How IS-K's resurgence threatens the Taliban's grip on power

A Taliban fighter stands guard as the sun sets in Kabul on September 12, 2021.
7 min read
15 November, 2021
Analysis: The Taliban promised stability after US forces left Afghanistan, but a deadly insurgency by the Islamic State-Khorasan presents a serious challenge to their rule.

A series of recent attacks in Jalalabad and the killing of senior Taliban commander Hamdullah Mokhlis at a Kabul military hospital in early November indicate that the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) is becoming increasingly active - presenting a serious challenge to the Taliban’s rule in Afghanistan.

Soon after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban declared that “war is over in Afghanistan”, and there will be no more violence.

But with US troops gone and the Afghan National Army collapsed, the new rulers in Kabul are now faced with a violent enemy – the Islamic State-Khorasan - that uses the same propaganda which the Taliban successfully employed against the US-backed Afghan government.

"While the Taliban has begun its second stint in power, it arguably faces an insurgency even more violent than the one it waged itself"

Last week, IS-K’s Al-Azaim foundation released a video that accused the Taliban of being an “ally of the US” due to the fact it signed a deal with the US not to attack foreign forces so they could withdraw. It further added that the movement is a “proxy” of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

Although the US ended its longest war in Afghanistan and the Taliban declared it a “free” country, the struggles of ordinary Afghans, and the new rulers, continue unabated.

A week after the fall of Kabul, Ajmal (not his real name) was travelling to Jalalabad. After driving for almost three hours, he was asked for identification by a Taliban fighter at a checkpoint in Darunta before entering Jalalabad city.

After checking his identification, Taliban fighters ordered him to dismount from the car as they became suspicious that he was an IS-K member. “On my Tazkira (identity card), the Taliban read that I am from Kunar province, so they interrogated me for hours to ascertain if I belong to the IS-K group,” Ajmal told The New Arab.

The eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar have once again become a major stronghold for the IS-K resurgence after it was repeatedly declared defeated by the previous government.

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In a symbolic gesture in 2017, former president Ashraf Ghani was presented with a horse that belonged to the IS-K leader Hafiz Saeed, who was killed in a US airstrike in the previous year.

Yet, IS-K has managed to outlive both the Afghan government and the withdrawal of US forces.

“The Taliban are doing exactly what the previous government did - harassing and interrogating people unnecessarily,” Ajmal added.

Nangarhar has been a stronghold of IS-K since its emergence in 2015 when the insurgent group announced their jihad: an expansion of the caliphate in Khorasan after the Islamic State emerged in Iraq and Syria.  

IS-K employed brutal techniques to cultivate fear among the population and used kidnapping and extortion to finance their movement initially. Some who failed to pay the ransom were blown up by bombs placed underneath them, while others were executed.

Naqib, originally from Bati Kot in Nangarhar but now living in Kabul, recalls how arduous it was to find the $20,000 ransom fee to set his father free. “I had to borrow the money from so many relatives to be able to pay on time to save my father,” he told TNA, a debt which he still owes to many people.

Taliban fighters stand guard along a road in Herat on 19 August 2021, amid the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. [Getty]
Soon after the fall of Kabul, the Taliban declared that 'war is over in Afghanistan'. [Getty]

In 2017, former US president Donald Trump used the "mother of all bombs", or MOAB, in a major airstrike launched against the group to destroy the network of tunnels and other hideouts used by insurgents in the Achin district.

“The US military, the former Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban” have all targeted IS-K hideouts, Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), recently noted. “Yet that pressure failed to moderate IS-K’s political goals and civilian targeting”. 

Since the Taliban returned to power, IS-K has carried out at least four major attacks and a dozen other small scale targeted assassinations. The first attack targeted US marines while they were evacuating military forces and civilians from Kabul airport, killing over 90 people. Other attacks have targeted Shia Muslims in Kunduz and Kandahar, including a mosque bombing on Friday that killed three and injured dozens.

Despite the recent surge in violence, the Taliban has portrayed the IS-K group as trivial, even to the point of denying IS-K was responsible for certain attacks. “IS-K did not plan the attack on the Shiite mosque in Kandahar,” the governor of Kandahar Yousuf Wafa told the media. “I investigated the issue a lot and learned that it was not an ISIS plot but a case of personal enmity.”

"IS-K is a great threat to Afghan society right now, they pose a serious challenge to the Taliban"

Despite downplaying the strengths of IS-K, since seizing power the Taliban has carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and extra-judicial killings against suspected members of the group, including against refugees from Balochistan.

“We conduct night raids, and whenever we find a Daesh member, we just kill them,” one Taliban member told the international media. “Eventually, they will be defeated.”

This is precisely what worries most Afghans. The Taliban have already targeted people in mosques with long beards and anyone who performs Rafa-ul-Yadain, raising their hands during Salah, deemed characteristic of Salafi Muslims in Afghanistan.

The Taliban also recently announced the arrest of eight Baloch refugees in Nimroz accused of being members of IS-K.

“Baloch refugees in Afghanistan are there due to an ongoing genocide by the state of Pakistan,” Naela Quadri Baloch, the President of the Baloch People’s Congress party, told The New Arab.

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“Baloch refugees have nothing to do with any kind of religious ideologies or groups, including IS,” she added, calling for the release of the refugees.

Alam Khan (not his real name) is a Salafist from the eastern province of Nangarhar. After being harassed by the Taliban he moved to Kabul, where he hopes he will be less of a target for scrutiny.

“The situation for us is far worse than the media can manage to depict. You will find bodies mutilated and hanged now and then in different parts of the province.”

While the Taliban has begun its second stint in power, it arguably faces an insurgency even more violent than the one it waged itself.

Since the spate of recent attacks, the Taliban has banned rickshaws from carrying armed men in Jalalabad city. But tackling the IS-K insurgency will be a huge challenge, as the group operates in cells across the country.

Observers believe that IS-K attacks are damaging the credibility of the Taliban, which for the past two decades has claimed that it is the only group that can bring peace and stability to the country; a claim dispelled within the first three months of the group’s rule.

"With the Taliban potentially having to soften its rule for the sake of international legitimacy, a move that could alienate hardliners, IS-K could well promote itself as the only movement in the country dedicated to an 'Islamic caliphate'"

“ISKP is a great threat to Afghan society right now, they pose a serious challenge to the Taliban. Of course, they do not possess the capabilities to overthrow the Taliban government, but they can strike both hard targets (Taliban forces) and soft targets (civilians),” Riccardo Valle, an independent researcher on violent Islamism and militant groups in Afghanistan and Pakistan, told The New Arab.

Minority groups such as Shia and Salafi Muslims are already under pressure in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, and it will be a gargantuan task to keep violence under control as these groups eventually mobilise to protect themselves.

Furthermore, IS-K propaganda to deny the Taliban legitimacy could further attract hardline defectors to the group.

“They call the Taliban the ‘ISI in disguise’, and since they see Pakistan as a close ally of the US, they see the Taliban as a US proxy to control Afghanistan,” Valle said. “Basically, they [IS-K] say the US realised Ghani was no longer useful, so they replaced him with Baradar with the help of the ISI.”

With the Taliban potentially having to soften its rule for the sake of international legitimacy and to unfreeze Afghanistan’s financial assets, a move that could alienate hardliners, IS-K could well promote itself as the only movement in the country dedicated to an ‘Islamic caliphate’.

Sayed Jalal Shajjan is a freelance journalist based in Kabul. He covers post-conflict development and counter-terrorism operations.

Follow him on Twitter: @S_Jalal_Shajjan