The IS-K challenge

Published December 12, 2021
The writer is a security analyst.
The writer is a security analyst.

MANY analysts had projected long before the Afghan Taliban takeover of Kabul that Afghanistan would become a major security and foreign policy challenge for Pakistan. While most in Pakistan are now busy in debating the political and strategic pros and cons of the Taliban regime, there is an acute lack of discourse on the sociocultural impact of the emerging Afghan situation on Pakistani society. For instance, the ongoing fighting between the Islamic State’s Khorasan chapter (IS-K) and the Afghan Taliban is not merely a conflict between two rival militant and ideological forces; it is also a reflection of sectarian, ethnic and class divisions in Afghan society, and has already started to impact Pakistan as well.

The IS-K announced a long war against the Taliban after the latter signed the Doha deal with the US in February 2020 and has intensified its attacks inside Afghanistan since then. The terrorist group has claimed over 90 attacks inside Afghanistan since Sept 18, including some major ones, and about 85 per cent of these attacks have been targeted against the Taliban. At their end, the Taliban have also launched a deadly crackdown on IS-K, but Salafists in Afghanistan complain that this is an onslaught on their beliefs and have accused the Taliban of detaining and killing adherents of Salafist ideology. Pakistani Salafist scholars have shown concern over the plight of Salafists in Afghanistan and requested the Taliban leadership to stop their persecution.

Trends suggest that the conflict between the Taliban and IS-K will add to the insecurity in Pakistan.

The situation has implications for Pakistan in many ways. First, a protracted conflict and insecurity in Afghanistan, as being projected by many analysts, will affect Pakistan’s border security as well as the militant landscape in its bordering areas in KP and Balochistan. Secondly, the Taliban-IS-K fight has already entered Pakistan where IS-K has carried out multiple attacks in recent years on alleged Afghan Taliban members and associated religious scholars in Balochistan and KP. In October, the IS-K claimed the targeted killing of a militant, Noor Zaman, said to be affiliated with the Haqqani Network of the Afghan Taliban near Wana, the headquarters of South Waziristan tribal district. Last month, the group killed a JUI-F leader on suspicions of his links to the Taliban.

Read: Extremists targeting extremists

This trend suggests that the conflict between the Taliban and IS-K will add to the insecurity inside Pakistan besides widening the Salafi-Hanafi divide in the country or at least in the Bajaur, Mohmand and Orakzai tribal districts, which have a decades-old history of such a divide. During the so-called jihad against the Soviet Union, Salafist scholar Sheikh Jamilur Rehman had formed a Sharia-based government in Nuristan and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan which also influenced the adjoining tribal areas in Pakistan. Even after 9/11, the Salafist militant groups in Bajaur and Mohmand tribal districts had opposed the Pakistani Taliban and remained aligned directly with the Salafist leadership of Al Qaeda.

As mentioned, the Taliban’s perception of the Salafists is rooted in history, and it may not completely go away because of some external interferences. Abdul Sayed, a known researcher on militancy, has traced the roots of the conflict in one of his recent articles and noted that the Taliban are suspicious of Afghan Salafists for supporting their arch-enemy, IS-K. Some leading Afghan Salafist religious scholars pledged their allegiance to the Taliban’s supreme leader Shaikh Hibatullah Akhunzada in March 2020, which also shows that although IS-K originates from among the Afghan Salafists, most of the Salafists do not support IS-K in its war against the Taliban.

However, all these efforts have largely failed to build trust between the two warring groups. One main reason is that the Salafist scholars hold very critical views about the Sufi and Maturidi Hanafis who dominate the Taliban ranks. The Salafist scholars declared them impure Muslims and considered them apostates on account of their theological beliefs. This resulted in the unofficial Taliban ban on Afghan Salafists in the pre-9/11 era. As a result, Afghan Salafists shifted to Peshawar, which hosted Salafist madressahs. Mr Sayyed has also pointed out that Al Qaeda has tried several times to build trust between the Taliban and the Afghan Salafists, but as soon as the Taliban took full control over the insurgency, it once again started purging its ranks of Salafists.

In the current context, the Taliban also know that IS-K is strengthening its networks in the urban areas by recruiting disgruntled, battle-hardened members of other groups as well as self-radicalised educated youths — mostly adherents of Salafism. Some experts have claimed that IS-K’s Kabul network had “also absorbed splinters and defectors from the Taliban’s radical Haqqani Network”. Similarly, IS-K has waged an extensive propaganda war against the Taliban declaring them allies and puppets of the US, who have deviated from their jihadist purpose; this was the Taliban propaganda against previous Afghan governments.

There is also a view among Taliban ranks that the Afghan Salafists can establish a parallel military strength with the support of Saudi Arabia, as it does not like the Taliban’s engagement with Qatar where they have established their office in Doha. The Taliban leadership also remained apprehensive about the Saudi-led religious diplomacy initiatives to reconcile with the Ashraf Ghani administration.

If Saudi Arabia recognises the Taliban regime and provides economic assistance, there could be consequences for the Salafists in Afghanistan. It is not certain how Riyadh will act in the future but Saudi Arabia as the current chair of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has requested a special meeting on Afghanistan, which will be held on Dec 19 in Islamabad, and the pledges and declarations can help assess the Saudi policy towards Afghanistan.

The Taliban also have apprehensions that if not Saudi Arabia other external players can use IS-K to weaken their regime. Who can understand better than the Taliban the role of external support in the destabilisation of a country? But merging a militant group with a community is a mistake which can continue to nurture anger that will only benefit IS-K.

The writer is a security analyst.

Published in Dawn, December 12th, 2021

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