The Islamic State and the Taliban are headed for a showdown in Afghanistan.
Reports of a mutual declaration of jihad may have brought smiles to the faces of American service personnel and veterans of the war in Afghanistan, but the reverberations could be dramatically destabilizing for the country at its most pivotal moment. In many ways, this is like the two biggest bullies in school suddenly bumping into one another in the hallway and deciding to head out to the bike rack at 3 o’clock to settle the score. Only this time, one of the bullies may find himself at a distinct disadvantage. ISIS might have bitten off a bit too much in challenging the Taliban on their home turf. It’s possible that ISIS might finally be headed for its awaited reckoning.
Reports of he growing feud between the upstart ISIS and the established but aging perennial contender Taliban have grown beyond a war of words into open warfare. As ISIS has declared its challenge to the Taliban’s predominant role in opposing Afghan national government rule in the country, the Taliban have reciprocated in kind. In a letter posted in mid-June, the Taliban leadership responded with a thinly veiled warning for ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi:
“Your decisions made from a distance will result in (ISIS) losing support of religious scholars, mujahideen…and in order to defend its achievements, the Islamic Emirate will be forced to react….” (Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, June 16, 2015)
Although much of the violence between the two groups has so far been confined to Nangarhar Province in Afghanistan’s restive east, the threat of the battle spreading to other areas of Afghanistan is growing. In early June, battles between the groups became the focal point for much of the violence now wracking Nangarhar. In one incident, ISIS-affiliated fighters ambushed a group of Taliban in Achin District. Ten Taliban militants were reported killed in the clash.
The United States should not be so quick to give up its support for the Afghan military that is battling impressively for control of its country. The American public has in large part been focused on the Levant and Iraq for the better part of a decade. In the wake of the rise of ISIS, this tunnel vision has intensified at the expense of attention paid to Afghanistan. This simply should not and cannot continue.
Drone strikes carried out by United States forces in Afghanistan have augmented Afghan military efforts to push back an onslaught waged by insurgents in 2015. Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) have battled heartily and have elicited impressive numbers in attrition of enemy forces, but their biggest battle could be just ahead of them with the potential rise of ISIS in Afghanistan.
I’ve written extensively on the problems wracking Afghanistan this past year. Most recently, I’ve addressed the impact of the growing security problems in Northern Afghanistan for the entire region of Central Asia. Although ANSF forces have remained in the fight and elicited great attrition of enemy insurgent fighters in the past few months, it appears the insurgency itself has galvanized significant momentum. This is especially true for the groups battling government forces in Kunduz and Badakhshan provinces.
Last week, in an article that outlined potential security concerns in neighboring Tajikistan, I touched upon the impact that this growing instability in Northern Afghanistan has had upon Gorno-Badakhshan and other regions of Tajikistan that share a border with Afghanistan. Highlighting just how far and wide this instability could wreak its havoc, I noted that Russian military forces have begun escalating their presence along the border as well, threatening to draw in more potential belligerents to the abscess of law festering in Northern Afghanistan:
As the spring offensive carried out by insurgents in Afghanistan has threatened to overrun several key areas of border provinces in Afghanistan, the Rahmon government has responded by allowing increasing numbers of Russian military forces to station in strategic villages within close vicinity of the Panj River. Recent exercises conducted under the auspices of the CSTO have included drones being flown in the Pamir Mountains. (Foreign Intrigue, “Tajikistan: Intrigue, Assassinations and Defections” (Part One), June 25, 2015)
Ankit Panda, writing for “The Diplomat,” highlights the threatening words of the Taliban in challenging ISIS:
The Taliban’s letter added that ”The Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan] does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims.” It continued: “Your decisions made from a distance will result in [the Islamic State] losing support of religious scholars, mujahideen… and in order to defend its achievements the Islamic Emirate will be forced to react.” The letter was signed by the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor. (Panda, The Diplomat, June 18)
The fight against the Afghan insurgency
“Two men enter. One man leaves.”—Mad Max 3, “Beyond Thunderdome”
The Afghan insurgency has proven to be made up of a resilient force. They often battle their enemies in sandals with rusty rifles and little support. It is important to note here that the misinterpretation of the Afghan insurgency as a single entity and the application of the term Taliban as a catch-all reference to a monolithic force is a misinterpretation of the threat against the Afghan national government.
