Taliban-Daesh rivalry: The next phase of Afghan conflict?
Following the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power in Afghanistan, on August 26, Daesh Khorasan targeted the evacuation process at Kabul Airport on August 26-- killing 180 people. Of these, 13 were US marines, 28 Taliban fighters and 139 Afghan civilians. Arguably, the high-profile attack marked the beginning of a new phase of the ongoing rivalry between Daesh and the Taliban in a post-US Afghanistan. Daesh Khorasan is the affiliate of the Middle Eastern militant group in Afghanistan.
The August 26 suicide bombing was one the deadliest attacks in Afghanistan’s recent history, marking it the worst single-day loss for US forces since 2011. Subsequently, Daesh Khorasan has claimed a string of attacks hitting Taliban militants in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. For instance, on September 25, Daesh claimed killing six Taliban militants in Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar.
The Daesh-Taliban rivalry will characterize Afghanistan’s future militant landscape. Though both militant groups have been fighting each other in Afghanistan’s saturated militant landscape since late 2014, this new phase of rivalry will be markedly different from the past. Unlike the past, the Taliban are now a state actor transitioning from insurgent to political life, while seeking international legitimacy and economic assistance. In this new phase or rivalry with Daesh, the Taliban will be fighting as a status quo power from a defensive position, which the group is not used to. This makes the Taliban more vulnerable to Daesh’s physical and verbal attacks
Thus, Daesh has the offensive-asymmetric advantage and the flexibility of attacking the Taliban as, when and how it chooses and then melt away in the population. The Taliban, on the other hand, do not have the same advantage. As a state actor, the Taliban must maintain a visible and permanent presence to provide security to the Afghans. Daesh’s attacks against the Taliban and other religious minorities in Afghanistan would aim to discredit the former’s claim of providing security, create doubts about the group’s counter-terrorism capability, as promised to the US under the Doha Agreement, as well as draw a wedge between them and the Afghan masses.
Daesh has the offensive-asymmetric advantage and the flexibility of attacking the Taliban as, when and how it chooses and then melt away in the population. The Taliban, on the other hand, do not have the same advantage.
Abdul Basit Khan
In a way, Daesh has positioned itself as a Taliban rejectionist group with the hope of poaching hard-line Taliban members to its ranks. It is aware of intra-Taliban divisions between the political and military commissions, and its hard-hitting propaganda has made it difficult for the Taliban to show political leniency to avoid ideological assaults and prevent the migration of hard-line Taliban fighters.
Both the Taliban and Daesh are each other’s sworn enemies on account of doctrinal and ideological differences. Following the US-Taliban deal in March 2020, Daesh announced a new violent campaign against the former for embracing nationalism to attain power and thus compromising “Sharia principles.” Henceforth, Daesh Khorasan considers fighting the Taliban a more important “religious duty” than attacking Western forces and other minority groups.
The Taliban-Daesh rivalry turned violent in 2015 when Daesh publicly rejected then Taliban leader Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor’s letter urging former Daesh leader Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi not to launch a formal branch in Afghanistan. Mansoor argued that Daesh’s decision to announce a franchise in Afghanistan would create inter and intra-militant divisions, hurting the Taliban’s fight against the US. However, Daesh publicly rejected the Taliban’s request because it has “apostatized” for wavering in its implementation of “Sharia principles,” fighting a proxy war of some regional countries as mercenaries and coordinating with Iran (a veiled reference to Mashhad Shoura). Daesh also censures the Taliban for its Afghan-centric approach, i.e., embracing nationalism, to create an emirate. On the contrary, Daesh Khorasan, and by extension Daesh, rejects nationalism and espouses the notion of a self-styled Global Caliphate. It is also critical of the Taliban for being soft on the Hazara Shia community and other religious minorities in Afghanistan.
Since 2015, Daesh has seen several ups and downs in Afghanistan’s hostile threat landscape. However, the group has maintained a resilient presence with tremendous regenerative capacity. Between 2015 and 2017, Daesh grew its territorial footprint in eastern Afghanistan’s Kunar and Nangarhar provinces, absorbing disgruntled factions of the Pakistani and Afghan Taliban and some Central Asian militants. In 2018, Daesh suffered several territorial and military setbacks when the ground offensives of the Afghan Taliban, the Afghan security forces, and US airstrikes forced the group to decentralize its organizational structure in the form of small cells. Subsequently, from 2019 to mid-2020, Daesh went through a struggling period trying to stay relevant.
However, following the appointment of its current leader Dr. Shabab Al-MuHajjir, Daesh Khorasan picked up momentum once again by focusing on urban, low-intensity warfare and expanding its targeting parameters. This shift in its strategy enabled it to recover from 2019’s setbacks. In 2021, it carried out around 200 terrorist attacks in Afghanistan, including 111 in Nangarhar, 38 in Kabul, 12 in Parwan, 11 in Kunduz, ten in Kunar, five in Samangan, three in Baghlan and Kapisa, two in Herat and Laghman and one in Ghazni and Ghor provinces. At the same time, Daesh Khorasan verbally assaulted the Taliban for signing the Doha Agreement with the US.
The withdrawal of US forces and the meltdown of the Afghan security forces has provided Daesh Khorasan with a less hostile and more permissible environment to regroup and reorganize in Afghanistan. At this stage, it is more interested in drawing political mileage from its militant campaign rather than material gains. For the foreseeable future, Daesh Khorasan will continue to focus on this signal or optics warfare against the Taliban to entrench itself in Afghanistan’s landscape further. How the Taliban deal with Daesh, while balancing between international requirements to show political pragmatism and inclusivity and ideological requirements of sticking to religious principles, will be a crucial determinant of their future and that of the latter.
*The author is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. Twitter: @basitresearcher.