ISIS Threat Looms Over the Taliban
JALALABAD, Afghanistan — Aref Mohammad’s war against the Islamic State ended when his unit of Taliban fighters was ambushed in eastern Afghanistan. A bullet shattered his femur, leaving him barely able to walk, never mind fight. But for the Taliban movement he served under, now the government of Afghanistan, the war against the Islamic State was just beginning.
“If we knew where they were from, we would pursue them and destroy them,” Mr. Mohammed, 19, said from his hospital bed in Jalalabad, the capital of Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar Province where the Islamic State has maintained a presence since 2015.
In the two months since the Taliban took control, the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan — known as Islamic State Khorasan or ISIS-K — has stepped up attacks, straining the new government and raising alarms in the West about the resurgence of a group that could eventually pose an international threat. Suicide bombings in Kabul, the capital, and in cities including Kunduz in the north and Kandahar in the Taliban’s southern heartland have killed at least 90 people and wounded hundreds more over just several weeks.
After spending 20 years fighting as an insurgency, the Taliban is wrestling with providing security and delivering on its commitment of law and order. With an army that was trained for rural guerrilla warfare, this has proved especially challenging in crowded cities.
Some Western officials predict that the Islamic State could gain the capability to strike international targets in six to 12 months. There is little way for Western intelligence to measure the Taliban’s effectiveness against ISIS-K, as limited drone flights provide piecemeal information and the network of informants has collapsed. The Taliban, who have refused to cooperate with the United States in countering the Islamic State, are fighting with tactics that look far more localized than a government campaign against a terrorist organization.
“The Taliban became accustomed to fighting as insurgents, relying on a range of asymmetric attacks to target Afghan and U.S. forces,” said Colin P. Clarke, an analyst at the Soufan Group, a security firm based in New York. “But it seems clear that the Taliban has not given much thought at all to how the equation changes as a counterinsurgent.”
Still, the Taliban has used the resurgence of the terrorist group as a bargaining chip for more financial aid, according to Qatari officials. Recognizing the potential threat along its shared border with Afghanistan, Pakistan is feeding some intelligence to the Taliban, according to U.S. officials.
Dr. Basir, the head of the Taliban’s intelligence arm in Jalalabad who goes by one name, is now responsible for securing a city of several hundred thousand people. Jalalabad has been an easy target for the Islamic State, which has dispatched cells of fighters into the city from surrounding districts.
The group has taken advantage of the weeks during which the new government was coming together. Between September 18 and October 28, the Islamic State carried out at least 54 attacks in Afghanistan, according to an analysis by ExTrac, a private firm that monitors violence in conflict zones. Most attacks targeted Taliban security forces — a shift from the first seven months of the year, when the Islamic State primarily targeted civilians.
In countering the Islamic State, Dr. Basir said that the Taliban have what the last government and Americans did not: the broad support of the local population.
But that level of trust could wane, security analysts say, as there is increasing fear that the Taliban could use the ISIS-K threat as an excuse to carry out violence on certain segments of the population, such as members of the former government.
In 2015, the Islamic State in Khorasan was officially established in Afghanistan’s east by former members of the Pakistani Taliban. Many villages there are inhabited by Salafi Muslims, the same branch of Sunni Islam as the Islamic State. A minority among the Taliban, Salafi fighters were eager to join the new group.
The Taliban have made a show of openness to the Salafists, but there is still widespread unease within their community. At one Salafi school, the Taliban forced the founder to flee and banned Salafist works from the curriculum.
For Faraidoon Momand, a power broker in Jalalabad, the worsening economic situation is also driving the Islamic State’s recruitment. “In every society if the economy is bad, people will do what they have to do to get by,” Mr. Momand said.
Changing from an insurgency to a counterinsurgency.