The Taliban regained control of Afghanistan after a costly 20-year war with the United States and the collapse of the Afghan government in August. Now they are facing a myriad of problems including a crushing and growing humanitarian crisis as the international aid that the country is reliant upon has dried up. But their biggest crisis arguably is in the realm of counter-terrorism.

U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Thomas West said in an interview with Voice of America recently that the Taliban shouldn’t expect the amount of aid that has been forthcoming from the West to continue. 

“We made clear that if [the Taliban] chose a military path to power, that that aid would disappear, and that is what occurred,” West said.

Now the shoe is on the other foot especially in eastern Nangarhar province where ISIS-K has a stronghold and is increasingly getting stronger. Now the Taliban forces are the ones visible during the day but retreat to fortified bases at night. ISIS-K terrorists roam the province and exact a heavy toll on the population. 

Kabul mosque bombing
The aftermath of the Kabul mosque bombing. (Reuters)

After the U.S. chaotic withdrawal in August, while the Taliban were busy parading around in abandoned equipment that the U.S. had furnished to the Afghan government, ISIS-K seized on the opportunity to expand its operations and influence among the Sunni population. They targeted Shia mosques and hospitals with high-profile attacks in both Kunduz and Kandahar.

ISIS-K’s operations have defied the Taliban’s claim that they are in control of Afghanistan’s security. Ironically, by using roadside bombs and suicide IED attacks, ISIS-K is using the same tactics that the Taliban used to weaken the legitimacy of the Western coalition and Afghan government.

ISIS-K has been a visible force in Nangarhar since 2015; its influence continues to steadily grow. Now, without the United States’ counter-terrorism forces active in the country, they are growing even stronger. 

Many of the former Afghan government intelligence operatives who worked for the U.S. are being recruited into ISIS-K. The terrorist organization is recruiting from the Taliban themselves, appealing to the global jihadist message.

Many of the Taliban’s rank and file members have no understanding of the political decisions made by the Taliban leadership that wants desire to be recognized politically and get Afghanistan’s financial assets, which amount to $9 billion, unfrozen. The Taliban agreed to offer amnesty to some members of the former Afghan government and military, and eased some of the restrictions on girls attending school in order for the assets to be unfrozen.

Taliban guards Kabul
Taliban guards outside a hospital after an ISIS-K suicide bomb attack in Kabul. (AP)

This pragmatic approach by the Taliban leadership drove many of the fighters right into the Islamic State’s arms. ISIS favors a 12th-century caliphate. Calling the Taliban “apostates” and “false jihadists” attracted the younger and more radical members. 

ISIS-K is using various oppressed people from different ethnic backgrounds, particularly Uyghurs and Balochs, as cannon fodder. It is they who carry out high-profile suicide bombings against Shiites. Because of its recruitment strategy, ISIS-K is looking not just at Afghanistan but starting insurgent movements in neighboring Iran, China, and Pakistan. 

The Pakistanis and Chinese have been successful at having the Taliban crackdown on the Baloch people as well as the Uyghurs. Balochs have been attacking China’s Belt and Road Initiative projects for several years. 

According to The Washington Post, the Taliban reportedly sent 1,300 troops into Nangarhar Province to wrest control of the region back from ISIS. It is not going to be an easy or quick operation.