The South Asia Channel
The Taliban’s Enemies, Foreign and Domestic
Any expansion of the Islamic State into Afghanistan is worrying enough to disquiet the Taliban, and it changes the nature of the insurgency. Afghanistan and Pakistan need to respond accordingly.
In his letter to Islamic State founder Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, deputy Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansour cautions al-Baghdadi to stay out of the “holy war” in Afghanistan lest confusion arise in the minds of the “faithful” concerning who owns the jihad there.
Growing signs of the Islamic State’s entry into Afghanistan have become worrying enough to disquiet the Taliban — the main insurgent group in the country — making them watchful for battlefield influence.
Moreover, concern for combat legitimacy with steady increases in the number of insurgents loyal to the Islamic State will make it difficult for the Taliban to concede to any political settlement with the Afghan government. In the letter by Mansour, he seems desperate to explain the Taliban’s loyalty to the jihadi cause and sees no need for the Islamic State to join the Afghan battlefield on the grounds of unity of purpose between the two groups. Giving in to peace negotiations will wrest the Taliban’s monopoly on the Afghan insurgency as it would be seen as a betrayal of the jihadi cause. It will send many Afghan insurgents into the arms of the Islamic State unhappy that the Taliban would move away from their central purpose, establishing a Caliphate — a desire that will become impossible under a prospective deal with the government. The Taliban have followed this ambition since their hold to power in the mid-1990s. Their one eyed leader, Mullah Omar, still carries the religious license of Emir al-Mominin (Arabic for “leader of the faithful”) with his name, indicating that he sees himself no less than al-Baghdadi to lead the imagined Caliphate.
Ironically, it is Mansour who has previously shown willingness to engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. In a secret meeting of the top tier Taliban members in Islamabad earlier this year, Mansour saw opposition from a former Guantanamo Bay detainee and an influential battlefield commander, Abdul Qayum Zakir, over channeling direct talks with Kabul rather than the United States, whom Zakir thinks holds the actual power. Zakir, once believed to have replaced the Pakistan-detained former deputy Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Beradar, has thousands of loyal militants in eastern Afghanistan. With the Islamic State emerging as an alternative, his allegiance might shift should he disagree with any emerging peace deal with the Afghan government. Already, many other frustrated Taliban militants have left the group to form the foot soldiers of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. To avoid a serious override by an increasing Islamic State presence, it is likely that peace advocates among the Taliban leadership will reassess their position or get marginalized, and those proposing continued insurgency will resume a larger role.
Tackling the insurgency through military and peaceful means now becomes an urgent matter, before the continued rise in fighters loyal to the Islamic State turns the militancy in Afghanistan into a stalemate between three fronts. Any Islamic State presence (and the inevitable fighting) would cancel out any peaceful resolution of the security situation between the government and the Taliban.
Pakistan’s role is, as always, critical in bringing any peace measure in Afghanistan into effect.
However, there is a time limit on how influential Pakistan can be. If the Islamic State presence in Afghanistan becomes big enough to pose a formidable threat, not even the Pakistani military and its intelligence wing, the Inter Service Intelligence (ISI), with its long influence over militants in Afghanistan, can do much to contain the situation. Militants loyal to the group have often shown a penchant for independence; it would be naïve for any agency or government to think they could be controlled and used as proxies. In addition, in an effort to establish their own Caliphate, Islamic State militants will surely turn their attention toward the nuclear Pakistan the moment they have gained a foothold in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, accusing Pakistan of duplicity — using militants as proxies while being involved in peace negotiations — remains common among Afghans hampering trust-building measures between Afghanistan and Pakistan, which are vital for achieving any success against extremism. Seeing Pakistan hammer down on its own Taliban splinter group, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, in North Waziristan during the Zarb-e Azb military campaign yet largely avoiding harm to the Haqqani network and the Afghan Taliban leadership hiding there, suspicion regarding Pakistan’s intentions has increased among Afghans. As a further sign of continued mistrust, the Taliban’s attack last week on the Afghan Parliament was linked to ISI by Haseeb Sediqi, the spokesman for the Afghan bureau of intelligence, the National Directorate of Security. According to Sediqi, an ISI agent, Bilal, provided financial and logistical support for the attack.
Recently in June, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani sent a letter to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, demanding the Pakistani government condemn the Taliban summer offensive and including a list of directives for the Pakistani military to remove threats to Afghanistan from Pakistani territory. One of the tangible steps mentioned is to put the Taliban leadership in Pakistan under house arrest.
Taliban insurgent attacks have meanwhile increased and for the first time, northern Afghanistan has become the central battlefield. The Taliban have successfully seized districts in erstwhile peaceful provinces like Badakhshan and Kunduz despite efforts to counter their advances. So far, thousands of families have fled their homes in the north. In the south, the insurgency has abandoned its sporadic IED attacks for a more direct confrontation with the Afghan army, taking the fight to the battlefield. According to a New York Times report, the Taliban were successful in taking over the important Musa Qala district in Helmand province, at least temporarily before they were pushed back.
Ghani’s latest demands from his Pakistani counterpart might seem rash even according to his usually vitriolic and abrupt comportment, but it also indicates the general lack of patience among Afghans to see larger and more decisive measures by Pakistan. It should also be clear by now that the tacit rivalry between Afghanistan and Pakistan will likely result in larger gains for extremist groups who are the only beneficiary of lack of unity, or much worse, the outcome of proxy warmongering between the two neighbors.
Although militias loyal to the Islamic State are not significant enough to surpass the Taliban any time soon, the mere addition of the group changes the nature of the insurgency considerably, to which Afghanistan and Pakistan should respond adequately.
WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images