The attribution of Taliban as an umbrella term for what is at best a cobbled and loose national alliance of anti-government forces does a disservice to analytical understanding of the threat to the Afghan government. The insistence on characterizing the threat to the Kabul government as a movement further erodes understanding of the individual (and oftentimes competing) motivations of the myriad groups that constitute the “insurgency” as a whole.
The conflation of the terms Taliban and Afghan insurgency has done a disservice to understanding the motivations and goals of other groups opposed to the government in Kabul. The motivations of the Haqqani Network and other groups often dovetail with those of the Taliban, but do not entirely converge with the guidance of spiritual leader Mullah Mohammad Omar. In this, many groups that oppose the government in Kabul have divergent goals and motivations, even as they may cooperate on specific attacks or in certain areas.
Many (including myself) would caveat these remarks by asserting that the rules of engagement and political constraints on our operations in Afghanistan have effectively tied both hands behind our backs, but there remains much to be spoken of the insurgents’ capacity to reconstitute, reconsolidate, and return to the field of battle. It’s not entirely outside our abilities to respect the enemy we’ve been tangling with for nearly a decade and a half.
Of course, North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) forces were and are happy to oblige the Taliban’s embrace of martyrdom. NATO forces have repeatedly stamped ‘approved’ on Taliban tickets to the afterlife and have provided ample open road for thousands of their misguided, sinister compatriots to take the express lane to Hell as they have attacked little girls with acid, burned down schools, attacked mosques full of peaceful Afghan worshipers, and blown up cars of Afghan families on the country’s new roads.
In recent weeks, ANSF forces have taken the fight to the Taliban and other insurgent groups in impressive ways. Although Iraqi military forces withdrew as ISIS bore down on Ramadi, abandoning their positions and retreating in the face of an enemy, ANSF has done quite the opposite. Even as casualties among ANSF mounted into the dozens, Afghanistan’s security forces have consistently rebounded to return to the fight, pushing back insurgent groups—throughout the northern provinces of Kunduz and Badakhshan in particular—even as the battles have ground to a comparative stalemate. Amidst the conflict emerging between ISIS and the Taliban, the Afghan government under the leadership of President Ashraf Ghan and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah has renewed its commitment to destroying the insurgency, publicly stating their intention to target key senior leaders of insurgency groups.
ISIS would be well advised to note history’s lessons as they begin to wade into battle in Afghanistan. Afghanistan has earned its reputation as “The Graveyard of Empires” for centuries of battle against invaders: its wars against the ancient Greek armies of Alexander, the forces of Great Britain in the 19th century, and the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. The Afghan people are a nation that thrives off of coalescing to battle invasions and external threats. Many recent battles waged by the Afghan military have burgeoned the hope of both Afghans and the world that the fight for the future of the country is in capable hands with the Afghan Army.
Lost amidst all of the hand-wringing over ISIS in Iraq has been the apparent growth of ANSF in Afghanistan. Afghans are not Iraqis, and the Taliban are not the Iraqi military. ISIS is prancing merrily into a meat grinder. Many of us will no doubt be spending time happily toasting news of mutual destruction between the two groups. Many will be cheering if the “Graveyard of Empires” seeks to add “Graveyard of Caliphates” to its lengthy historical resume. If there is a silver lining to the recent insurgent push in Afghanistan, it has been the willingness of the Afghan Army and other security service personnel to absorb casualties, return to the battlefield, and punch back.
Contrary to public perception, a war still rages in Afghanistan. Fortunately, the Afghan Army appears to be up to the challenge of fighting it.