The devastating terror attack at Kabul airport was a reminder that other dangerous forces exist in Afghanistan. Foreign editor David Pratt runs the rule over the Taliban’s allies and enemies that will now shape the country
It was the laying down of a marker, a bloody and brutal marker. The two blasts at Kabul airport last week that killed at least 90 people including 13 US soldiers were not only a violent farewell message to the US-led coalition forces but a warning signal to the Taliban that they will not have it all their own way as the new rulers of Afghanistan.
If those of us outside looking in on Afghanistan’s agony have been shocked by how messy events of late have been, then difficult as it might be to imagine, they could be about to get even messier.
Just as it was a terrorist attack on the US in 2001 that led America and its allies into Afghanistan, so it was a terrorist attack that marked their departure in 2021 and set-in train what could well become a new chapter for Jihadism in the country and beyond.
Whether that proves to be the case very much comes down to what the Taliban does next and most importantly of all how it handles both allies and rivals in the months and years ahead.
So, if the Taliban is as expected, now about to be put to the test, what does it have going for it and what will be the main challenges it will face?
The first thing to recognise here is that a flurry of talks and meetings have been underway between the Taliban leadership and Afghanistan’s other key politicians with as much urgency as the airlift going on at Kabul airport. The aim of these talks according to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid has been to seek “their advice about the future government,” so Afghanistan can “build a government that is accountable, serves the country and brings everyone together.”
Not everyone is convinced that this will happen but on the face of it the quid pro quo here is simple enough and runs as follows. Seen from the Taliban’s perspective, a political agreement of sorts would give them a measure – albeit small – of credibility in the eyes of an international community anxiously looking on to see if the Islamist extremists have turned over the new leaf that they never tire of telling the outside world about.
For those former Afghan leaders on the other hand such as former President Hamid Karzai, and Abdullah Abdullah, the head of the High Council for National Reconciliation, any deal with the Taliban would give them a share of power in Afghanistan’s new government. According to sources cited by broadcaster Al-Jazeera nearly a dozen names are being considered to be part of the new “inclusive” caretaker government the duration of which should it be formed remains unclear.
While the Taliban have insisted that such a government will include leaders from all ethnicities and tribal backgrounds in the country, including ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks, there has notably been little or no mention of ethnic Hazaras who for years have been subjected to persecution by the predominately ethnic Pashtun Taliban.
Despite such a potentially crucial omission, the Taliban however remain all too acutely aware that any genuinely “inclusive government,” would add greatly to their chances of recognition by the international community and in turn the potential release of $9.4 billion of the Afghan National Bank’s reserves currently frozen in overseas accounts.
In a nutshell money and international aid is what the Taliban now needs if it is to stop Afghanistan’s economy from grinding to a complete halt. Just to put this in some kind of context, according to an assessment by the World Bank seen by The Washington Post, the country is at serious risk of plunging nearly 4 million more Afghans below the poverty line. This too in a country that was already among the most impoverished in the world.
To avoid further economic catastrophe and among the Taliban’s first tests then will be ensuring access to adequate finances, far greater sums than its own fundraising in the past through the illegal drugs trade and taxation of communities.
This now after all is about governing a country and making provision for its economic well-being, a far cry from simply raising cash for an insurgency substantial though that was.
So, the equation for the Taliban is simple, no inclusive governance then no recognition or money from the international community.
Which brings us to that other test, one being closely watched by some among the Taliban’s own ranks and allies in Afghanistan as well as its rivals who will jump on any hint that the group is “selling out” wider jihadist ambitions inside the country and beyond.
Already other jihadist and Islamist groups home and away are said by analysts to be scrutinising the type of government the Taliban now establishes, and how strict, committed and comprehensive its Islamic rule will be.
According to Colin Clarke author of “After the Caliphate: The Islamic state and the Future of the Terrorist Diaspora,” the Taliban’s victory, “will be a boon for extremist of all stripes.”
“It’s like a rising tide lifts all boats situation, where an influx of foreign fighters, not only from Pakistan and the surrounding region, but from further afield, could really reinforce the ranks,” Clarke told CNN shortly before Thursday’s bomb attack on Kabul airport.
That attack, point out other analysts, carried out as it was by the Taliban’s main rival the Islamic State Khorasan Province, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS-K, ISKP, was a sharp reminder of the trouble that could ensue from a Taliban failure to match the expectations of other jihadists.
ISIS-K takes its Khorasan name from a historical region that encompassed north-eastern Iran, southern Turkmenistan and northern Afghanistan. In Persian, its name literally means “The Land of the Sun,” a reference to its eastern location.
Relations between the Taliban and ISIS-K have long been fraught. In the past the group has cast the Taliban as “filthy nationalists,” criticising the movement for confining its armed struggle to Afghanistan’s borders and not engaging in transnational jihadism.
ISIS-K while adept at propaganda has always focused on four over-arching themes according to the think-tank, Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN).
