While the Afghan Taliban and ISIS are often classified as jihadist groups, the ideology of these two groups are different and even at odds with each other.
ISIS advocates the kind of jihad which is actually the armed version of the ideology of contemporary political Islam and seeks to re-establish the Islamic caliphate which dominates all Islamic countries. This group also follows an extremely strict interpretation of the Sunni Islamic laws.
However, the Taliban belongs to Deobandi School of the Hanafi branch of Islam. The Taliban, accepts Afghanistan as a nation-state and actually takes pride in the history of Afghanistan. The group’s leaders have frequently declared that “their jihad” is only limited to their own country i.e. Afghanistan.
The Taliban leader, Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, like Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi uses the title of Amir al-Momineen which literally means the “Commander of the Faithful”. ISIS believes the title implies ruling over all Muslims (Sunnis) (ISIS believes the Shias are not Muslim at all). But for Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, and Mullah Omar, the title just means ‘to lead a jihad’. In 1836, Amir Dost Mohammad Khan Afghan who seized back Peshawar from the Sikhs, won the same title. Sultan of Sokoto in Nigeria as well as the King of Morocco use the same title without having any pan-Islamist claims.
Now, one of the groups that has recently cut off its ties with the Taliban and has pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi and ISIS, is the “Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan” (IMU) whose members are expelled from tribal areas of Pakistan by the Pakistani army and have just fled to Afghanistan.
Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan did not believe the Taliban’s statements about Mullah Omar’s death and transferred its allegiance to ISIS. However, there has been no evidences to conclude that ISIS has accepted the group’s loyalty. According to some reports, despite the animosity between the ISIS and the Taliban, the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan fought alongside the Taliban and helped them capture Kunduz in September 2015.
Religious and ideological strife have limited the ability of ISIS for recruiting even from disgruntled forces of the Taliban. On 29 July 2015, disclosures made by the Taliban about Mullah Omar’s death in September 2013 show that differences of opinions over his succession have provoked strong differences even between Mullah Omar’s family members. However, it is not reported that any of the Taliban leaders who disputed over the appointment of Mansour, have considered al-Baghdadi an alternative.
Despite the differences, the Taliban accepted the recommendation made by Mansour in his open letter to al-Baghdadi and supported him and did not established any parallel organization. The letter, accused al-Baghdadi of creating strife between Muslims and weakening the jihad by extending the influence of ISIS into Afghanistan.
Nevertheless, there was an exception among the Afghan Taliban who joined the ISIS, which suggests that sectarian strife could be decisive. Abdul Rauf Khadem was the most well-known former Taliban member who joined the ISIS group. ISIS had appointed Khadem as deputy governor of Khorasan province who was later killed on July 2015 in a drone attack; he was already dismissed from the Taliban. When he was detained in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, he was attracted to jihadi propaganda of his cellmates.
According to reports, the cellmates who were members of the ISIS and led by Khadem, are still active in southern Afghanistan, but no territory is under their control. Almost all the leaders of the ISIS living in Afghanistan, have been former members of the Pakistani Taliban.
The crumbled coalition
Former members of the Pakistani Taliban have wrested control over only seven districts in the eastern province of Nangarhar bordering with Pakistan where ISIS have been active for a while. ISIS leadership recognizes the leaders of these districts as its own officials. Hafiz Saeed, a former member of the Pakistani Taliban from Orakzai region, who has been appointed as Emir (governor) of Khorasan province by the headquarters of the ISIS in Raqqa of Syria, is the highest authority of ISIS in that province. Several Arab envoys who were sent from al-Raqqa, in addition to providing financial assistance to Hafiz Saeed, help him in other areas too. According to local Afghans, ISIS has much more money than the Taliban. (However, the Afghan government is not present in this area).
There is growing speculations that ISIS is going to establish itself in the area to control the opium trade and raise the finance for its operations. However, the ISIS has seemingly set the death penalty for those who commit drug smuggling.
East Afghanistan has also experienced the barbarism of the ISIS. Only in one case, Saeed sentenced to death ten elders in Achin district (Nangarhar) who were accused of supporting the Taliban. He forced them to sit on explosives and make them blast. The event was so brutal that the deputy of Saeed, Maulvi Abdul Rahim Muslim Doost who was also detained for a while in Guantanamo Bay detention camp, abandoned him. Nevertheless, these two figures also used different strategies in different situations: Muslim Doost, former member of Afghan Taliban, wished to declare war against the army of Pakistan. However, Saeed is a former member of the Pakistani Taliban and advocated the idea of a military campaign to seize provinces of Nangarhar and Logar in Afghanistan.
Currently, the ISIS has little room for expanding its territory in Afghanistan. While Afghanistan is grappling with domestic issues, almost all Afghanistan is controlled by the government or the Taliban, who are both the enemies of the ISIS. Therefore, the ISIS in Afghanistan cannot act the same way it did in Iraq, Syria and Libya to become the only force capable of imposing some order in those countries.
Besides, there is no political discontent to welcome a savior. As a matter of fact, one of the reasons beyond the achievements of the ISIS in Iraq and Syria was the dissatisfaction among Sunnis who were politically marginalized and sought empowerment. Moreover, the Taliban controls the armed opposition and enjoys the support of Pakistan.
Therefore, regardless of what the recent impasse may lead to, it is hard to believe that ISIS can grow in Afghanistan as fast as it did in Iraq, and Syria.
However, if the crisis in the country makes way for the collapse of the Kabul government or the Taliban, or if foreign aids to Kabul, either financial or military ones are stopped, or if the Taliban loses its safe havens in Pakistan, or if Taliban is forced to return to Afghanistan without any political settlement, then ISIS may resort to a managed violence to find a place in the country. In this situation, the Afghan government and its international supporters should accept the blame for the issue.