After the takeover of Kabul in August 2021, the Afghan Taliban started a mass exodus of prisoners, and all jails were opened for this purpose. However, they were searching fiercely for Abu Omar Khorasani, the chief of Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP), whom the former Afghan government detained in April 2020. They found him in a Kabul prison and killed him immediately. But the Afghan Taliban overlooked the release of around two thousand militants of the ISKP at this jubilant moment. Now, these militants are making trouble for them, and ISKP is an unsurmountable challenge on the levels of operation and ideology in Afghanistan. Some analysts believe that, despite the pressure from Pakistan, the Afghan Taliban’s inaction against Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) is due to fears of defections to the ISKP. Interestingly, TTP is exploiting these apprehensions, and an unauthenticated article by Ehsanullah Ehsan alleging ties between Pakistani agencies and ISKP has appeared in Indian disinformation resources. The ex-spokesman of TTP, Ehsanullah, lacks credibility as he has previously made claims regarding a nexus of RAW and TTP. Hopefully, the Afghan Taliban will realize that TTP and ISKP are interlinked threats in the region.
The chief of TTP, Noor Wali Mehsud, is an articulate propagandist; the article by Ehsanullah could be his campaign to mislead the Afghan Taliban on the issue of ISKP. However, reportedly, Pakistan had some role in the recent killing of ISKP chief Sanaullah Ghafari, aka Shahab Al-Muhajir, in Afghanistan. The Afghan Taliban lacks the capability for precision operations against ISIS, and they conduct large-scale counterproductive killing sprees as collateral damage turns the local population against them.
Therefore, journalists believe that the Afghan Taliban were given the precise location of Al-Muhajir by a foreign government, most likely Pakistan, and they were successful in killing him.
Moreover, analysts suggest that the Afghan Taliban could not overcome ISKP without further assistance, as only air strikes were successful against ISIS in the past. Pakistan has demonstrated a strong will to fight TTP and ISKP, and it would certainly increase pressure on Afghanistan after suicide attacks on a military compound in DI Khan; therefore, the Taliban’s reluctance to take action against militants could harm their mutual interests.
Another misleading aspect of TTP’s propaganda campaign on ISKP is the missing part of the role of defections in the Afghan Taliban in its creation. When slain Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi made a self-proclamation for a caliphate in 2014, not only TTP commanders but some members of the Afghan Taliban also took oaths of allegiance to him. TTP commander Saeed Khan Orakzai was declared Amir of the ISKP, but a defected commander of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim, became his deputy chief. Saeed Khan was killed in Nangarhar in 2016, and since then, all the chiefs of the ISKP, Abdul Hasib Logari, Abu Omer Khorasani, and Sanaullah Ghafari, were from the Afghan Taliban. The defections in the Afghan Taliban were further aggravated after the announcement of the death of Mullah Omer in 2015, and the revelation that they had been hiding his death for two years made matters worse in this regard.
The news was even shocking for Al-Qaeda, as Dr. Ayman Al-Zawahiri was found glorifying a dead Mullah Omer to denigrate the personality of Al-Baghdadi to keep Al-Qaeda intact. Thus, the mishandling by the Afghan Taliban devastated the militant landscape in Afghanistan concerning turf wars with ISIS.
Moreover, the controversies over the selection of the successor of Mullah Omer further divided the Taliban, and commanders like Mullah Muhammad Rasool and Mullah Mansoor Dadullah parted ways with them, leading to heavy fighting with the leadership. It was a catalyst for creating space for more defections to ISIS. Hence, the Afghan Taliban were engaged in violent clashes with very prominent defected commanders like Qari Hekmat, and they were not very successful in overcoming ISIS in Afghanistan.
After forming the government, the posture of the Afghan Taliban is determined by a compulsion to not appear weak due to internal unrest. They are unwilling to make ideological compromises, such as female education, because it would result in group disagreements. Similarly, they believe that action against TTP would push it towards ISKP; perhaps they are even interested in other means to tone down the violence with ISKP. The challenge of ISIS for the Afghan Taliban is unsettling; the former Afghan government could neither break them nor produce a counter-narrative, but ISKP had demonstrated both feats.
It condemns the deal with America as a betrayal of Jihad, and its heavy criticism of the policies of the Taliban is expanding support for it in the local population.
The Taliban government should realize that TTP is an unreliable partner about ISKP, and an alliance with Pakistan to eliminate it would be a solution to its ISKP troubles as well. Since its inception, TTP has been prone to internal power games and infighting due to tribal rivalries among its leaders. When Baitullah Mehsud was killed in 2009, a battle between Hakimullah Mehsud and Shehryar Mehsud started for leadership roles. Similarly, after the killing of Hakimullah in 2013, Mullah Fazlullah and Khan Said Sajna were engaged in a power struggle to grab the assets of TTP. The wealthy Arab militants were a major attraction for the leadership of the TTP; they affiliated with Al-Qaeda to attain funds and Jihadi grandiosity. As this alliance was also based on material objectives, the leadership crisis in Al-Qaeda further divided militants in 2014. To tackle ISIS, Al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban launched a glorification campaign for Mullah Omar, but the TTP once again proved that it has no ideological base. Some of its commanders and many militants joined ranks with ISIS, and they were even ready to fight against the Afghan Taliban to gain funds from ISIS’s illegal trade of oil in Iraq. Hence, TTP militants are used to switching loyalty at the opportune moment.
Since 2015, ISKP has conducted violent attacks in Pakistan, and recently, TTP and ISKP retracted their claims for major terrorist and suicide attacks on mosques and religious gatherings, exposing the nexus. Moreover, another previously unknown group, Tehreek-e-Jihad-Pakistan (TJP), is making attack claims, while sources in the security forces wonder how a new group could demonstrate access to militant resources and a reach to secure installations in Pakistan. They believe that ISKP and TJP are part of TTP’s deception for managing backlash.
For Pakistan, the most worrisome aspect is the presence of Indians in ISKP. Therefore, the Afghan Taliban should cooperate with it for mutual interests to tackle TTP and ISKP in the region.
A freelance contributor with a M.Phil in international relations from Quaid-e-Azam University. Follow on Twitter: @Radiant_j_007.