“Islamic State” fighters have reportedly attacked a Taliban convoy in the country’s eastern Nangarhar province, killing at least 10 militants. Is it the beginning of a long and violent battle for Afghanistan’s control?
“Local residents and security officials confirmed that “Islamic State” (IS) fighters killed between 10 and 15 Taliban members in Nangarhar province,” Abdul Hai Akhondzada, deputy head of Afghan parliament’s national security commission, told DW on Tuesday. Similar skirmishes are taking place across Afghanistan where these Islamist groups are fighting to gain dominance, he added.
“The Taliban have been fighting for a long period of time in Afghanistan and they see their position threatened by the emergence of IS. Of course, they won’t give up easily,” the Afghan parliamentarian added.
According to the Afghan media, IS militants ambushed a Taliban convoy last week in Nangarhar and beheaded several captured men. The killings reportedly took place on Wednesday, June 3.
IS is an al Qaeda splinter group – a Sunni militant organization which has captured vast swathes of territory in Syria and Iraq. The organization, which is notorious for its extreme and violent interpretation of Shariah law and atrocities in the areas which it controls, is believed to have started expanding its influence and control in Central Asia and Afghanistan.
Since the beginning of this year, Afghan officials and police have repeatedly warned about an IS presence in several parts of the country.
In April, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a bank in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad, killing at least 35 people. Contrary to initial suspicions, the attack was not carried out by the Taliban, who denied any responsibility. Instead, the bombing was attributed to IS by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
“IS has gained a presence in Afghanistan,” Farid Bakhtwar, head of the provincial council in Afghanistan’s western Farah province, told DW. He said that the militant group had started recruiting new members, including former Taliban fighters, in Afghanistan.
While some Taliban leaders have reportedly joined the IS ranks, the organization as a whole considers the Middle Eastern group “illegitimate” and has refused to forge an alliance with it. Taliban chief Mullah Mohammad Omar and IS head Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi both claim to be the caliphs of the Muslim world.
“While IS is fighting to increase its presence in the whole region – not only Afghanistan – the Taliban are fighting to overthrow the Afghan government,” said Akhondzada, adding that the two Islamist groups, despite being predominantly Sunni outfits, had different strategic goals.
Their open fighting, however, could have dire consequences for the war-torn country, as well as for regional security.
Siegfried O. Wolf, a South Asia researcher at the University of Heidelberg, believes the IS-Taliban battle could be “extremely dangerous for Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
“A realistic review of concrete aims and strategies of IS indicates that it will enter the region sooner rather than later. Taking into account the strategic importance of the Afghanistan-Pakistan geographical area for the global jihad, one must expect that IS is planning to gain a permanent foothold in South Asia,” Wolf told DW, adding that if not directly, with the help of some Taliban factions and other extremist groups in the region, IS could achieve its goals.
But Wolf said it would be naïve to think that the Taliban would give up the control of Afghanistan easily: “It is a myth that the Taliban is now a fractious movement that is facing an existential crisis due to IS’ increasing presence and its own infighting. History has proven the resilience of the Taliban.”
Chances of an IS-Taliban alliance
Experts are of the view that while there could be some cooperation between IS and the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, a proper alliance between the two extremist groups is “highly unlikely.”
“There are certainly ideological convergences between the two groups, but otherwise there are simply too many factors that constrain the possibility of a partnership, much less a close alliance,” Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
Kugelman added that the close connections between the Afghan Taliban and al Qaeda could not be ignored while analyzing the IS-Taliban relations. “It seems unlikely that the Taliban would want to join forces with an organization that split from its ally, al Qaeda.”
Wahid Mazhda, an expert on the Taliban in Kabul, shares that view. He believes that while it is possible for some small Islamic groups in Afghanistan to join IS, the Middle Eastern militant group would face ideological difficulties in recruiting fighters from Afghanistan.
“IS and the Taliban are very different ideologically and culturally. In Pakistan, however, they could find some supporters, and they already have,” he told DW.”Central Asia is more attractive for IS because there are a number of dictatorial regimes, and some extremist groups there have already shown a willingness to join them to overthrow the regional governments,” he added.
Muzhda said that IS was trying to establish a base in Afghanistan’s northern Badakhshan province so that it could have access to Central Asian countries.
“And that is why the fight in Afghanistan has moved from south to north where the Taliban are trying to gain control over this area before IS does.”