ISIL won’t get very far in Afghanistan – for now

Ideological and religious differences will continue to limit ISIL’s ability to recruit from Afghan Taliban.

An Afghan security force member stands at a checkpoint, set alight by ISIL fighters during overnight clashes between Afghan forces and ISIL groups, in eastern Nangarhar province [Getty]
An Afghan soldier stands at a checkpoint, set alight by ISIL fighters during overnight clashes with Afghan forces in Nangarhar [Getty]

On March 25, 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani told the United States Congress that Afghanistan was the “front line” against the “terrible threat” of the self-proclaimed caliphate, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

In February, the Pentagon spokesman had called ISIL’s presence in Afghanistan “nascent at best”, but by October, the US commander in Afghanistan, General John Campbell, said that the group had transitioned from “nascent” to “operationally emergent”. It had a presence, he said, in two regions of Afghanistan: Helmand and Farah provinces in the southwest and Nangarhar in the east, along the border with Pakistan.

ISIL and the Taliban

Both leaders warned of ISIL’s threat as they tried to persuade US President Barack Obama to rescind his decision to withdraw, with the exception of a training mission, all US troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Hence, they had incentives to magnify the threat, however sincere their evaluation.

How dangerous is the threat? We can analyse ISIL’s ideology, ability to recruit, financial base, organisational capacity, and operational environment.

At a track two meeting between the Taliban and other Afghans held in Doha in May 2015, all participants agreed that “the so-called Islamic State [ISIL] is alien to the tradition and the desires of the Afghan people”.

Some have speculated, however, that a portion of the Taliban might join ISIL out of unhappiness with the current leadership or to gain access to resources.

Antagonistic ideologies

The Afghan Taliban (or the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) and ISIL are often lumped together as jihadi organisations, but their ideologies are distinct, even antagonistic.

ISIL preaches a version of jihad that’s a militant form of contemporary Islamist political ideology that seeks to re-establish the caliphate, a state with jurisdiction over all Muslims, and enforce a harsh version of Islamic law based on a literal interpretation of the Quran and sayings and practises of the Prophet.

Also read: Kunduz did not happen overnight

The Taliban, however, belong to the Deobandi school of Hanafi Islam. They accept Afghanistan as a nation-state and indeed express pride in its history. They have repeatedly said that their jihad is limited to their own country.

Ideological and religious differences have limited the ability of ISIL to recruit, even from aggrieved Afghan Taliban.


The Taliban’s leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi of ISIL, uses the title “Amir al-Mu’minin” (commander of the believers). For ISIL, this title signifies authority over all (Sunni) Muslims (they consider Shia to be non-Muslim).

For Mansoor, and Mullah Omar before him, the title signifies leadership of a jihad. Afghan Amir Dost Mohammad Khan took the same title in 1836 when he recaptured Peshawar from the Sikhs. The King of Morocco and the Sultan of Sokoto in Nigeria also use the title without making any claim to pan-Islamic authority.

One group now in Afghanistan has recently renounced its affiliation to the Afghan Taliban and given allegiance to Baghdadi and ISIL: the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), which Pakistan’s military has pushed out of the tribal areas and into Afghanistan.

The IMU has questioned the Taliban’s account of Mullah Omar’s death and shifted allegiance to ISIL. There is no sign yet that ISIL recognises the IMU’s adherence. According to some reports, the IMU fought alongside the Taliban in the September 2015 capture of Kunduz, despite ISIL-Taliban antagonism.

Sectarian differences

Ideological and religious differences have limited the ability of ISIL to recruit, even from aggrieved Afghan Taliban. Since the July 29 revelation that Mullah Omar had died in April 2013, a dispute over succession has provoked significant opposition, including from Omar’s family. No Taliban leader who questioned the choice of Mansoor as a successor has been reported to consider Baghdadi as an alternative amir.

The new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, left, and former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar [AP]
The new leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, left, and former leader Mullah Mohammad Omar [AP]

Despite differences, they have followed the advice of an open letter that Mansoor wrote to Baghdadi in June and have not created a parallel organisation. The letter accused Baghdadi of inciting divisions among Muslims and weakening jihad by trying to extend his authority to Afghanistan.

The best-known exception to the rule that Afghan Taliban do not join ISIL, Abdul Rauf Khadim, proves that sectarian differences can be decisive. Khadim, whom ISIL had appointed deputy amir of Khurasan province and was killed by a drone in July 2015, had been expelled from the Afghan Taliban. While detained in Guantanamo, Khadim accepted the jihadist preaching of his Arab cellmates.

The cell of ISIL formerly led by Khadim is reportedly still in southwest Afghanistan, but it does not control territory.

Nearly all surviving leaders of ISIL in Afghanistan are former members of the Pakistan Taliban.

A fragmented coalition

Former Pakistan Taliban members dominate ISIL’s sole territorial foothold in Afghanistan, which consists of about seven districts in eastern Nangarhar province, adjacent to the Pakistan border.

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The ISIL leadership recognises the leaders of this area as officials of the caliphate. Hafiz Saeed, a former Pakistan Taliban member from Orakzai agency, whom ISIL central in Raqqa, Syria has appointed as amir of Khurasan province, is the top ISIL authority there. Saeed is aided by a few Arabic-speaking emissaries sent by ISIL central, who have also brought cash. Local Afghans report that the ISIL has more money than the Taliban (there is no government presence in the area).

Local Afghans report that the ISIL has more money than the Taliban.


There was some speculation that ISIL established itself in this area to fund itself through control over the opiate trade, but instead it has decreed its signature punishment of beheading for participation in the narcotics industry.

Special brutality

ISIL has brought its special brutality to eastern Afghanistan. In one case, Saeed massacred 10 elders from Achin accused of supporting the Taliban by detonating explosives on which he had forced them to sit.

This incident was so egregious that his deputy, Mawlawi Abdul Rahim Muslim Dost, a former Guantanamo inmate, broke with him. The two also differed on strategy: Muslim Dost, an Afghan and former Talib, wanted to fight the Pakistan army, while Saeed, a former member of the Pakistan Taliban, argued for military offensives to capture Nangarhar and Logar provinces of Afghanistan.

At present, there is little space for ISIL to expand in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan remains in a state of civil conflict, almost all of its territory is controlled by either the government or the Taliban, both hostile to ISIL. ISIL cannot appear as in parts of Iraq, Syria, or Libya as the only force able to restore order.


Nor is there a political grievance looking for a champion; ISIL gained ground in Syria and Iraq as an organisation that could empower the politically marginalised Sunnis of those countries. The Taliban occupy the armed opposition space, and they also enjoy sanctuary and support in Pakistan.

It is, therefore, difficult to see an opportunity for ISIL to grow as quickly as it did in Syria and Iraq however the current stalemate evolves.

But if the crises dissolve the Kabul government or the Taliban leadership, if Kabul loses the foreign assistance it needs to fund and defend the state, or if the Taliban lose their sanctuary in Pakistan and are forced back into Afghanistan without any political agreement, ISIL might find that its managed savagery will give it an advantage.

In that case, the Afghan government and its international supporters will mainly have themselves to blame.

Barnett Rubin is a leading expert on Afghanistan and South Asia.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.