Taliban takes on ISKP, its most serious foe in Afghanistan

Afghan group cracks down on ISKP (ISIS-K) members after a series of deadly attacks, but experts say it won’t be an easy task.

Taliban fighters patrol in Jalalabad [File: EPA]

The Taliban claims security “has been assured” in Afghanistan since it took over, and that the country has been saved from the “quagmire of war”. But a series of attacks carried out by an affiliate of the ISIL (ISIS) group in recent weeks has shattered those claims.

In the six weeks since the Taliban came to power, there have been reports of Islamic State in Khorasan Province, ISKP (ISIS-K), attacks and activity in the cities of Kabul, Jalalabad and Mazar-i-Sharif.

On the evening of August 26, just 11 days after the Taliban takeover, ISKP claimed responsibility for a bombing at Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport that killed more than 180 people and injured hundreds of others.

Several attacks have been reported in the city of Jalalabad, the capital of Nangarhar province, and one of ISKP’s most common targets. The recent attacks, including IED explosions, killed civilians and purported Taliban fighters.

In a Telegram message, ISKP claimed to have killed up to 35 Taliban fighters in Jalalabad – the Taliban has denied that tally.

Each of these instances has been met with harsh words from the Taliban, who continue to pledge to eradicate any forces loyal to ISIL.

Deputy Minister of Information and Culture Zabihullah Mujahid told Al Jazeera the Taliban is actively “hunting down those who are sowing chaos” in the country.

‘This is all your fault’

Taliban blamed the US for failure to prevent the airport attack, saying it “took place in an area where US forces are responsible for security”.

But in the immediate aftermath of the bombings, families of the victims directed their anger at the Taliban, whom they saw as failing to prevent one of the most lethal attacks in 20 years.

“This is all your fault; you all did this. You didn’t secure anything,” a relative of one of the victims could be heard shouting at the Taliban forces at the Italian-run emergency hospital in Kabul.

Relatives of victims who spoke to Al Jazeera also questioned whether the Taliban could take on a group known to have carried out increasingly brazen and audacious attacks. Attacks that show no sign of letting up.

Can the Taliban prevail?

While the Taliban has taken districts from ISKP in the past, eliminating this longtime foe is proving more difficult than the group will let on.

The Taliban launched a crackdown on ISKP members, reportedly detaining at least 80 purported fighters in Nangarhar – an ISKP stronghold.

The group also claimed to have killed Ziya ul-Haq – also known as Abu Omar Khorasani – the former leader of ISKP, in Kabul’s notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison.

Despite the Taliban’s claims that their group is unified, residents in major cities across the country have had run-ins with rogue Taliban fighters [EPA]

It has also been accused of killing Farooq Bengalzai, an ISIL leader from Pakistan who was reportedly killed while travelling in southwestern Afghanistan.

On August 28, the Taliban was accused of arresting Abu Obaidullah Mutawakil, a well-known Salafi scholar, in the capital Kabul. A week later, Mutawakil was found dead.

The Taliban denied any part in Mutawakil’s death, but that did little to ease suspicions. Furthering those doubts is the fact that within weeks of Mutawakil’s killing, the Taliban had also closed more than three dozen Salafist mosques across 16 different provinces.

There are fears the Taliban is borrowing from the playbook of former Afghan governments, who were accused of unlawful detentions, extrajudicial killings and of using labels like “Taliban”, “ISKP” and “al-Qaeda” to go after any unwanted elements without providing evidence.

Wesley Morgan, an author and journalist who has reported extensively on the US war in Afghanistan, says there is a fear that the Taliban “could label various groups as Daesh (ISIL) that aren’t, just like the US and Kabul, before them, did for decades.”

Though much of ISKP’s activity has been in Nangarhar, neighbouring Kunar has proven to be an especially valuable province for ISKP recruitment.

Experts and analysts say the Salafi interpretation of Islam followed by some Kunar residents is much more amenable to the hardline and highly sectarian views espoused by ISKP than the Hanafi school, which most of the country adheres to.


The Taliban, said Morgan, should act decisively against ISKP forces to avoid a very real danger: defections.

The Taliban leadership “don’t want disaffected or rogue fighters defecting in the hopes of seeing action” with ISKP, Morgan told Al Jazeera.

There is a historical precedent for this fear. One of the first leaders of ISKP forces in the southwestern provinces of Helmand and Farah was Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadem, a Taliban defector.

Before he left in 2014, Khadem had served both in the Taliban government of the 1990s and as part of their 20-year rebellion against the US occupation. Likewise, several high-ranking commanders of the Pakistani Taliban pledged allegiance to ISIL in 2015.

Afghanistan’s UN ambassador Ghulam Isaczai, appointed by President Ashraf Ghani, pulled out of delivering an address to world leaders at the General Assembly on Monday [Andrew Kelly/Reuters]

Morgan said taking out the Taliban’s “indisputable enemy” would prove much more enticing to their fighters than trying to sever ties with what meagre al-Qaeda forces still exist in Afghanistan.

“Targeting al-Qaeda could anger parts of their base, but taking out ISIL-K is an easy win,” he said.

Despite the Taliban’s claims that their group is unified, residents in major cities across the country have had direct run-ins with rogue Taliban fighters, whose hostility and aggression belie the “general amnesty” espoused by their leadership.

Acting Minister of Defence Mullah Mohammad Yaqoob specifically addressed these concerns in a recent audio message, saying: “There are some bad and corrupt people who want to join us … To fulfil their own interest or to defame us and make us look bad.”

Yaqoob added that any rogue elements among the ranks would be dealt with.

But for those Taliban members who long for battle, ISIL, the fearsome armed group known among Afghans for brutality and violence, may prove to be an attractive alternative.

International recognition

According to Morgan, if the Taliban is not able to eliminate ISKP, it will not be able to gain the international recognition it needs to be able to run the country.

In the weeks since former President Ashraf Ghani fled and the group took over the country, no foreign government, including longtime allies like Pakistan and Iran, has acknowledged the Taliban as the official government of Afghanistan.

It is not just diplomatic isolation that this results in. Global financial institutions and the US have frozen access to Afghanistan’s reserves, rendering the Taliban incapable of paying for the imports that feed the country.

When the Trump administration signed a peace deal with the Taliban in February 2020, it was with the assurance that the Taliban would sever ties with other armed groups, like al-Qaeda and ISIL affiliates, and would not allow any group to use Afghan soil to target the US or its allies.

Defeating ISKP, said Morgan, “is in the Taliban’s interest,” and it would be a clear indication that the Taliban, too, believes in “counterterrorism”.

Quite simply, “it’s a way to build up international goodwill,” said Morgan.

Source: Al Jazeera