Reports have surfaced indicating that long time regional adversaries Russia and the Taliban are exchanging intelligence on the presence of ISIS in Afghanistan . Even though the Taliban deny sharing intelligence on ISIS, they have been in communication with Russia . The presence of ISIS in Afghanistan has changed the political dynamics that govern the region. Ironically, ISIS has helped legitimize the Taliban insurgency to many in the region.
ISIS in Afghanistan
After the announcement of the death of the Taliban founder and spiritual leader Mullah Omar, an internal struggle over succession was fought. In the wake of the leadership struggle, some Taliban members became disaffected and joined ranks with foreign fighters, mainly from Central Asia, to pledge their allegiance to ISIS . The bulk concentration of the Afghan or Khorasan (as referred to the region by ISIS) branch of ISIS is concentrated in the eastern part of Afghanistan, mainly around the province of Nangarhar. The Pashtun tribesmen of this region are more wont to switch allegiance depending on the opportunities available as recent and ancient history of Afghanistan has shown. The appeal of ISIS is more the availability of weapons and finance rather than ideological. But more disturbing than the Afghan members of ISIS are the Central Asian fighters who comprise the Khorasan branch. They tend to be more ideologically zealous than their Afghan counterparts. Their apocalyptic vision is not only limited to Afghanistan but view Central Asia, India and Pakistan as the eventual ISIS province of Khorasan. Similar to the brutality exhibited in Syria and Iraq, the ISIS branch in Afghanistan has carried out abhorrent actions against local civilians. Ironically, the emergence of ISIS in Afghanistan has made the Taliban more palatable not only for Afghans but the international community to an extent.
Taliban vs. ISIS vs. Afghan Government – The lesser of evils
Shortly after the Taliban were toppled from power in early 2002, Afghans were optimistic and hoped for a bright future in their country free from extremism and oppression. This dream was short-lived unfortunately due to the international community’s compliance in allowing the former warlords to partake in the newly inaugurated Afghan government led by Hamid Karzai. The warlords in turn created their own fiefdom throughout the country and corruption ran rampant. As a result, the Taliban are becoming more popular once again throughout the country.
Yet, people are still fearful of their misogynistic and repressive past. When ISIS entered the scene, everything changed. In one of their callous act, ISIS stopped a bus carrying workers and singled out those who were Hazaras, a minority in Afghanistan who tend to be Shiites, which ISIS views as heretics . The initial reaction was that the kidnapping was an act of the Taliban, who promptly denied any association. It turned out to be Uzbek members of ISIS, who wanted to use the hostages as leverage to free their families imprisoned by the Afghan government. As described by the hostages, torture was a daily occurrence and some were beheaded. In an interesting twist of events, the Taliban mounted a rescue mission and freed the captives. The Afghan government despite their extensive training failed to do anything to retrieve those kidnapped. Acts like this have made the Taliban more popular than the authorities in Kabul.
Recent military gains by the Taliban have displayed that they are a cohesive insurgency that can provide government functions in areas under their control while the Afghan government has failed to provide the most basic functions as a government.
All this has made the Russians keener in negotiating with the Taliban. While the two have been at odds due to their different intentions for Afghanistan, Russia is fully aware that ISIS will pose a longer term threat to Russia itself than the Taliban. While ISIS’s vision is transnational, the Taliban remain a native insurgency with designs for Afghanistan. The presence of ISIS has actually helped the Taliban gain more legitimacy in the international community as a partner to fight this extreme group that threatens the international community as a whole. Surprisingly, the Taliban may be the only force in the region to do so. The Afghan government has proven its inability on many occasions to stand up to ISIS. As the US and NATO withdraw, they may see some benefit in negotiating with the Taliban and using them as a counter force to prevent ISIS establishing any kind of foothold in the region. This type of recognition by the international community has granted the Taliban a type of legitimacy it has been seeking.
Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan the future is bleak. On one end of the spectrum is a newly emerge group with loyalties that transcends the nation-state concept and whose atrocities pale in comparison to the Taliban. On the other end is a government that is filled with corrupt warlords whose allegiances are more with regional fiefdoms and ethnic groups rather than the central government. In the middle of these two choices exists a group with an abhorrent history while in power but yet somehow less extreme than ISIS and yet more functional to the needs of the people than the dilapidated coalition of warlords known as the Afghan government. The people of Afghanistan will regrettably have to suffer the pain of being under the authority of any of these three groups.