Is the Taliban truly intent on vanquishing ISIS-K, or are its claims of tackling the terror group more form than substance to win international recognition and restore foreign aid flows?
Recent reports indicate the Taliban has deployed about 1,300 of fighters to the eastern Afghan province of Nangahar, where ISIS-K is known to maintain an operational hub and is historically most active.
Unlike other militant outfits in Afghanistan, ISIS-K has long been at ideological and motivational loggerheads with the Taliban, not least in its transnational agenda.
The Taliban’s military mobilization represents a certain reversal on its earlier claims that ISIS-K was only a “small group” that did not require serious military action to subdue.
ISIS-K’s potent threat was on display for the world to see in late August when it launched a suicide bomb attack that killed at least 13 US servicemen and scores of Afghans at Kabul international airport.
Since, ISIS-K has ramped up its activities and operations in Afghanistan, including in the capital Kabul and the heartland province of Kandahar.
Recent reports indicate its ranks are growing with fresh recruits, both from within the Taliban rank and file who are disgruntled by the leadership’s perceived acquiescence to foreign demands to curb militant groups, as well as former members of the US-trained Afghan security forces, including its elite military units.
Taliban leaders recently confirmed to the Wall Street Journal that ISIS-K’s strength and numbers are growing and that the group poses a certain threat to Kabul.
During the Taliban’s war with the US and NATO, ISIS-K’s activities were largely confined to northern provincial areas, where it was believed to have around 2,000-3,000 fighters.
According to Kabul-based analysts, ISIS-K’s rising attacks on Shiite Muslim mosques as well as Taliban convoys are denting the Taliban’s credibility, including its vow to provide “peace and security” after the US war.
Taliban commanders have recently said they suspect that foreign intelligence agencies, with the help of certain anti-Taliban Afghan warlords, are providing tacit and clandestine support to ISIS-K to destabilize the Taliban’s newly formed “Islamic Emirate.”
While those claims are still unconfirmed, it is clear ISIS-K is expanding rapidly its geographical reach.
The United Nations Secretary General’s Special Representative to Afghanistan, Deborah Lyons, said in a November 17 briefing that while ISIS-K was “once limited to a few provinces and Kabul” it “now seems to be present in nearly all provinces and increasingly active.”
While the lack of international recognition and the related cessation of foreign aid and assistance have pushed the nation to the brink of financial and economic collapse, ISIS-K’s simultaneous rise is compounding the existential threat to the Taliban’s new regime.
To be sure, the Taliban has an incentive to tackle ISIS-K. For one, a concerted campaign could help to rehabilitate the group’s long-time reputation for aiding and abetting transnational jihadi groups including al Qaeda – a Western precondition for restoring blocked aid and frozen assets.
It could also help the Taliban to win the international recognition so far withheld from its Islamic regime, including by China and Russia, since taking power in a lightning campaign that sent the US and NATO troops packing from the country.
A Taliban commander went as far as to claim the “war” on ISIS-K is being waged both for Afghans and the “entire world.”
Yet it’s not clear the Taliban can launch a serious campaign, as opposed to a public relations exercise, without creating internal schisms that could bring down its government and ignite a wider and more complicated civil war.
Even if there were an internal consensus among the Taliban’s fractious factions, defeating ISIS-K and its shadowy insurgents will not be easy.
Because ISIS-K is comprised largely of local Afghans and Pakistani Taliban groups, the group’s members are able to blend in undetected with the local population – just as the Taliban did in their war against the US and NATO.
At the same time, analysts suggest the Taliban does not have the operational capacity to track and trace the growing number of ISIS-K fighters.
Taliban tactics reportedly used so far have been controversial and analysts say threaten to lure more hard-core recruits to ISIS-K.
The UN’s Lyons said: “this campaign is worrying in that it appears to rely heavily on extra-judicial detentions and killings of suspected [ISIS-K] members. This is an area deserving more attention from the international community.”
Yet certain international actors are apparently intimately involved. Taliban leaders recently confirmed to The Washington Post that Pakistan is helping them to monitor phone and internet communications to identify ISIS-K members and their operational hubs across Afghanistan.
According to a Pakistani diplomatic source who spoke to Asia Times on the condition of anonymity, “Pakistan sees this war on the ISIS-K as an extremely vital venture not only because the ISIS-K is a threat to Pakistan itself, but also because fighting this war can help stabilize Afghanistan, which is in itself a plus for the Pakistan state.
“Secondly, eliminating the ISIS-K remains the key to end many of the problems the Taliban is facing.”
Other international actors, however, see the situation differently. Because the war on ISIS-K is being waged in ways largely hidden from Western view, there are doubts that the Taliban’s tough rhetoric is being backed with tough action.
US military officials are on record as saying that because the Taliban regime has refused America’s offers of anti-terrorism cooperation, it is impossible to verify Taliban claims that it is eliminating and capturing ISIS-K fighters.
That’s because doing so would likely deepen factional fissures inside the group, including between the Taliban’s international-facing leaders and the powerful Haqqani clan.
The Haqqanis control the country’s powerful interior ministry and are known to oppose an assault on ISIS-K as well as other militant and terrorist groups it previously fought alongside to defeat US and NATO troops.
Interior Minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, designated a terrorist by the US, is known to maintain close ties with al Qaeda and is wanted in connection with a January 2008 attack on a Kabul hotel that killed six including a US citizen.
Some analysts now suggest that the Haqqanis could potentially ally with ISIS-K in a new civil war scenario pitting Taliban factions. That, they say, is why the Taliban leadership is putting priority on unity rather than tackling terror outfits.
For the US, as well as Russia and China, the Taliban’s operations against ISIS-K are so far still insufficient to show it is moving seriously to eliminate the transnational jihadi groups in Afghanistan that threaten their interests and security.
For China, the Taliban’s unclear break with the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), a designated terror group bent on stirring unrest in China’s Xinjiang region, is a particular cause for concern and likely the reason why Beijing has still not officially recognized its government.
Russia has so far kept the Taliban on its list of designated terror groups.
As long as the Taliban prioritizes internal politics over diplomatic demands, as it appears to be doing, its war on ISIS-K is unlikely to pay the diplomatic and financial dividends its spin doctors are aiming to achieve in the name of anti-terrorism.