The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant – Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) carried out suicide bombings in Kabul on August 26. These bombings were a reminder that no matter who is in charge in Afghanistan, ISIS-K would be its worst enemy. The attacks also increased the Taliban’s international credit score; Before the attacks, the Taliban shared intelligence with the U.S. that there would be suicide bombings. This tip came from an ISIS-K militant captured at the Kabul airport. This sharing of vital information indicates that would be a good candidate for a coalition against ISIS-K. Moreover, the Biden administration could partner with the Taliban to seek revenge for the 13 Americans killed in the attack.
ISIS has also had a separating effect on the policies of groups and foreign forces fighting in Syria. Blind violence, brutal hostility towards Shiite-Alawites, the uniqueness of the caliphate it declared, and the rebuking of those who refused allegiance to the caliphate are characteristics which make up ISIS. Other jihadist groups along the al-Qaeda line felt the need to cement themselves elsewhere. For example, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) tried to present the image that they have changed even though they are the continuation of ISIS Syrian branch, al-Nusra. HTS also tried to pretend that it was out of the global jihadi network and their fight was limited to Syrian territory. In this process, ISIS helped other jihadi organizations to be tolerated and even accepted.
Whenever a military operation is launched against these organizations in Idlib, the U.S. and its partners issue a warning to the world that there will be a “civilian massacre.” The mentality seems to be that ISIS is bad; however, ISIS derivatives or its closest versions are good.
The U.S. is now using the same selectivity in Afghanistan. Those who think the U.S. is a sworn enemy of all radical jihadi structures without any discrimination can stop reading the article here. After the Americans ran the mujahideen recruitment program from the Arab world with people such as Abdullah Yusuf Azzam, Osama bin Laden, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, they learned who to support or use against whom. For instance, after the Soviet-backed regime was overthrown in 1989, the CIA tried to bring Hekmatyar, considered the most radical of this generation, to power in Afghanistan. This was done instead of choosing Ahmet Shah Massoud, the most moderate of the mujahideen leaders, many of whom were linked to the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. It is no coincidence that Hekmatyar is on the committee that is meeting with the Taliban for a reconciliation government today. The Taliban, which in the 1990s was backed by Pakistani intelligence to end the power struggle between mujahideen groups, was also a reasonable solution for the Americans. Their first choice, Hekmatyar, did not prove to be the ‘master key’ they expected him to be.
The U.S. didn’t even list the Taliban as a terrorist organization during the 20 years it supposedly fought a war against them. The justification made sense; “If we declare it a terrorist organization, then we cannot hold talks.” They knew that the day they withdrew from Afghanistan, the Taliban would return to power, and they played accordingly. It was the Americans who removed Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai from the UN blacklist, one of the two key figures leading the political negotiating team in Doha. It was also the Americans who freed Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar from prison in Karachi, the other key figure in Doha negotiations.
All of this were preliminary preparations for the handover agreement in Doha in February 2020. As part of the agreement, thousands of Taliban members were released without any inter-Afghan peace process. The Taliban regained its militant power. The Taliban, now, will pose as a force fighting ISIS, giving the U.S. the feeling that their choice was right. Thus, a future partnership is in the works.
So, do Americans care about the jihadist activation due to the Taliban’s victory? Or are the Americans interested in the Taliban’s jihadi organizations in different provinces in Afghanistan, or organizations that will seek shelter under the auspices of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan to be established? What the U.S. wants is for a jihadist threat against them based in Afghanistan not to develop. Having said that, the Americans do not expect al-Qaeda leaders, whom they failed to capture in 2001, to be eliminated by the Taliban. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) does not predict a change in the al-Qaeda-Taliban relationship. According to a report, even after the February 2020 agreement, al-Qaeda continued to provide military training to the Taliban, and the Taliban continued to provide a safe-haven to al Qaeda. The Taliban will likely ask al-Qaeda to restrict its activities and conceal its ties to terrorist groups until foreign forces withdraw, the report said.
Then what? The DIA’s prediction is that the Taliban will stop restricting al-Qaeda after withdrawal. However, due to the nature of al-Qaeda's compartmentalized command and control structure, it may be difficult for the Taliban to monitor and impose restrictions in the future.
In fact, CENTCOM Commander Kenneth McKenzie said, if “left unmolested [al-Qaeda] are certainly going to rebuild, re-strengthen themselves, and we have no reason to doubt they want to attack us in our homeland.”
The Taliban’s possible strategy will be to continue to support jihadi groups that pledge allegiance to the “emir of the believers,” but unlike pre-2001, they will make the rules of the host better known. The Taliban were unhappy that al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden called for a global jihad against Zionism and crusader forces after returning to Afghanistan from Saudi Arabia.
