On March 9, 2023, an incident occurred in Mazar-i-Sharif where a suicide bomber detonated himself within the second-floor office of Mohammad Dawood Muzammil, who serves as the Taliban governor of Balkh province in Afghanistan.
The Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has accepted responsibility for the assassination of a senior member of the Taliban administration.
In late 2022, Muzammil was transferred from his position as governor of Nangarhar to Balkh after having spearheaded a campaign against ISKP. Previously, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) had caused the demise of Abdul Haq Abu Omar, who held the position of police commander for Badakhshan province within the Taliban and a Taliban judge located in Jalalabad. The recent homicides have escalated the conflict between the Taliban and ISKP to a new level, with a significant advantage in favor of the latter.
Following the Taliban’s assumption of power in August 2021, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) has emerged as a potent terrorist organization in Afghanistan. The ISKP, a Sunni organization akin to the Taliban, has repeatedly been launching assaults that directly threaten the Taliban’s power. Between August 2021 and September 2022, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) executed almost 16 attacks against the minority Shia Hazara community in various locations, including places of worship, schools, and workplaces. These attacks resulted in the deaths of over 700 individuals. Additionally, an attack on a Sikh Gurdwara further undermined the Taliban’s commitment to ensuring the safety of all ethnic groups within the country. The events that occurred in September 2022 targeting the embassy of Russia, and in December 2022, targeting the embassy of Pakistan and a hotel accommodating Chinese diplomats and executives, appear to undermine the security measures implemented by the Taliban to safeguard the limited number of countries that maintain their embassies in Kabul.
The elimination of Taliban soldiers and officials, as well as the perpetuation of assaults in close proximity to Taliban offices, represent a direct challenge to the Islamic Emirate. This conveys the notion that, ultimately, ISKP may become an existential challenge to the Taliban.
From August 2021 onwards, the Taliban has exhibited a range of responses to the presence of ISKP on Afghan soil, including denying its existence and portraying the group as feeble and insignificant. The Taliban administration has declined any foreign help addressing the ISKP issue, emphasizing its self-sufficiency in handling the matter. Consistently, after an ISKP assault, the Taliban conducts a raid on an ISKP safe haven located in Kabul or other areas, eliminating the purported culprits responsible for the attacks. The elimination of Qari Fateh, purportedly the intelligence head of ISKP, during a Taliban operation in Kabul in February 2023 was deemed a triumph in addressing the assaults on the diplomatic establishments of Russia, Pakistan, and China. In the initial month of 2023, eight members of the ISKP were reported to have been eliminated in the provinces of Kabul and Nimroz. According to a representative of the Taliban, the individuals killed were allegedly involved in the perpetration of attacks on a hotel in Kabul, the Embassy of Pakistan, and the airport in Kabul.
However, despite the Taliban’s public assertions that they are in charge, the group is uneasy about ISKP’s inevitable rise to power. International evaluations indicate that in the roughly 18 months from August 2021, ISKP’s strength has increased from 3,000 to 6,000, nearly doubling. The group’s presence in each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces was certified by the UN representative to Afghanistan in November 2021. Evidently, the organization’s potential has not been much diminished by the numerous raids by Taliban soldiers that reportedly result in the deaths of ISKP members. At least once in early March, ISKP asserted that the Taliban raids that were widely reported upon were phony, just as the execution of the Taliban’s captive members of the group.
The failure of the Taliban to stop the violence of the ISKP can be broadly characterized as the failure of a former insurgent force to become a successful counterinsurgent force. On another level, the capacity issue might also be brought on by the connections a significant Taliban faction has with the ISKP. Former Afghan intelligence officers believe the Haqqani Network’s historical ties to the ISKP have persisted. The Interior Ministry is under the supervision of Sirajuddin Haqqani, and the Haqqanis are a strong political force in the Islamic Emirate. The connection may have forced the Islamic Emirate to carry out showy raids and make dubious claims about weakening the ISKP.
Furthermore, the power struggle between the Haqqani Network and the Taliban’s top leadership based in Kandahar may potentially be facilitating the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISK-P) in executing significant attacks, such as the assassination of Balkh governor Muzammil. Muzammil was affiliated with the Noorzai tribe, which bears a resemblance to the current Taliban leader Hibatullah Akhundzada, and exhibited unwavering loyalty. Towards the end of 2022, Akhundzada terminated the services of Qudratullah Abu Hamza, the governor of Balkh and a member of the Haqqani Network, and designated Muzammil as his successor. In 2021, Hamza, a Tajik individual, reportedly spearheaded Taliban military efforts to seize Mazar-i-Sharif. As per the statement made by the representative of the National Resistance Front, the replacement of Hamza may have incited discord within the Taliban, leading the Haqqanis to enable the ISKP assault on Muzammil potentially. This observation could elucidate the circumstance in which the suicide bomber successfully penetrated several layers of security to access the governor.
Despite the veracity of these narratives, the gradual consolidation and expansion of ISKP in the upcoming months is a significant possibility.
The ability of the Taliban to weaken ISKP has not been demonstrated, and they are not inclined to accept any external cooperation to enhance their capacity.
The statement above affirms the apprehensions articulated by neighboring nations that Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, may devolve into a secure refuge and springboard for terrorist activities.
The ultimate goal of ISKP extends beyond the geographical boundaries of Afghanistan. In the absence of a regional consensus-based approach, the region’s future may be characterized by instability and heightened levels of violence. So, to handle this situation efficiently, the Taliban Government should bring regional players to the table and ask for their help to maintain peace and stability in their territory.
The writer works as a researcher with the Arms Control and Disarmament Center at the Institute of Strategic Studies Islamabad and writes regularly for several national and international news outlets. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org