Following the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the Taliban—a radical jihadist group that previously held power from 1996 to 2001—quickly took control of the country and rebranded it as an “Islamic Emirate.” Despite widespread condemnation from foreign NGOs, governments, and human rights groups, the Taliban has continued with plans to restrict both public and private life: it has reinstated sharia law, abolished independent elections, and effectively barred women from education, public office, and communal spaces. During the Taliban’s first reign, swaths of northern Afghanistan were controlled by opposition forces; this threat to Taliban power hardly remains as of 2023. Even the United States, which spent twenty years and over US$2 trillion fighting the group, has been forced to cooperate with the Taliban in some areas, including the provision of humanitarian aid.
But while the group has managed to gain power in Afghanistan, holding onto it is another matter. Another terrorist group recently entered the fray: the Islamic State (IS), which achieved infamy from 2014 to 2016 as the de facto rulers of much of Syria and Iraq during the Syrian Civil War. Although IS no longer has a significant base of power in the Middle East, it continues to operate in Central Asia through its “Khorasan Province” remnant (IS-K). Hitherto largely unknown, IS-K made headlines by killing 183 people with a 2021 suicide bombing at Kabul International Airport. If the Taliban hopes to achieve legitimacy in the eyes of Afghanistan’s populace and of the international community, it will have to prevent future attacks and keep IS-K from growing. Whether it will be able to is a matter of how effectively the Taliban transitions from guerrillas to government, and how it can gain international support from its position as a global outcast.
Emirate vs. Caliphate
Even though they both subscribe to radical interpretations of Sunni Islamic doctrine, the Taliban and IS-K have different ideologies and political goals. Initially, both the Taliban and IS fought for global Islamization; the Taliban’s past support for other Islamist groups, including al-Qaeda, is proof of this fact. However, now that the Taliban are operating from a position of power, they have softened their stance on exporting jihad to other countries. Other groups have followed what the leaders of one former IS offshoot have called “the Taliban model,” characterized by moderate (compared to other Islamist views) politics and an inward, state-building focus. Some characterize the Taliban as an explicitly nationalistic and pro-Pashtun movement (Pashtuns are the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan). Others argue that the group has more of a practical, rather than ideological, alliance with local Pashtun tribes. In either case, the Taliban’s goals appear to be more or less domestic, with continued jihad as perhaps a secondary or nominal concern.
It is up for debate whether the Taliban’s shifting priorities are ideological or simply pragmatic. The Taliban’s ideology, Deobandism, emerged in India as a response to British colonialism. Jihadists in Afghanistan co-opted it to resist the 1979 Soviet invasion (and later the 2001 American invasion). In contrast to other radical Islamic ideologies, scholar Barbara Metcalf classifies Deobandism as decidedly apolitical. She argues that Deobandi ideology focuses on strengthening cultural morality, following the logic that a strong, moral culture will be difficult to colonize. Metcalf also states that, for Deobandis, “politics is an empty ‘box,’ filled expediently and pragmatically depending on what seems to work best in any given situation.” Despite its supposed ideological coherence, the Taliban has yet to establish consistent laws. Nor have they undone the bureaucratic framework of the previous Afghan government, despite its longtime enmity with the jihadists. Instead, the new regime enforces its brand of “justice” with flexibility and as the need arises. These methods, though they may be arbitrary, hint that the Taliban are not as ideologically rigid as they claim to be.
IS-K, meanwhile, has emerged as an alternative for Islamist purists and criticizes the Taliban for unrighteousness. The Islamic State is committed to “establishing and expanding a caliphate,” hence the name “Khorasan Province”—IS believes that Afghanistan should be incorporated into an Islamic empire greater than that of the Abbasids or Umayyads. The group is also famous for its dogmatic adherence to Salafism, which argues that true believers should mimic the practices of the Prophet Muhammad above all else. Politically, the group presents itself as absolutely principled and free of earthly decadence, just as they claim the Prophet once was. This is powerful rhetoric for those already radicalized. At the height of Islamic State power, for example, ISIS poached jihadists from other groups and even recruited tens of thousands of foreign nationals. IS-K’s Salafism is activist and aggressive. For Deobandis, jihad is a shield, the bedrock of an anti-imperialist future; for Salafists like those in IS-K, jihad is a weapon with which to conquer and purge. These divisions will continue to cause bloodshed in an unstable Afghanistan.
IS-K has taken advantage of the power vacuum in Afghanistan to launch almost 400 attacks in just 20 months. Taking a page out of the playbook of Taliban-affiliated groups, IS-K has committed attacks across international borders; neighboring Pakistan and Tajikistan have both experienced Islamic State terror. But IS-K is not only directing rockets at other countries: it has begun a concerted propaganda effort to recruit jihadists from India, Pakistan, and the Central Asian Ferghana Valley.
Attacks, rhetorical or otherwise, put pressure on the Taliban to take action. For example, Pakistan, a longtime ally of the militant group, has recently been angered by the Taliban’s ambivalent stance on cross-border terror, resolving to take matters into its own hands with airstrikes. Following the 2022 IS-K attack on the Pakistan embassy in Kabul, Pakistan called for a joint response against jihadists. Similarly, China has a vested interest in containing terrorism, especially after Taliban-linked attacks on Chinese foreign labor and Islamic State propaganda criticizing China’s treatment of Uighur Muslims. The Taliban needs as many friends as it can get—especially because its government is not recognized by any nation. It is therefore in the group’s domestic and international interest to resist the Islamic State.
