Amid the Ukrainian war, the Afghan crisis accurately represents a forgotten conflict. Notably, the rivalry between the Taliban and the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP), personified by violence and instability, has, much to the detriment of analysts, continued to bleed the country dry. Additionally, food and health insecurity fuelled by climate change and COVID-19, suppression of women’s rights and freedoms due to distorted beliefs of de facto rulers, and intensifying border tensions with Pakistan have compounded uncertainty facing the Afghans. While these factors have added to the growing, multi-dimensional gordian knot mirroring the deteriorating conditions in Afghanistan, the security concerns shaped by the Taliban-ISKP rivalry are central to the Afghan quagmire.
Nevertheless, as the world rapidly shifted its attention from the fallout of the international coalition’s withdrawal from Afghanistan to the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and the subsequent humanitarian catastrophe, the graveyard of empires has continued to experience far-reaching turbulence.
Untangling Afghanistan’s security profile
The Afghan state’s security dilemma has widened over the past year due to the new regime’s ineptitude at eliminating incoming attacks staged by the ISKP. It stands true, as it did in the immediate aftermath of Kabul’s fall in August 2021, that ISKP will partially fill the security vacuum, challenging the Taliban’s authority without posing an existential threat. However, ISKP’s constant attacks operating interchangeably between high and low-intensity ones, and their impact – fatalities, sectarian tensions, fear, mistrust, and paranoia – are collectively dismantling the fragile security architecture instituted post-2001.
Since last year, ISKP-led attacks have repeatedly jolted the Afghans and those reportedly responsible for their security, in quick succession. This has prompted analysts to wonder about the veracity of claims made by the interim government about being in control of the country’s entirety. The ideological and resource-based competition driving such attacks and counter-retaliations by the emerging law and security-enforcement agencies have failed to derive a definitive victory for either faction. Furthermore, this has undermined any semblance of normalcy which could have taken root – for better or worse. Furthermore, the Taliban’s counter-response has adopted a flawed logic, driven by their ideological hostility towards Salafism, of which The ISKP has adopted a distorted interpretation – Salafist Jihadism. On the other hand, the Taliban are followers of the Hanafi-Deobandi school of thought.
Beginning with the blast at the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul in August 2021, the ISKP has routinely undermined chances of achieving relative security in Afghanistan after the regime change. Two bomb blasts rocked Kabul in the days preceding the Eid celebrations.
On 30th April 2022, at least one individual was killed, three were wounded when a passenger van exploded, and 10 (although the death toll was at least 50) were killed when a bomb was detonated inside a mosque on 29th April 2022. Although nobody assumed responsibility for the first attack, it aligns with the modus operandi of the ISKP.
Earlier, on 19th April 2022, bomb blasts at the Abdul Rahim Shahid High School injured at least 17 and fatally wounded six others. The death toll later catapulted to 20 in a predominantly Shia Hazara neighbourhood. This was closely aligned with ISKP’s operational style.
While the Salafist-Jihadists, i.e., the ISKP terrorists, have staged violent attacks against civilians, amid which senior commanders have also lost their lives, the Taliban has conveniently forgotten that not all followers of Islam’s Salafi doctrine have violent inclinations. Nevertheless, the Taliban leaders have stepped up their crackdown on Afghan Salafis to display that the fight against an opposing terrorist group is steadily attaining success.
For example, alleged reports about Salafist seminaries and mosques being raided or closed down have increasingly emerged since last year. While the ideological differences and ambition to wholly assert control over Afghanistan’s entirety are the rationale of the Taliban’s domestic policies, it is significant for the new regime to consider that such actions will prove detrimental to maintaining security.
A war with no end in sight?
This war will get more chaotic and bloody as the days go by, and the international coalition’s belief that the Taliban would be able to keep domestic and international security threats at bay has now been proven to be a critically incorrect presumption, even a disillusion perhaps.
Deadly incidents such as these are understandably a cause for concern and compounds the resentment of the restive population that cannot access essential services amid rising inflation and where at least one in five families are compelled to force their children to take up jobs as domestic help as financial insecurity has skyrocketed.
On the other hand, the Taliban’s counter-response will allow the ISKP to recruit moderate Salafists to swell its ranks. This will be a gradual process, yet all the more dangerous to the country’s security situation. It is so because vis-à-vis a more rapid pace of recruitment, a slow and steady process would be more inconspicuous and would occur more easily below the radar. Moreover, in a country where despite trillions of dollars of aid being pumped over twenty years, the intelligence apparatus proved inconsequential in determining and thwarting the Taliban’s advance, it would be at least a couple more decades before the incumbent regime could turn the tide around. Nevertheless, such improvements would prove rather challenging for an administration that is cash-strapped (on a legitimate front) and has proved unable to make a convincing case for its recognition by the global community.
Worsening the problem is the possibility of people taking up arms against the state in the face of food and financial insecurity, which will continue to mount as long as violence and instability continue to plague the society. Perhaps, defections from the Taliban could also take place in protest of deteriorating human security conditions and the leaders’ ineptitude at governing as per the Islamic traditions while vying to align closer to the western world.
It would also open small, albeit multiple fronts against the Taliban and the broader Hanafi-Deobandi adherents. The victims of attacks on places of worship have remained confined to the Shia Hazara community’s members. However, non-conforming Sunnis also perceived as heretics. A civil war with cross-sectarian colours would witness mass hysteria, bloodshed, and displacement. Additionally, the decimation of infrastructure – roads, government, health, etc. – and modes of connectivity would take a hit in the second round of impact.
On the other hand, neighbouring Pakistan, which is swiftly transforming itself into a polity dominated by militant-religious groups, could act as a quicksand, further fuelling the contentious disputes about the Durand Line and aggravating border conflicts, setting ablaze both itself and Afghanistan. After all, developments in either country have rarely remained independent, at least in the contemporary era. The power and security vacuum created under such circumstances invariably results in fomenting ground for foreign fighters to commercialise war and reap profits by fighting as mercenaries for the warring factions that pay the maximum rewards. Strategically straddling Central and South Asia, Afghanistan would be appropriately positioned to be the hub of terrorist haven, training camps, and centre of ideological spillover.
While this does not mean granting international recognition to the Taliban government, it means formulating a mechanism to continue delivering aid directly to the Afghans in the long term and empowering them. In addition, there is a necessity to ensure that an international peacekeeping mission is ready for deployment if a wider conflict engulfs Afghanistan. Since raising funds and equipped personnel for such tasks would be a long-drawn-out process, it is pertinent for invested stakeholders, including Russia and China – to carefully review the developments and, through a carrot and stick policy, contain any untoward dilemmas from arising. It has less to do with helping the interim rulers and more to do with assisting the ordinary Afghans in navigating the multi-pronged complexities and preventing the fallout of a broader war from permeating the borders these countries share with Afghanistan.