Five years ago, I sat in a stuffy trailer wedged inside a Baghdad military base just as the offensive to eliminate ISIS was ready to kick off.
“You wait,” the senior Iraqi intelligence officer told me, his eyes wide and foreboding. “The ones that escape from here, it could take years, but they will eventually go to regroup in Afghanistan.”
At the time, I did not think much of it. While much of the US military presence in Afghanistan in recent years has been focused on eliminating the terrorist affiliate referred to as ISKP, ISK or ISIS-K, in reference to the historical area known as the Khorasan Province, the group was often viewed by Afghans themselves as a distracting sideshow compared to the tens of thousands of Taliban members.
But on Thursday, ISIS made its mark yet again, capitalizing on the chaos surrounding Hamid Karzai International Airport and those attempting to flee, claiming responsibility for a coordinated suicide bomb and gun assault that killed 13 US service members and at least 90 Afghans.
While there is a Western tendency to conflate both Islamic extremist groups — Taliban and ISIS — as one and the same, the outfits are not collaborators but archrivals. When they weren’t waging separate attacks on Afghan security forces, they were waging war on each other through the rugged terrain.
So what are the essential differences?
While the Taliban have notoriously had close ties to al Qaeda, they never shared such a bond with the regional ISIS wing, which emerged in early 2015 and was ignited by disgruntled Taliban defector Hafiz Saeed Khan. The Taliban’s strategic objectives have been focused on domestic control — influencing Afghanistan’s practices, communal norms and politics. By comparison, ISIS endeavors to fold Afghanistan into a broader and borderless Islamic “caliphate.”
The Taliban boast numbers well into the tens — likely hundreds — of thousands, whereas ISIS-K has seen its ranks dwindle to a few thousand active members. Thus, without the workforce to take and hold populated areas the way the Taliban have done, ISIS fighters are primarily in hiding and rely on sowing discord across the blood-spattered country through targeted bomb blasts and mass attacks in densely populated pockets.
Just as the Taliban have long sought to conduct attacks to undermine the ability of the former US-backed government to provide adequate security for the population, ISIS-K is seemingly following the playbook and casting a shadow across the new regime.
And even though ISIS and the Taliban stand on opposite sides of the battle lines, there is some degree of crossover and defection, according to US and Afghan intelligence officials. In its initial phase, ISIS-K had significant success in recruiting disgruntled Taliban insurgents seeking global dominion rather than nationalistic ambitions. Both groups have also managed to infiltrate each other and pay disaffected fighters to swap sides.
The issue of Afghan security forces swapping to join the Taliban has long been a significant problem, but there was much less concern about soldiers trading their camouflage for the black-clad ISIS dress.
Moreover, the Taliban in recent years managed to assail a vast array of provinces dotted across the Afghan map. In contrast, ISIS remained limited to small strongholds inside the northern province of Jowzjan and the eastern province of Nangarhar. The notion of a fringe group forming was not embraced by the Taliban, which viewed the ISIS-K emergence as a threat to its push toward power.
Before the sudden collapse of the Afghanistan government earlier this month, Afghan intelligence officials cautioned me that an array of foreign fighters from beleaguered Iraq and Syrian battlefields had indeed fled toward the Afghanistan affiliate in months past, as indicated by their identification cards once killed. The terrorist group’s funding supply has primarily emanated from the base of ISIS headquarters in the Middle East, whereas the Taliban has been propped up by internal tax revenues in places it has seized, the opium drug trade, and a spattering of foreign countries.
And despite the fact that both groups follow harsh interpretations of Sharia Law and have carried out blasts and bombings implicating civilians, only ISIS-K is a designated terrorist organization in the eyes of the US. Washington never slapped the Taliban with the designation in a bid to keep the door open for diplomatic discussions.
In my years of covering the mosaic of conflict in Afghanistan, I have only ever heard one credible anecdote of seeming collusion between the two components. During a visit in early 2017, several National Directorate of Security (NDS) sources noted that while the Taliban and ISIS persistently fought each other in the eastern and southern regions, there was a small degree of cooperation in northern provinces such as Kunduz and Badakhshan against government forces. Eyewitness accounts also indicated yet a small contingent of Taliban leaders had provided safe passage for wounded ISIS fighters to get medical assistance.
Yet for the most part, such situations of partnership are the rare exception and not the norm.
In fact, the radical threat of ISIS-K and its universal aspirations prompted other nations in the neighborhood – namely China, Russia and Iran – to openly develop relations and support the Taliban as the most effective means of fighting ISIS and thus stopping it from spilling into their countries, creating a diplomatic and military quagmire for the United States.
Nonetheless, after four decades of almost nonstop conflict and the Taliban’s skeptical declarations of peace and amnesty for all, Afghanistan may very well be entering another bloody chapter of its war narrative – a showdown between the Taliban and ISIS.
Multiple sources also told me this week that as the Taliban has been capturing cities and provinces, it has been opening the doors of prisons – including the infamous Bagram – to free its jailed members, with the exception of those belonging to ISIS. The Wall Street Journal also reported that the Taliban executed former ISIS-K leader Abu Omar Khorasani after they took over a Kabul lockup this week where he and several others were being held after arrests by government forces.
But despite intelligence warnings from the US and allies this week about a possible attack – which was emphasized further during my interview with a Taliban official who admitted that they were working to foil “malicious elements” just hours before the blasts took place – the attack evidently could not be thwarted. This spells potential disaster for the pending Taliban government, both in terms of its national security and the spillover effect into global security.
And given that Washington has remained adamant that it is done with a military footprint in Afghanistan after almost 20 years of protracted conflict, in a jarring twist of fate, the Taliban could well be the recipient of international backing from countries – including the United States – to beat back the looming ISIS threat.
So if threats and attacks continue across Afghanistan, undermining the Taliban’s ability to exert dominance over the populous, that could also inspire a sizable Taliban desertion and triumphant recruitment for ISIS, which begs the question: what will it take for the US to go back in?