The Competition between the Islamic State (IS) and the Taliban in Afghanistan

Gilad Shiloach analyzes the competition between the Islamic State-Khorasan and the Taliban, and how this rivalry may further destabilize Afghanistan.

Tweet from official Taliban Twitter account which taunts US President Donald Trump
Tweet from official Taliban account taunting U.S President Donald Trump.

The text above was tweeted by an official Twitter account belonging to the Taliban media office.  The direct and unusual message was posted shortly after the US president announced his rejection of the idea of peace talks with the Afghan group and pledged to “finish what we have to finish” in Afghanistan, implying that he will seek a military victory over the militants and continue the current US policy in the country. In a response that reflected a certain degree of confidence, but also expressed pressure amid the Taliban’s competition with the Islamic State (IS) in Afghanistan, the Taliban’s  spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid released a statement on social media, threatening that “if you insist upon war, our Mujahid nation will not welcome you with roses. Our nation has a long and rich history of bringing arrogant invaders to their senses. War will only make the reactionary jihadi waves more violent and increase the human and financial losses of American troops by many folds.” Mujahid added that “we will most definitely triumph because our cause is lawful and with the help of Allah Almighty, Afghanistan shall become the graveyard for another Empire, Allah willing.”

The war of words started after the Taliban claimed responsibility for a car bombing in Kabul that killed more than 100 people and injured many others, the most recent in a series of deadly attacks carried out by Taliban or the Islamic State’s  branch in Afghanistan. As previously discussed in Jihadiscope, the Taliban is forced to compete against the local IS affiliate in Afghanistan, known as “Khorasan Province” (Wilayat Khorasan) or IS, that may serve as a refuge for IS fighters fleeing Iraq and Syria to regroup and reorganize. The IS has already emerged as a significant threat in Afghanistan, and the the two groups find themselves in a “struggle for prestige” in the Afghan area, although they have different goals and ideologies. This competition has led to large-scale attacks across the country, resulting in horrific spikes in violence in recent months that have killed of hundreds, including civilians, Afghan security forces, international aid workers and members of the Afghan Shiʿi community.

Figures also show that the number of Taliban operations is on the rise. The Taliban’s official Telegram channel released a poster boasting that the group has managed to carry out 852 operations against its enemies, six of which were suicide attacks in January 2018. During this period, the Taliban claims it has killed 39 “invaders” [NATO-coalition forces] and another 1,885 “hirelings” [Afghan security forces]. In comparison, the group claimed that during December 2017 it has carried out 592 attacks, out of which two were suicide attacks and nine “crusaders” [NATO-coalition forces] and 1167 “agents” [Afghan security forces] were killed.

In terms of territory and strength, IS-K is still far from being a real competitor to the Taliban. According to recent estimations by American and Afghan officials, the Taliban’s strength in Afghanistan is approximately 60,000 fighters, only four years after an earlier estimate of 20,000. In addition, a BBC report estimates that the Taliban are openly active in 70 percent of Afghanistan’s districts, fully controlling four percent of the country and demonstrating an open physical presence in another 66 percent, which is a significantly higher estimate than the most recent assessment by the NATO-led coalition. However, while the Taliban has been active in Afghanistan since the mid-1990s, the emergence of IS-K as a strong “province” of the Islamic State and a competitor to the Taliban in the Afghan arena could force the Taliban to carry out more, and deadlier, suicide attacks. Thus, while President Trump might be seeking to “finish what we have to finish,” the competition between the Taliban and IS-K could lead to more instability in Afghanistan.