Why the Islamic State Khorasan and the Taliban are at War?

By Sumit Mishra

On 27th August 2021, merely twelve days after the takeover of Kabul by the Taliban, a fedayee (suicide bomber) belonging to the Islamic State’s local affiliate Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), struck the Kabul International Airport, killing at least 95. This incident resurfaced the tussle between the Taliban and the ISK ongoing since 2015 but rarely highlighted by the media, at least before this attack. The common wisdom is that both the Sunni groups despise democracy, equal rights for women and notably endorse an orthodox social order governed by Sharia law. So, what lies beneath their mutual bitterness if the Taliban and the ISK share the same radical views?

Ideological Differences

First, the Taliban and the Islamic State – parent organization of ISK, follow different Islamic ideologies and values. The Islamic State predominantly takes inspiration from the Hanbali theology – an ultraconservative traditionalist Islamic jurisprudence; and adheres to the violent offshoot of Salafi tradition Salafiyya-Jihadiyya – which legitimizes violent jihad to purge un-Islamic characteristics of the society (Hroub, 2011). On the other hand, the Taliban follows a comparatively less doctrinal Deobandi branch of the Hanafi jurisprudence. Still, a close collaboration with the Salafist al-Qaeda over the years has indeed infused Salafiyya-Jihadiyya tendencies to the Taliban’s approach as well. While both the Sunni groups have been engaged in senseless violence, including civilian killings, the Taliban have never made any serious effort to justify their acts from a religious jurisprudential standpoint. Unlike the Taliban, the Islamic State has always attempted to find religious justifications for its gruesome deeds, including burning prisoners of war alive and an industrial-scale use of suicide bombing (Moheq, 2019). This highlights that the Islamic state’s modus operandi is heavily influenced by religious jurisprudence compared to the Taliban’s – which tilts more towards the Afghan tribal order.

Since the Taliban’s inception in the early ’90s, their several principles have stemmed from the traditional Pashtun tribal way of life in Afghanistan – Pashtunwali. Hence, they have a stronger presence in the Afghan rural areas where tribal orders are still prevalent and where the Taliban have also been engaged in inter-tribal rivalries. Contrary to this, the Islamic State claims to represent a more inclusive Islamic order which mirrors the early form of Islam. Their ranks are filled with various nationalities and ethnicities such as – Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, Chechen, Uzbek, Kazakh, Tajik etc. (Moheq, 2019). Even the progenitor of the Islamic State, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and his successors have been critical of the al-Qaeda’s reliance on the Taliban’s tribal customs and supporting what they called an “un-Islamic” fight between the Sunni brethren of the Taliban and the Tajik dominant – Northern Alliance in Afghanistan (Kirdar, 2011). The Islamic State often compares the Taliban tribal customs and principles with the Quranic concept of jahiliyyah – the pagan pre-Islamic period of ignorance (Moheq, 2019). Overall, these unreconcilable ideological differences form the genesis of the hostility between the Taliban and the Islamic State.

Pursuit Of Territorial Dominance

Another pertinent point to consider is the quest for power and territorial dominance between the Taliban and the Islamic State. The establishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan in 1996 was pivotal in contemporary Political Islam and the Salafi-Jihadi milieu. Not only the kuffar (non-Muslims)– the USSR, were routed, Afghanistan was also set to be governed under the Sharia rule by the Taliban. In the summer of 2014, the heirs of al-Zarqawi combined their captured territories in the war-torn Iraq and Syria and proclaimed a new Islamic politico-religious entity – a caliphate, to be called the Islamic State. For the Taliban, this proclamation carried two subliminal messages. First, within the Islamic governance framework, a caliphate is a pan-Islamic entity superior to an Islamic Emirate. Second, as a caliphate, the Islamic State now demanded the allegiance of all the Muslims – including the other jihadi groups. The caliphate’s declaration seemingly undermined the authority and influence of the Taliban – the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Moreover, the Islamic State’s grand objective is to create a unified borderless Islamic entity; in contrast, the Taliban’s primary Islamic ambitions are confined only to keep Afghanistan off-limits to foreign occupation. And soon, their strategic ambitions clashed in Afghanistan.

Dazzled by the Islamic State’s blitzkrieg across the fertile crescent of the Middle East, in 2014, a few Taliban factions swore allegiance to the caliphate (Azami, 2015). These disgruntled Taliban fighters either echoed the same global vision of the Islamic State, or they were frustrated that the Taliban had not gained significant territory since being ousted in 2001 (Harooni, 2015). The Taliban was irked by the Islamic State’s recruitment drive in Afghanistan and even communicated their annoyance to the Islamic State, but the latter paid no heed to the Taliban’s concerns (ibid). Moreover, in late 2014, the Islamic State announced the establishment of their satellite province in Afghanistan – Islamic State Khorasan. Khorasan is an ancient Islamic name for Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, Iran, and central Asia. The ISK was a direct challenge to the Taliban’s hegemony in Afghanistan, which soon manifested into a bloody turf war between the two groups. January 2015 marked the beginning of this territorial feud between ISK and the Taliban, which till now has killed scores on both sides.

However, coupled with the downfall of the physical caliphate in Iraq and Syria, over the years, the ISK has been systematically targeted and degraded by the belligerent forces in Afghanistan – the Taliban, the erstwhile Afghan government and the United States (Sareen, 2021). But, since the Taliban takeover, there has been a sudden spike in the number of ISK attacks targeting the Taliban forces. A UN report estimates the ISK strength somewhere between 1500-2200, which mainly operates through a decentralized network of small cells in Afghanistan but is capable of launching high-profile attacks (ibid). So, while the ISK does not pose an imminent threat to the Taliban authority in Afghanistan, it has the potential to draw the Taliban into a counterinsurgency quagmire in the long run.

About the Author: Sumit Mishra is an independent Geopolitical Researcher focusing on conflicts and insurgency-related to non-state actors. He has completed a MA in War in the Modern World from King’s College London and also holds an MSc (from Imperial College London) and a B.Eng (from the Queen Mary University of London). Sumit has previously worked as a Research Intern at the Global Counter-Terrorism Institute LLC (USA) and a Political Analyst at the Prelia Strategic Advisory Group (Italy) whilst pursuing his full-time role in the UK Financial Market.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author[s] and do not necessarily reflect the view, policy or position of the Afghanistan Security Institute. 






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