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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.