Head of the Snake
Unlike its predecessor in Iraq and Syria, IS-K does not currently have the ability to conquer and administer territory. The group commands anywhere from 600 to 4000 militants across Central Asia, a far cry from the tens of thousands ISIS once had. This may prove to be both a blessing and a curse for the Taliban. Without a veritable army, IS-K will be unable to challenge the Taliban in a direct military confrontation (the Taliban now has 80,000 soldiers at its disposal). However, unlike ISIS, a small, decentralized IS-K will be harder to dislodge. Islamic State groups in other countries, notably in Africa, have been able to inflict significant damage on local populations without large territorial bases of support. As the United States and France have discovered, counterterrorism campaigns are difficult even for the world’s most advanced militaries.
The Taliban has had some success in its operations against IS-K, having assassinated the group’s intelligence officer and the architect of the 2021 airport bombing. So-called “decapitation strikes,” though, have mixed results: even if they eliminate key operatives, they may not weaken the organization as a whole. The strikes come as part of a broad Taliban initiative to reform its armed forces. Mostly, though, the group wants to shore up its conventional defenses rather than focusing on counterterror capabilities. Taliban spokespeople have continued to argue that IS-K is insignificant, either as a propaganda technique or as a rebuff to foreign governments worried about terrorism.
Power struggles within Taliban leadership will determine whether the group adopts significant anti-terror goals. Its foreign minister, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has a long-standing relationship with al-Qaeda. The Taliban also continues to maintain some ties with local jihadist allies, including the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and Pakistani Taliban (TTP). Although the Taliban recently constrained smaller groups, it has not taken a strong stance against the TTP and al-Qaeda. The continued existence of state-sanctioned terror cells within the country will surely strengthen IS-K, whose propaganda campaigns may find an audience in other Central Asian jihadist groups sidelined by the Taliban. In some sense, the Taliban wants to have it both ways: it wants to allow jihadist groups to operate while also stopping them from committing attacks. Such a contradiction may lead these groups to rise up against the Taliban, multiplying the country’s terror problem.
Quid Pro Quo
Of course, a concerted effort to destroy militant groups would probably also cause them to fight back against the Taliban, leaving the group in a bind. Most analysts agree that the Taliban is running out of financial resources. Its best hope is foreign financial, humanitarian, and military assistance, but these sources are few and far between. Regional actors have discussed trade and infrastructure projects with the Taliban: China, for its part, plans to use development programs as an incentive for the Taliban to curb its terror problem. However, Afghanistan’s neighbors have not strongly committed to any concrete action. Even Russia, which traditionally serves as a regional security guarantor, has neither fully embraced the Taliban nor taken advantage of the power vacuum left by the American withdrawal like it did after France’s exit from West Africa.
Washington, meanwhile, may become a surprising security partner. There is already a precedent for cooperation between the two against IS-K: the American military has provided air support for Taliban soldiers on a few occasions (albeit begrudgingly). American generals have at least discussed giving indirect military aid to the Taliban. Instead of sending weapons and munitions to Afghanistan, the US would likely share limited intelligence to enhance Taliban counterterror operations. American officials have clearly stated that any assistance they provide to Afghanistan is carefully designed to help Afghans, not tighten the Taliban’s grip on power. However, some leakage is expected, which could become a presidential scandal. But from the Taliban’s perspective, being seen accepting help from the US may confirm for Sunni radicals what IS-K has been propagandizing all along—that the Taliban are, in fact, American lapdogs unworthy to rule. Sacrificing its jihadist principles and working with the US may therefore prove to be a double-edged sword for the Taliban: on the one hand, it would have more ability to fight back against terrorism. On the other, it would lose legitimacy in the eyes of hardline Islamists, who may throw their weight behind IS-K or another group. Doing nothing, however, is probably the worse option. Hesitancy on both sides will hamper Afghanistan’s counter-terror goals, allowing the influence of IS-K and its contemporaries to spread.
Many observers have characterized the Taliban’s rule as both a victory and opportunity for terrorists, but few realize the Taliban ought to be as concerned with terror as the US, Pakistan, or China. Continued insurgencies will isolate the Taliban and prevent Afghanistan from accessing international trade, labor, and investment. Without these resources, Taliban state-building will grind to a halt, and millions will become impoverished. There are at least a few jihadist groups currently waiting to take advantage of Taliban weakness—IS-K has sought to use resentment against the Taliban to strengthen an even more radical, Islamist ideology. A stronger Islamic State will further destabilize a vulnerable region that has already seen over four decades of war.
Foreign actors have, at a minimum, demonstrated some interest in assisting the Taliban with its security problem. Whether these ambitions become concrete plans will depend on the Taliban’s long-term commitments: the group could decide on a comprehensive anti-terror push, strengthen its radical ideology, or take a middle road. It is clear that a safe and terror-free society is in Afghans’ best interest. The Taliban, though, may keep getting in its own way—or decide that its interests do not align with the nation it currently controls.