Moreover, the 055 Brigade (55th Arab Brigade) founded by bin Laden was integrated into Taliban forces between 1996 and 2001. Al-Qaeda’s declaration of loyalty to the Taliban (pledge of allegiance) had already changed the extent of relations. Osama bin Laden pledged allegiance to Mullah Omar, the founding leader of the Taliban. Pledging loyalty is a very decisive criterion of how al-Qaeda found patronage in Afghanistan.
Today, al-Qaeda operates in the shadow of the Haqqani Network, especially in border areas with Pakistan. Over time, al-Qaeda has also influenced organizations such as Tehrik-i Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Of course, technically, one can talk about the differences between its jihadist Salafi and the traditional Taliban’s understanding of religion. Corollaries can be drawn on how reasonable and local the Taliban are. In fact, we can make sense of President Erdoğan’s words that identified him with the Taliban by stating that the Taliban came from the Madrasahs of Deobandi, that these madrasas were based on the Hanafi school, that their teachers were Naqshbandi and Qadiriyya.
However, we miss the fact that the Deobandi madrasas have been under the influence of Wahhabism, which has been pumped with money from Saudi Arabia since the “green belt” project. Also, that they were radicalized during the Afghan jihad and turned into pools for mujahideen recruitment. There have been stories earlier also about how reasonable the Taliban were. It was even rumored that they have resisted Saudi-American pressure to be a troublemaker for China. Nobody could understand why just as Beijing was about to recognize them, they blew up Buddha statues in Bamjan and severed ties with this great neighbor.
When one forcefully considers that the Taliban has adopted the Afghan, Sufism and ehl-i tarîk line, then it is impossible to understand its cooperation with highly radical structures such as al-Qaeda, Tehrik-i Taliban, and Lashkar-e-Taiba. The paradoxes between the Taliban’s traditional Islamism and al-Qaeda’s Salafi rejectionism were overcome by mutual interests and borrowed attitudes. What made the partnership possible was that al-Qaeda became localized, accustomed to the defining aspects of tradition and custom, and started interacting with tribes along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. This is the reason why ISIS-K is rising, as a more radical rejection of this reconciliation.
Not long after ISIS declared a caliphate in Mosul in 2014, Hafiz Saeed Khan in Afghanistan pledged his allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and formed the Khorasan Province (ISIS-K) leg of ISIS with the participation of the Taliban, al-Qaeda and the Tehrik-i Taliban, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. In addition to Afghanistan, this province includes parts of Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Iran. Naturally, it directly targets five countries. This rapid divergence between mujahideen and foreign jihadists indicated that the ground was maturing. Looking at ISIS-K’s targets, one can see that there are areas where the Taliban are soft or tolerant.
As seen in Iraq, by attacking the holy sites of Sunni and Shiite on both sides of traditional Islam, ISIS is promoting its own profile. At the same time, with this strategy it also creates a magnet for units that find al-Qaeda, the Taliban, and the Tehrik-i Taliban cooperative and tolerant. After all, those who laid the foundation for ISIS-H are emerging from the same pool. It is not surprising that the founding actors of the organization are Pakistani Taliban. The Americans also predicted that ISIS-K would try to undermine the deal with the Taliban and their ongoing coordination, with an effort to turn it into their favor and show their violence. We see this in the DIA reports. After all, ISIS-K did not immediately emerge in these extraordinary days. It has been present for six years. This year alone it has carried out nearly 80 violent attacks.
When the Taliban moves from being an organization to being a state, it will be convinced that it is necessary to obtain the consent of tribal leaders, traditional ulema, and local actors. This is a requirement that changes or distorts solid principles and patterns. Unlike the first, the Taliban may have to do two things while seeking international recognition:
First, it will have to curb those radicals who are committed to it and to encourage them to refrain from actions that would harm the administration. This policy may push their own extremists into ISIS-K. Every tendency to tame encourages a radical alternative.
The second is to change roles by waging war on ISIS-K. This could relax the Taliban’s relations with the outside world and pave the way for a partnership.
In this new era, it may also be tolerated that the Taliban elite force, “Badr 313,” which it sent to Kabul airport and which the Turkish state owned TV channel TRT has praised, is based on the Haqqani Network, the ideological reflection of al-Qaeda.
Will Afghanistan, under Taliban rule, be a magnet for jihadi structures from other countries? Will the al-Qaeda-aligned organizations that HTS is trying to drive out of Idlib make their way to Afghanistan? Can this happen under the fierce watch of China, Russia and Iran? Will the Taliban allow this while it is seeking good relations with the world? Now is the time to place your bets.