Why the Taliban, Armed to the Teeth, May Struggle to Defeat ISIS-K

After the United States withdrew most of its forces from Afghanistan and the Taliban quickly swept into power in August, the militants were left with many of the highest technology American weapons that were given to the Afghan army.

But a pair of attacks on Thursday by an ISIS offshoot group at a security checkpoint leading to Hami Karzai International Airport in Kabul proved fatal, and threaten to derail the Taliban's hold on power. At least 169 Afghans were killed in the attacks, according to the Associated Press, along with 13 U.S. service members.

ISIS stands for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, while the "K" stands for Khorasan, a historical region called Greater Khorasan that includes portions of Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. ISIS-K is made up mainly of Afghans and Pakistanis, some of whom used to be part of the Taliban, but left after the death of the founder of the Taliban Mullah Mohammad Omar in 2013, forming their own splinter group.

The Taliban have been fighting ISIS-K since 2018. But it was back in 2014 that ISIS in Syria and Iraq sent emissaries to Afghanistan to set up an affiliate. After Libya, this marked the second time that ISIS's core operations had purposely established an affiliate.

"These emissaries networked primarily in southern and eastern Afghanistan and gathered disgruntled Taliban fighters as well as some local power brokers, declaring their existence openly only in 2015, gathering also a range of foreign fighters, primarily from Pakistani terrorist groups," Hans-Jakob Schindler, senior director at the Counter Extremism Project, tells Newsweek.

The United States had provided the Taliban with prior intelligence about Thursday's attack. Terrorism experts have told Newsweek that the Taliban will not want to been seen to be too compliant with the U.S., over fears that Taliban members may defect to the Islamic State affiliate.

"ISIS-K has more decentralized structure after taking several blows to leadership so it may not be so easy for Taliban to take them on," Magnus Ranstorp, special advisor to EU Radicalisation Awareness Network, tells Newsweek. "Also if U.S. decides to strike, then [the] Taliban does not want to be seen to be too compliant to [the] West. It places Taliban between a rock and a hard place."

Taliban fighters wait for their meals to be served as they lunch at a restaurant in Kabul on August 26, 2021 after Taliban's military takeover following the U.S. troop withdrawal. Despite their recent victorie0,s the group could face a number of attempts to destabilize its rule in the coming months, with ISIS-K being a key enemy. Photo by WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP via Getty Images

Abdullah Khan, counterterrorism expert and managing director of Pakistan Institute for Conflict & Security Studies, tells Newsweek: "[The] Taliban fear that their close coordination with the U.S. will be played by ISIS-K to lure foot soldiers and field commander to defect. During the recent jail breaks despite general amnesty by Taliban, key commanders of ISIS-K were killed."

In the struggle for power between the Taliban and ISIS-K, in the long term, Washington may seek to exploit the differences between the groups, Ivan Sascha Sheehan, associate professor executive director of the School of Public & International Affairs at the University of Baltimore, tells Newsweek.

"There is little love lost between ISIS-K and the Taliban and, in fact, the groups are highly competitive. Coexistence will be difficult since the militants undermine the Taliban's consolidation of power," Sheehan says.

"In the near term, the U.S. will need to share intelligence and to some degree coordinate counterterrorism operations with the Taliban, if only to protect U.S. interests. But the new regime in Kabul is an unreliable partner—and their support for al Qaeda as a force multiplier is likely to re-emerge. It's therefore unlikely that U.S.-Taliban cooperation will last long.

"I expect the U.S. will ultimately seek to exploit the differences between these groups, back the tribal resistance, and support a reconstituted Northern Alliance. The future U.S. posture will involve covert operations, drone strikes, and instability operations to protect American interests and drain resources that could otherwise be trained on the American homeland."

Schindler tells Newsweek that the relationship between the Taliban and ISIS-K has been an inconsistent one.

"What was surprising is that ISIS-K regularly conducted attacks in Kabul, the center of the operational area of the Haqqani network, the Salafi-oriented network within the Taliban that has the closest links to Al-Qaeda of all the various Taliban factions. These attacks were not followed by visible retaliation of the Haqqani network, which used to 'defend' its area of operations against other Taliban factions. This noteworthy lack of reaction of the Haqqani network is even more worrying now that the network is in charge of security in Kabul," Schindler observes.

"Therefore, while ISIS-K, which follows the interpretation of Salafism that centers on the concept of takfir (declaring other Muslims apostates and worthy of killing), continues to be ideologically opposed to the Taliban movement, which is Hanafi-oriented (apart from the Salafi-oriented Haqqani network), it remains to be seen how many resources the Taliban are willing to invest to push ISIS-K back or eradicate the group from the country," he adds.

"It is also possible that the Taliban will adopt a carrot and stick policy towards ISIS-K now that they are in charge in Afghanistan, meaning offering amnesty to those fighters who join the Taliban (since many of ISIS-K fighters are former Taliban or from Pakistani groups that are close to the Taliban and Al-Qaeda) while fighting those that refuse to come back into the fold."

afghan, taliban, celebrate, peace, deal
Afghan Taliban members and villagers attend a gathering as they celebrate the peace deal between the U.S. and the Taliban in Afghanistan, in Alingar district of Laghman Province on March 2. The Taliban keep close ties with Al-Qaeda, and even consulted them during the negotiations. NOORULLAH SHIRZADA/AFP/Getty Images

Schindler says an all-out confrontation between the Taliban and ISIS-K in the short term is not the most likely scenario.

Whether the U.S. will continue to play a role in supplying intelligence to the Taliban about ISIS-K depends on the actions of the new rulers of Afghanistan, he says.

"Without a doubt, the Taliban remain in a symbiotic relationship with Al-Qaeda. It is important to note that the Taliban did not only consult regularly with Al-Qaeda during the negotiations with the U.S. and the government in Kabul but that the Al-Qaeda leadership has sworn personal loyalty to Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah.

"How important this relationship is also for the global network of Al-Qaeda is demonstrated by the fact that JNIM, the coalition of Al-Qaeda splinter groups in West Africa, swore allegiance both to [Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-]Zawahiri as well as Mullah Haibatullah when it was formed in 2017.

"Therefore, any intelligence cooperation between the U.S. military with the Taliban after the withdrawal of the last U.S. soldier from Kabul airport will entail the real risk that the Taliban will share U.S. intelligence with Al-Qaeda, which is of course not in the U.S. interest.

He points out that so far, the Taliban has refused to sever ties with Al-Qaeda, nor have they asked fighters loyal to Al-Qaeda to leave the country.

"This makes the group, and in particular the Haqqani network, a very unreliable partner for U.S. intelligence sharing beyond the 31st of August deadline for the final withdrawal."