A growing appeal of Islamic State (ISIS) is pushing the Afghan peace process toward a delicate balance. Too much eagerness for peace among the Taliban leadership might prove damaging to the group, to the extent that it might overshadow the peace objective itself by raising ISIS’ appeal among Taliban hardliners who might be willing to continue the fight under its banner.
Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) announced its presence in Afghanistan in 2015 when ISIS’ Raqqa-based caliphate came under increasing military pressure from foreign powers after a string of ISIS-sponsored terrorist attacks in Paris in November 2015. Making inroads into Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia and Mali could offer the group a survival option, which now seems prescient. It also meant bringing more of the Muslim population under its caliphate and the group could not tolerate a plurality of jihadi groups challenging its strategy. The Taliban represented such a parochial hindrance.
The leader of the Taliban back then, Mullah Akhtar Mansour – killed in a US drone attack in May 2016 – even wrote a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi pleading with him to leave jihad in Afghanistan to the Taliban, citing unity of purpose as a reason: both were waging jihad with the aim of resurrecting an Islamic confederation of some type. The ISIS leader paid no heed and the group’s presence in Afghanistan increased, leading to legitimate reasons to doubt whether a peace deal with the Taliban can, in fact, end the Afghan war.
It is worth reminding that a peace deal perceived as agreeing with the post-2002 achievements in Afghanistan, wholesale or in part, might put the Taliban leadership’s jihadist credentials under serious scrutiny among the group’s low-ranking commanders and foot soldiers. Having grown up during the anti-US war, being in the battlefield to these soldiers constitutes life’s only normalcy. A peace deal is of secondary importance based on an impervious worldview that justifies the fight for them and which is laden with religious dogma. They’re likely to join ISKP, which might emerge as a successor of the original Islamic State that’s now all but wiped out in Syria and Iraq, or form splinter groups to continue the fight under a different name.
ISKP’s non-Afghan origins might further enhance the group’s appeal among a diverse population of Afghans compared with the Taliban and make it insusceptible to Afghanistan’s inter-ethnic differences
ISKP’s non-Afghan origins might further enhance the group’s appeal among a diverse population of Afghans compared with the Taliban and make it insusceptible to Afghanistan’s inter-ethnic differences. It’s known for its core Arab base that was successful in waging a widely publicized campaign that even led to a tentative caliphate, attributes that could raise its appeal in largely conservative Afghanistan, where anything Arab is closely associated with Islam. On the other hand, the Taliban movement since its inception has had strong ties with southern Afghanistan, with roots in Pashtun tribal culture, and has found it difficult to appeal to Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.
ISKP is not encumbered by any of this and can also co-opt hardline Pashtun Taliban who disagree with the peace process. As I argued in an article in 2015, an influential Taliban leader and once the group’s main military commander, Abdul Qayoum Zakir, may have already done so as claimed by Afghan National Security Adviser Hamdullah Mohib.
Conversely, the Afghan government can use ISKP’s origins to damage the group’s reputation as a foreign element. So far it hasn’t been able to do so and the presence of the group in Afghanistan might be a result of the government’s own wrong decisions in the past.
The core of the initial ISKP group belonged to Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan – the Pakistani branch of the Taliban movement but largely independent of its Afghan counterpart – who had fled from a Pakistan Army operation in the Pakistani tribal regions in 2010. Long before declaring their allegiance to ISIS, this renegade group had settled in eastern Ningarhar province as “guests” and allegedly received support from the Afghan National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan’s main intelligence agency, in a tit-for-tat with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence, which is seen as longtime sponsor of the Taliban by the Afghan government.
A breakaway Taliban group also emerged back in 2015 after a Taliban leadership dispute after its founder Mullah Omar was declared dead. Those who were in favor of the then Taliban No 2 Mullah Akhtar Mansour to take over leadership remained with the original group and are the main party to the peace process. Those who were against his succession formed a different group under Mullah Muhammad Rasoul. Though less bellicose than the original Taliban group, the smaller Taliban group still exists and has continued fighting its larger counterpart and the government forces. So far, the peace talks have eschewed dealing with this group.
Amid all this, talks with the Afghan government risk being perceived as assimilation into the post-2002 political institutions by Taliban militants on the ground. Acquiescence by the Taliban leadership of the 2004 constitution would undoubtedly transform them into another former militant-group-turned-political contender, the likes of which are numerous in Afghan politics and are not often seen in positive light. It will end the group’s armed leverage but will also significantly weaken its political clout in a society that, in relative terms, has progressed vastly beyond the Taliban’s antiquated mentality to successfully navigate.
In one instance, photos of Taliban delegates attending a peace conference in Moscow next to female Russian journalists led to widespread ridicule among Afghans on social media, pointing out the inconsistency of penalizing women in Afghanistan while agreeing to meet them abroad in clothes far from what the Taliban would countenance domestically. Many more incidents of such political and cultural ineptitude is inevitable if they return to politics under the current institutions.
It is now fairly clear that the current status quo can continue without a peace deal. High rates of unemployment coupled with the country’s slowing economy will provide the Afghan security forces enough recruits from a rural youth population that’s left with few other options to earn a living. Meanwhile, a US withdrawal of its funding for these forces is unforeseeable because that would end its only remaining tangible partnership with Afghanistan, canceling out much of its leverage in Afghan affairs.
In short, the supply of fighters and funds will not cease any time soon for the Afghan security forces who have prevented the Taliban from gaining a decisive military victory ever since most of the international forces left Afghanistan in late 2014.
The Taliban leadership, aware of these realities, might be hoping for a confident footing in the battlefield to push for substantial changes in the country’s post-2002 institutions to legitimize a face-saving comeback, including amendments to the 2004 constitution. Whether the Afghan society can bear the costs of such a change depends on whether it would entail symbolic or substantive implications. Peace talks would be mute if, on the other hand, the group insists on re-establishing its “Islamic Emirate” as it did in the 1990s.