.

The Taliban and ISIS have also come into direct competition in a protracted dispute over their leader’s titles. Taliban leaders have historically adopted the title of Emir al-Momineen (Commander of the Faithful). This title, which is the historical name of caliphs, is in direct contradiction to al-Baghdadi’s claim to the title. ISIS’ call to the universal allegiance of all Muslims necessitates that there is no other Commander of the Faithful other than al-Baghdadi. On the other hand, leaders of the Taliban have claimed the title within the borders of Afghanistan since 1996 without a clear intent to spread their jihad beyond Afghanistan and Pakistan. The fight over these competing religious ideologies and their leaders’ claims will likely be more influential than any battles in eastern Afghanistan.

Despite reports of limited links to “headquarters” in Syria and Iraq, ISIS in Afghanistan has closely followed the group’s media outreach manual since their emergence. Recent media releases from ISIS in Afghanistan demonstrate the group’s adherence to brutal tactics exposed through expertly produced videos and a recognized social media presence. As the original leaders of the Taliban pass away, ISIS hopes to attract younger members less interested in maintaining ties to local areas and more connected to ISIS’ glitzy online propaganda, as they have done in North Africa and the Middle East. Reports that ISIS offers a monthly salary of $700, a persuasive offer for a young Afghan that will make less than that amount per year on average, will also act as an incentive for young Afghans to join the ranks of ISIS fighters.

As ISIS’ online presence escalates in Afghanistan, the Taliban is playing catch-up. Although the insurgent group had banned television, cinemas, and photography before being toppled in 2001, today they communicate battlefield updates on their website (accessible in 5 languages) and social media, operate a smartphone app, and distribute sleek and widely shared videos. The Taliban’s pursuit of a digital audience has followed ISIS’ example closely: spread brutal propaganda videos, claim complete religious legitimacy, and utilize new and encrypted media channels. The most obvious difference in the Taliban’s media strategy stems from their focus on the Afghan theatre.

Like any militant organization, the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan must have access to substantial revenue in order to fund their activities. With years of experience operating within Afghanistan, the leading source of the world’s heroin, the Taliban’s yearly budget is suspected to be within the range of $500 million dollars and $2 billion dollars. This expansive budget is due largely to the group’s role in the billion dollar Afghan heroin trade, the sale of hashish, the smuggling of weapons and goods, ransom payments earned from kidnappings, and the profits from a range of commercial businesses operating in Taliban-controlled territory. Meanwhile, reports have emerged that extortion is an increasingly important aspect of the Taliban’s profits with reports claiming the group charges large businesses as much as 30% of earnings.

While the Taliban in Afghanistan’s money-making ventures have been closely tracked for over a decade, little information exists on the financing of ISIS-affiliated groups in Afghanistan. Recent reports have alleged that fighters loyal to ISIS had scorched opium poppy fields in eastern Afghanistan, a sharp contrast to the Taliban’s approach. However, head of Russia’s Federal Drug Control Service, Viktor Ivanov, has claimed that “IS makes up to $1 billion annually on Afghan heroin trafficked through its territory.” In addition to heroin trafficking, ISIS in Afghanistan may be receiving financial support from the group’s base in Iraq and Syria, although this financial relationship remains unclear.

Despite the strains on both groups caused by internal divisions and military campaigns, ISIS and the Taliban continue to clash in remote areas of eastern Afghanistan. These clashes have resulted in countless casualties on both sides but constitute only one aspect of a sweeping competition for religious legitimacy and allure in Afghanistan. While it remains difficult to imagine either group compromising on their strict religious interpretation in the near-future, a prolonged conflict between the two groups could force an alliance of convenience with grim implications for the local population.

More News