The Taliban’s inability to eliminate ISIS or even reduce its operations after taking control of Afghanistan raises many questions, especially identifying the nature of the threats the organization poses in Afghanistan, with operations focused on the city of Jalalabad and escalating operations in the capital Kabul during November 2021. These challenges are related to ISIS, including its nature and the form of its presence, which has not changed its approach of successive operations that never push for territorial control, as well as its reliance on sleeper cells. This is in addition to its positioning on the rugged border with Pakistan, which is an advantage in terms of taking cover, planning operations, and attracting new members from those disgruntled with the Taliban and former army and intelligence personnel. Some factors can also be identified that are related to the Taliban, including the crisis of transitioning from insurgency to counterinsurgency, as well as the refusal of US support since the withdrawal of American forces, amid great internal challenges and burdens.
A State of Crisis
Afghanistan is in a state of crisis, not only at the political and economic level after the Taliban took power in August 2021, but also in terms of the continued pace of ISIS violence. This deepens the crises facing the Taliban in the past four months, amid its inability to win the battle with ISIS, or at least limit the danger of its operations, which threaten the Taliban due to the extensive targeting of its leaders and destabilization of its ability to control the turbulent domestic situation.
The nature of ISIS threats can be seen by looking at the reality of its operations over the past four months and comparing them with the two months before the Taliban took power, in order to determine ISIS trends during the past period. According to what accounts loyal to ISIS announced on the application Telegram, it is clear that the organization’s operations did not escalate as imagined after the Taliban came to power. The total number of operations in the past six months, from June to November 2021, were, respectively: 36 – 29 – 15 – 27 – 32 – 35. Here, it is clear that the pace of operations was high before Taliban control, although targeting the Taliban is the main variable in directing of operations since its rule began in August 2021. The rate of targeting the Taliban and its leaders significantly increased starting in September and followed the same pace in October and November 2021. In June and July 2021, ISIS had focused its operations against the Afghan army and police forces, as opposed to limited operations against the Taliban.
It is clear that the lowest rate of ISIS operations in the period referred to was in August 2021. That may have been a period of clarifying the situation and arranging ISIS ranks in preparation for the next phase. The same month saw ISIS target Kabul airport during the evacuation of American troops and some Afghan civilians. Reviewing operations carried out by ISIS over the past six months, the number of operations can be defined according to regions and cities. It appears ISIS focused on Nangarhar province, and primarily on its capital Jalalabad, which ranked first compared to other regions in the province over the six months from July to November 2021, respectively: 8 – 12 – 6 – 14 – 17 – 14. The increased rate of operations in this city over the past three months in particular is evident.
Operations in Kabul also declined from July 2021—prior to the Taliban taking control—before a significant jump in the rate of operations in November 2021. Meanwhile, the rate of ISIS operations in various areas decreased from August 2021, in favor of operations in the city of Jalalabad.
The organization’s focus on Jalalabad can principally be explained in light of the following: First, continuing its operational approach in the same geographic scope as before the Taliban took power. Second, reinforcing its influence in the city as the Taliban is busy tightening control over Kabul and faces other challenges related to forming a government and communicating with regional and international forces after taking power. This also explains the decline of operations in areas where ISIS operations were limited separately in each. The increasing rate of ISIS operations in the capital Kabul in November appears to have prompted the Taliban to send about 1,300 of its forces east to Nangarhar province to control the situation there and cut off supplies to ISIS cells in Kabul.
The Taliban faces challenges in confronting ISIS, considering that it is responsible for governing Afghanistan after the fall of the previous government. Some challenges are related to ISIS, and others to the Taliban, which can be explained in the following points:
1. The features of ISIS’ presence on the Afghan scene have not changed: Analyzing ISIS operations after the Taliban’s control, it can be said that the group has not changed the nature of its presence on the Afghan scene, even after there was a power vacuum, as it did not achieve a degree of spatial control. It has continued, though, to work to strengthen its influence in Jalalabad and operations in Kabul to show the Taliban that it cannot control security. ISIS uses the tactic of cells in a way that makes efforts to combat it difficult, as it relies upon a pattern of operations targeting Taliban fighters with assassinations by IED or armed attack, not giving an opportunity to clash, and then hiding again.
2. ISIS’ action is centered on the border areas with Pakistan: Since ISIS first emerged on the Afghan scene, its branch has been called “Khorasan” in reference to its work on both sides of the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was formed by some leaders of the Pakistani Taliban and others from the Afghan Taliban. That means ISIS is fundamentally comprised of components of the local environment, which have experience dealing with tribes and know these borders well. This is a point of strength for ISIS, taking pivotal areas across the rugged border between the two countries and hiding in them when needed. In view of the Taliban’s movements pushing its forces to the east, ISIS could retreat to the border and hide, especially with the revitalization of its activities in Pakistan over the past two months.
3. ISIS is attracting new members from those disgruntled with the Taliban: ISIS may be able, in the coming period, to attract new members to its ranks using anger at the actions of Taliban members due to the movement’s inability to control its fighters and reprisals. There is a contrast between the statements of Taliban leaders, who affirm that revenge is not sought, and the behavior of some fighters, repression, and killings. This could be a motivating factor for youth to join ISIS to fight the Taliban. Additionally, the US newspaper The Wall Street Journal has pointed to members of the army and intelligence service joining ISIS in the past period, which enhances the organization’s strength.
4. Crisis of the Taliban’s transition from insurgency to counterinsurgency: Some may consider the Taliban to have an advantage in confronting ISIS given its knowledge of guerilla tactics and cells, but this appears to be a crisis facing the Taliban. It is linked to the Taliban’s transition from an armed insurgency to combatting one, while not having the ability to do so during the first months of control of the government. Counterinsurgency is related to factors other than military and security confrontations, and the Taliban has become an easy target due to the clear presence of its fighters to fill the security vacuum.
5. Great domestic challenges and burdens for Taliban rule: This is connected to the previous factor, as there are major domestic challenges to the Taliban in light of the turbulent political situation following the overthrow of the previous government, entering into political negotiations with active parties to form the government, striving to obtain international recognition of the new government, and trying to impose security to fill the void. This represents additional burdens on the Taliban, and impacts confronting ISIS.
6. The Taliban rejects US support to fight ISIS: The Taliban has announced its rejection of US intervention in Afghan affairs, even by supporting efforts to fight ISIS in Afghanistan, since the withdrawal of US forces and the evacuation of some Afghan collaborators. This caused the US to lose intelligence support, according to statements by US President Joe Biden in August 2021, especially as the Bagram base was the pivot of work and efforts to confront ISIS in Afghanistan. Despite Biden’s assurances that ISIS-Khorasan would be pursued, Western estimates point to limited options. Therefore, the Taliban’s rejection of American support is a point of weakness for the Taliban in confronting ISIS.
In conclusion, it can be said that Taliban efforts to confront ISIS have so far been ineffective over the past four months. Meanwhile, ISIS possesses strengths that mean that confrontations will continue for the foreseeable future. Given the Taliban’s rejection of foreign support for its efforts, decisive victory against ISIS appears to be a distant prospect.