Will the return of the Taliban spell doom for ISIS? The two Jihadist groups have warred for years
Only time will tell whether Taliban will completely obliterate ISKP (Afghan faction of ISIS) in and around Afghanistan to establish their monocracy
"The Taliban are terrorists, and they’re going to support terrorists. If they take control of Afghanistan, there is no question in my mind that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda, for ISIS and for terrorism in general," former US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta noted in a recent interview with NPR. For the uninitiated, this appears to be the only plausible prediction, given the identical nature of extremist tenets followed by both Taliban and ISIS. Both Taliban and Islamic State have unleashed their reign of terror on their native provinces until countered by international military forces. Women's rights took a backseat under the past dominance of both groups, where heinous customs like sex slavery or rape were glorified. Comprised of hardliner Sunni extremists, both the forces adhere to strict Sharia Law and resort to violence to impose autocracy. It appears to be quite black and white — if Taliban is here, can ISIS be far behind?
Panetta's summarization of the Afghanistan crisis was dubbed as "blunt" by The Independent journalist Joe Sommerlad, and quite rightfully so. If one takes a quick glance at the history of the two "diametrically opposed" extremist organizations, they have actually been in bitter conflict for years. Their dispute escalated in 2015, when ISIS formed the Islamic State-Khorasan Province (ISKP) — to establish their control over Afghanistan, a Talibani stronghold. This was the first time ISIS sought to expand its reach beyond the borders of war-ravaged Syria and Iraq.
Soon after the Taliban established control over Afghanistan this week, an unverified Twitter post reported the assassination of ISKP leader Sheikh Omar Khorasani aka Zai ul Haq at the hands of the Taliban. "[Khorasani] was buried at his hometown in Kunar today. His family sources say that the Taliban killed him," the post claimed, adding that he was murdered in Kabul's Pul-i-Charkhi prison. Now, only time will tell whether the Taliban will completely obliterate ISKP in and around Afghanistan to establish their monocracy.
Formation of Taliban predates the ISIS
The rise of the Taliban dates back to the early 1990s, when Afghanistan was reeling under a civil war. A large number of students aligned with the ideology of the group, who comprised erstwhile mujahideen fighters from during the Soviet Regime. Led by founder Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban used violence and coercion to conquer almost the entire country by September 1996, thereby declaring the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Their tyrannical rule lasted till 2001, when US-led coalition forces waged a war against terrorism, following the 9/11 terror attack. The Taliban was sidelined for over a decade and remained as an insurgent group with limited power. That is, until last week, when the US decided to close in on the withdrawal of troops from the country. Now, with the re-emergence of the Taliban and no US military to protect them, the future looks grim for the Afghan population.
On the other hand, ISIS was founded in 1999, under Jordanian Jihadist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. They remained as a little-known insurgent group based in Iraq, until their sudden rise to prominence around 2014 — when they drove Iraqi armed forces out of major cities and established a caliphate. They later ventured into war-torn Syria and wreaked havoc on the Middle-Eastern nation. Their tales of blood-curdling violence against women and minorities once dominated the front pages of global news dailies. Eventually, in 2017, ISIS was cornered into surrendering their major strongholds Mosul and Raqqa as international armed forces came into the picture.
How are the groups funded?
In the first phase of the Taliban regime between 1996 and 2001, many of the top militant leaders were former warlords, who amassed fortunes by carving out fiefdoms in the war-torn country.
In the past two decades, as they stayed discreetly in the more inaccessible regions of Afghanistan, the Taliban slowly gathered their financial resources and built a sizeable weapon inventory, which ultimately facilitated their unprecedented takeover. Their prime source of finances included drug trafficking, extortion and unethical taxes imposed on local business owners, foreign assistance, and even charitable donations from affluent supporters of their cause. The latest UN report estimated their annual collections to be between $299 million to $1.59 billion. Needless to say, no regional militia can ever match up to the military opulence of the Taliban, who perhaps can only be stopped with strong foreign intervention.
During the prime years of their reign of terror in the Middle-East, the ISIS raised its funds by establishing totalitarian control over oil-rich regions. They controlled banks, oil and gas reservoirs and imposed taxation like zakat and jizya on the local residents. They even took influential people hostage for ransom at times. They also consistently earned millions by smuggling 'blood antiques' from demolished Syrian relics across European black markets, and found buyers in wealthy collectors largely unaware of the sources. It has often been debated whether strong finances are the most potent strength of ISIS as compared to the military and political prowess of their Afghan counterparts.
Conflict over Afghanistan
Dispersed provinces of Afghanistan have long been the bones of contention between the Taliban and ISKP, formed in January 2015. The later is majorly constituted by defectors from Taliban who lost their trust in the top leadership to overthrow US military control. In fact, during November 2015, infighting weakened the Taliban as two separate factions emerged over the question of joining the ISIS.
Meanwhile, the then Taliban supreme commander Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour did not take the ISKP's formation in stride. He corresponded with the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, demanding their retreat from Afghanistan. In June 2015, the two groups engaged in a violent battle, followed by more in April and May 2017.
The situation was heated, and both the groups were equally vulnerable and dangerous. Ultimately, the Taliban launched an elaborate offensive in 2018 to eradicate ISIS from the Afghan province of Jowzjan. They received the support of the Jihadist group Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan in the mission that led to over 7,000 civilians being ousted from their homes.
The ISKP suffered a miserable defeat at the hands of Taliban. They reeled under further setbacks after clashes with the US-Afghan joint military. As per the latest reports, there are only around 2,200 members of the group still operational in Afghanistan. In February 2020, former President Donald Trump met with the Taliban to sign a rather ambiguous peace accord, where the terrorist group agreed to keep ISIS and other Jihadi extremist groups out of Afghanistan.
Will this be the end for ISIS?
On a global spectrum, ISIS had remained out of the limelight in the past few years. Now, with the re-establishment of an Islamic fascist state under Taliban, there are chances of ISIS being further subdued into oblivion considering the past conflicts between the two factions.
As the chaos in Kabul unfolded with president Ashraf Ghani fleeing the country, many prisoners broke free from the notorious Pul-e-Charki prison on Bagram airbase. They included more than 5,000 alleged ISIS and al-Qaeda fighters. While their whereabouts are currently unknown, it is not entirely unlikely that many of them would switch allegiance to the Taliban now.
At the same time, some political analysts are arguing that Taliban's victory might encourage other Jihadist factions around the world. "It is impossible to understate how significant this is likely to be for the jihadist movement worldwide — it will be reaped for years, if not decades, to come," noted Charles Lister, Senior Fellow and Director of Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute.
History says a coalition between the Taliban and ISIS is unlikely anytime soon. So, in case other extremist organizations choose to collude with the Taliban, ISIS might be further sidelined. Now, only time can tell if Taliban's rise will take the world in the direction of a major war against terrorism in the future, or perhaps even a World War III. The future is as uncertain and unprecedented as Taliban taking over an entire country overnight.