With the fragmentation of the group led by Mansour, a growing number of Taliban has embraced the flag of the Islamic State, thus making even more complex the Afghan scenario and jeopardizing any prospect of dialogue
Historically the most outstanding terrorist group of the Afghan framework, the Taliban have undergone over the past year a phase of internal fragmentation that is now spreading its consequences not only on the group as such but also on the context in which the group, its affiliates and its opponents operate.
The cause of such fragmentation is twofold.
Firstly, it is to be considered the impact of Ghani and his political line aimed at initiating negotiations with the Taliban. Such approach on part of the President has indeed divided the Taliban in two factions. On one side, there are those who acknowledge the impossibility of re-instating the Taliban Emirate and see in negotiations the most direct (and only) way to a political participation from which, otherwise, they would continue to be excluded. On the other side, there are those who see in the recreation of that Taliban government that ruled the country (or at least most of it) between 1996 and 2001 the only reason lying behind their action, and who regard dialogue with Kabul as a betrayal of that political project that is the raison d’être of the group itself.
Secondly, the intra-Taliban fracture was exasperated last summer by the news of the death of Mullah Omar – the Taliban’s Amir al-Mu’minin – and the subsequent rise to leadership of Mullah Mansour and his deputy Sirajuddin Haqqani. Among the Taliban, not everyone did recognize Mansour as new leader and divisions concerning his appointment have swiftly translated into defections.
Such situation has led to the emergence of a new reality in the Afghan theatre, as a number of Taliban has embraced the flag of the Islamic State and created a new group.
Known as ISIS-Khorasan, the group consists mainly of former members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, and has found fertile ground in the North-Eastern Afghan province of Nangarhar, whose capital Jalalabad is strategically located between Kabul and Peshawar.
However, despite flying the flag of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the group and its action are not under the direct control or coordination of ISIS’s leadership in Iraq and Syria. Rather, the Afghan group has been exploiting ISIS’s brand and its image of invincibility within the jihadist universe in order to easily gain credibility and attract recruits.
According to the USA Department of Defense, the group counts among its ranks between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters and – despite being on the rise – it is still a limited reality. Since its formation, indeed, it has been forced to deal with a series of obstacles.
Firstly, ISIS is expression of a Salafi ideology that struggles to find support among an Afghan population deeply loyal and traditionally committed to the Deobandi doctrine and practice embodied by the Taliban. Secondly, the long-established and consolidated presence of the Taliban – that in many areas have successfully presented themselves to the population as “security providers” and have intervened through the structures of the so-called “shadow government” – reduces for ISIS-Khorasan the room for maneuver. Finally, a further obstacle for ISIS-Khorasan is that it tends to be perceived by the locals as an alien force, contraposed to the indigenous reality of the Taliban.
The Afghan scenario is thus divided in Taliban factions open to negotiations; Taliban factions hostile to negotiations; former Taliban fighters now rallied under ISIS’s banner; and groups more or less tightly linked to the Taliban, such as the Haqqani Network and Al Qaeda.
It is this one an extremely complex scenario – in which more dynamics and realities are intertwined and contraposed – that brings with it crucial consequences for the future of Afghanistan and the security of its people. Indeed, the country’s security is made particularly (and increasingly) precarious by the clashes between the Taliban, ISIS-Khorasan and the Afghan regular forces (namely the ANP and the ANA) in the Northeast of the country.
In addition, the fragmentation of the Taliban front reduces the possibility to initiate and carry forward peace negotiations capable of instituting an embryonic form of cooperation between Kabul and the Taliban. Collapsed the traditional cohesion of the group, in fact, it is becoming increasingly difficult for Ghani to identify the interlocutors with whom dialogue can be initiated, as the Taliban – and more generally Afghan jihadist – universe comprises now a growing variety of subgroups and factions.
Tightly linked is the consideration that, even if it was possible to initiate negotiations with a given faction, the stability and credibility of such negotiations would be put into question and jeopardized by the risk that the interlocutors represent too small a section of the jihadist reality for the dialogue to be meaningful and effective in stopping violence.
In light of what said, it is clear how future developments will largely depend on what happens on the Taliban’s front as well as on ISIS’s side in Iraq and Syria.
As far as the Taliban are concerned, much will depend on Mansour’s ability to give cohesion to the group he is now leading. A renewal of that cohesion that has always characterized Omar’s group and represented one of its main strengths would be functional to avoid further defections and thus weaken ISIS-Khorasan’s recruiting ability.
As far as ISIS is concerned, the future of ISIS-Khorasan will largely depend on the resilience of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As seen, the link between the two groups is for the moment a loose one, but this situation might change if al-Baghdadi’s group saw its position in the Levant weakened. If this was to happen, in fact, al-Baghdadi might find it rational (and even vital) to look for new areas of action, and such necessity would likely lead him to tighten the connection with ISIS-Khorasan and expand into the Afghan districts under its control.
Clearly, much will also depend on NATO’s capacity of making the Afghan forces fully autonomous and efficient and on Ghani’s capacity of increasing the credibility of those same forces in the eyes of a disillusioned Afghan people.
The best hope remains that of looking for credible interlocutors with whom to start the dialogue – which may also have the effect of inciting others to follow suit.
Though, for the moment, the only certainty is that the Afghan civil population is – as always – the victim who is paying the price, with 2015 that asserted itself as the deadliest year since 2001, with a growing flow of people embarking on perilous journeys to Europe, and with Afghanistan’s future as faltering as ever.