Quora Question: How is ISIS Unique From the Taliban?

ISIS fighters
Islamic State militant group fighters take part in a military parade along the streets of northern Raqqa province, Syria, June 30, 2014. The U.S. State Department said ISIS remains the greatest threat to global security. Stringer/Reuters

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Answer from Katharina Sikorski, PhD in History of Religions:

In terms of operation and recruitment, how is the Islamic State militant group (ISIS) unique from the Taliban? I will give some details on Taliban, highlighting some differences from ISIS.

First of all, unlike ISIS, Talibans do not have global rule ambitions.

From a certain point of view they can be seen as a very peculiar ethnic/national liberation movement within Afghanistan. The majority of the members are ethnic Pashtoons (of different tribal background); there are some Dari-speaking ones, too. And as there are minorities of Tajiks and Uzbeks and others in Afghanistan, there are a few of them among Talibans, too. At the height of the Taliban vs. NATO+US war, some foreigners joined in, mainly from Arab-speaking countries. There was no forced recruitment needed. However, they were considered not brave and manly enough by the Afghans—and thus useless in battles. On the other hand, those foreigners gave a kind of credit in Islamic circles to the self-proclaimed Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. And they were welcome husbands for forced marriages by Afghans—to enhance brotherhood/bonds among the fighters and in hope that the offspring will learn good Arabic from the fathers. Tragically for the wives and children, even this did not happen; the fighters left, leaving their wives behind (not widows who could remarry and have a better social status and social security then) and their children who by their looks are not local - and thus are a target of abuse from many sides. Even by the police who keep an eye on the broken families as they have been obviously connected to the Talibans.

There is no recruitment process—Afghans join in due to total lack of career prospects in Afghanistan; poverty; warrior background of many Afghans, when bravery in the battlefield is of high social esteem; perceived enemies and traitors within the country to be killed/expelled; hope to rectify the society by "our own rules" (which means a mix of peculiar interpretation of Islam and tribal conventions). Plus there was/is war going on in Afghanistan for many decades. When a grandfather was a fighter, a father was a fighter, a son won't suddenly become a law-abiding citizen, e.g. a tailor. And yet another point—Afghani Taliban is financially self-sufficient—growing poppies is a very lucrative business, taking hostages for money is usual, too.

Now, there is the Pakistan part. Pakistan was providing a retreat hinterground to Afghani Talibans for many years. For their internal political discussions, networking, financial founding, operational planning, treatment of wounded fighters.

There also is Tehrik-e-Taliban-e Pakistan (Taliban Movement of Pakistan, TTP) in Pakistan that is very loosely affiliated to the Afghani groups. There are myriads of different autochthonouse armed opposition and extremist groups in Pakistan with very fluid boundaries, precepts and alliancies. The members of the TTP movement do not have have to be Pathans necessarily—there are Punjabis as well, often the masterminds—and Pathans as executives. There are some claims that a group or branch called Punjabi Talibans have been dispelled. However the members did not disappear into thin air—they have just regrouped.

There is a major presence of Pashtoons (Afghans) and Pathans (Pakistani "Pashtoons") in three of four provinces in Pakistan: Baluchistan, where they have outnumbered local Baluchis, Sindh—in the city of Karachi and in the Khyber-Pakhtoonkhwa, of course. Some of them are members of Talibans. They were to same extent pampered by the Pakistani government.

A very murky and complex political situation in Pakistan gave a great breeding ground. The Pakistani government and army were using Talibans as the geese that laid golden (U.S. dollar) eggs in return.

There was another opportunistic point by the government—pointing at the Pathans (yes an ethnic group, not just at the Talibans) as the main evil, thus efficiently diverting the public focus from asking questions about rampant corruption in governmental and army ranks; it was also a handy excuse for not spending money on public facilities and services.

There was no serious interest of the Pakistani government and army to exterminate Talibans and other groups—it would mean the end of billions and billions given to Pakistan on the fight against terrorism from the USA.

It took many years till the U.S. finally understood the rules of the game. The real efforts to eradicate extremist groups in Pakistan by the government (Operation Zarb-e Azb) came only after the financial aid by the U.S. had been curbed.

However, the extremist groups in Pakistan are being financed from abroad (and again, many people are attracted to join in for the reasons similar to those in Afghanistan) by major allies of Pakistan within Arab world. Pakistan cannot fight the extremists efficiently without stopping this. However, it would lead to worsening relations—something Pakistan cannot afford as the "Friends of Pakistan" give substantial monetary handouts to the country.

I do not know the internal dynamics of the ISIS group. However, I can see several points in which Taliban groups and the ISIS differ:

  • Taliban is a group without global ambitions, ISIS claiming restoration of pan-Islamic caliphate.
  • Taliban takes personnel mainly from their own ethnic groups/ two countries of presence; ISIS recruits globally, with extended use of the Internet; there is a Europe to Syria/Iraq flux (and back to Europe, unfortunately).
  • Taliban is partly financially self sufficient and takes money from donors; I do not know the financial situation of ISIS but it is reported that they earn money by selling oil, antiquities. However, taking hostages earns them global media attention, not money.
  • Operationally, ISIS is a much greater threat for the regional stability (well, keeping what has remained of stability with hope in some restoration later) than Talibans.

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