The first is calling people to jihad establishing and affirming itself as the only legitimate jihadi force in the region, projecting a transnational cause and casting rival militant groups like the Taliban and antipathetic religious actors as deviant.
Most recently as part of its propaganda message ISIS-K has vehemently decried the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.
In a recent editorial of the Islamic State group’s weekly newspaper al-Naba which is circulated online via encrypted messaging apps despite efforts to suppress it, the Taliban has come under immense criticism and even been ridiculed.
“It is a victory for peace, not for Islam; (a victory) for negotiations, not jihad,” the editorial insisted in the wake of the Taliban’s takeover in Kabul.
Considered a mouthpiece for the Islamic State group’s leaders, it accused “the new Taliban” of being a tool “in the guise of Islam,” and not fighting a true “jihad” – holy war – and questioned whether the Taliban would indeed implement true sharia law in Afghanistan.
For its part the Taliban reminded its ISIS-K rivals that it will give them no quarter when after taking over Kabul and the infamous Pul-i Charkhi prison they reportedly killed a former ISIS-K leader Sheikh Omar Khorasani also known as Zai ul Haq.
Khorasani before his capture by Afghan government forces in 2020 along with two other key figures was said to be leader of ISIS-K in the region and beyond into South Asia and the Far East. While killing ISIS-K prisoners the Taliban also reportedly set free hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives, when they emptied the prisons in another indication of who they still see as ‘enemies’ and ‘allies’.
Such bad blood between the Taliban and ISIS-K goes back a long way. While the Taliban links with al-Qaeda endure, both groups detest ISIS-K in Afghanistan and the feeling is mutual. For both the Taliban and -al Qaeda, ISIS-K is an unwelcome interloper ever since it was founded back in January 2015.
On my last visit to Afghanistan before the Taliban takeover, I, like other journalists, heard repeatedly of clashes between the Taliban and ISIS-K with some reports suggesting the Taliban operations even occurred in tandem with US and Afghan government air power and ground operations, although the full extent to which these operations were coordinated is still unclear
Despite this, ISIS-K for some time now has managed to consolidate territorial control in several rural districts in north and north-eastern Afghanistan and carried out attacks across the country and into Pakistan.
According to the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index, by 2018 ISIS-K it had become one of the top four deadliest terrorist organisation in the world and last Thursday’s Kabul airport bombing was only the latest in a long line of atrocities.
But the key question now above all else is the extent ISIS-K might seek to test the Taliban on the ground. Certainly, in the short term as the Kabul airport bomb all too graphically showed,
ISIS-K will likely continue its efforts to generate panic, chaos and instability, its ultimate aim being to undermine the Taliban by showing them as incapable of providing security to the population and scuppering any potential links with the international community.
So much then for the test that ISIS-K will set for the Taliban, but what of those other Islamist or jihadist groups that share its space in Afghanistan now?
While ISIS-K might be angered by the Taliban’s seizure of power, such events have also ensured that the Haqqani network, arguably the Taliban’s most radical and violent component has been elevated to a new and influential position. Right now, it has been given the task of running security in Kabul.
Unlike the broader Taliban the Haqqani has been designated as a terrorist organisation by the US since 2012 and continues to have close ties not just with al-Qaeda, but also the shadowy puppet masters from across the border Pakistan’s spy agency the Inter-Services Intelligence
There are differing views among analysts on the nature and role of the Haqqani network with some seeing them as a hardcore Taliban faction and others describing it as a more independent entity that straddles the Taliban and al-Qaeda. Some even point to its role which
functions like an organised crime family, having been widely blamed for the
kidnapping of several Westerners as part of a wide-ranging kidnap-for-ransom business.
Khalil Haqqani the current head of Taliban security certainly knows his US and Western adversaries given that he was a CIA partner when the agency was providing weapons to the Afghan guerrillas in the 1980s to fight Soviet troops.
“I do not believe that anyone in the West fully understands the reach of the Haqqani network,” said retired Lt. Gen. Michael K. Nagata, a former director of strategy for the National Counterterrorism Centre.
“It is the single most impressive nonstate militant group I have ever seen, with the exception of ISIS in the first two years of the caliphate,” Nagata told The Wall Street Journal last week.
The fear obviously is that the Haqqani might well have an agenda of its own at odds with the Taliban leadership’s efforts to create an inclusive government or engage with the West.
As the Taliban and other Afghan leaders sit down to negotiate the way forward the presence of Khalil Haqqani, a man with a$5m US bounty on his head, is giving many Western counterterrorism officials sleepless nights.
Who knows his presence and past history might very well even be the Frankenstein monster within the Taliban’s own ranks and contribute to the undoing of any genuine efforts by the group to provide proper governance of Afghanistan. To put this another way, therein lies the potential for splits within the Taliban.
In a week in which astonishing events have unfolded in Afghanistan, the world can only look on as the country and its new Taliban overseers move into the next kaleidoscopic phase.
As the Taliban are put to the test it will be no less complex and uncomfortable to witness.