As the Taliban nears a peace deal with the US, the increasing presence of Daesh in the country makes the Afghan militant group jittery.
The increasing attacks from Daesh in Afghanistan have raised concerns over the potency of the steadily growing terrorist group, even as the Taliban inches closer to a peace deal to end the 18-year war in the country.
The most recent Daesh attack on an Afghan Shia wedding celebration in Kabul, claiming over 80 lives, has experts speculating whether the group could fill the vacuum in regional militancy in light of the Taliban negotiating peace with the US.
Daesh has already caused substantial casualties to minority groups, while simultaneously battling the Taliban on several fronts. The concerns over the growing presence of the dreaded terror group are not just limited to pro-government forces, but are also festering among the Taliban ranks.
“In their own assessment, the Taliban are failing to fight Daesh,” said Hekmat Azamy, Deputy Director at the Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies (CAPS), who has spent a considerable part of the last decade studying regional insurgencies, and more recently the growth of Daesh in Afghanistan.
In an interview with TRT World, he said the Taliban’s recent reshuffle of commanders was indicative of its changing strategies towards Daesh.
“This is from [intel gathered from] their own discussions where they’ve sent top commanders to regions like Kunar to help local Taliban fight Daesh,” Azamy said. Many eastern provinces like Kunar and Nangarhar have seen increased Daesh activities.
Meanwhile, the Taliban has engaged in several rounds of slow, albeit promising talks with the US administration in a bid to end the almost two-decade-long conflict. When finalised, it could potentially lead to a much-awaited ceasefire, followed by intra-Afghan talks between the Afghan government, veteran politicians and the Taliban.
Before the Taliban has ended its negotiations with the US and moved on to intra-Afghan talks, the militant group is being haunted by the looming threat of defections.
Experts believe that several Taliban fighters, especially those representing the Salafi ideology, are likely to join Daesh, with whom they have more ideological proximity.
“The Taliban fighters will have three options, to either join the peace process, or get killed, or join Daesh. It’s possible many hardcore Salafi ideological guys might turn to Daesh. They are starting to believe that the Taliban cause is not Islamic, but rather nationalist,” Azamy said, adding that while Daesh recruitment is already high, it is likely to increase once the peace deal is struck.
Political figures sympathetic of the Taliban, however, told TRT World that they are confident the Taliban will overcome the threat from Daesh once it is done negotiating with both the US and Afghan government. “They [the Taliban] failed [to defeat Daesh] because they have been fighting on three fronts at any given time—the Afghan government, coalition forces and Daesh. But once peace deal is accomplished things will change swiftly. Taliban will then only fight Daesh and defeating them will be easy for them,” Faiz M Zaland, a political analyst and Kabul University lecturer said. “Taliban considers Daesh an eminent enemy. And Daesh fears a peace deal will wipe them out and so they are doing their best to disrupt it.”
Zaland also dismissed claims of Taliban fighters shifting camp to Daesh.“The narrative and ideology Daesh follows is not supported locally by Afghans. They also practiced a Salafi Wahabi discourse and the Taliban are traditional Muslim Afghans following the Hanafi order, it is unlikely that they will find followers in Taliban,” he explained.
Azamy, however, admitted that the Afghan militant group may have to avert the possibility of the Salafi Taliban fighter joining Daesh.
To back his assessment of the Taliban fighters who follow the Salafi order, he invoked an anecdote of a former Taliban fighter Moulvi Ismail.
"Moulvi Ismail—was a main commander with a larger number of fighters in Daesh," Azamy said. "He would tell his people that he lost his leg fighting for the nationalistic cause of the Taliban, and that after he dies that leg will be in hell, and the rest of him will get jannat [heaven]."
Although the Taliban has never confronted the Salafi fighters, he said, the militant group has rarely given them prominent leadership positions. “My assessment is that a big number of Salafis in the Taliban are waiting for the opportunity to shift. That is the ideological challenge the Taliban are set to face after peace talks,” he said.
Experts say it's possible that the Daesh factor and ideological differences within the Taliban cadres might have pushed the group to enter into a favourable deal with the US and eventually with the Afghan government.
“This situation could play out in both ways; on one hand, the Taliban might be reluctant to agree to a ceasefire fearing that their fighters will switch to Daesh if the battles stop. One the other hand, there is a real possibility that this concern will also make them expedite the ceasefire and talks, if they realise they are running out of time and the final deal could help them prevent their losses in the battle field, and gain political credibility,” Azamy from CAPS said.
The future manoeuvring of the Taliban will largely depend on the outcome of its talks with the US and the political framework the two sides will agree upon.
But the increasing Daesh attacks could drag the peace process into unchartered territory.
"Daesh is not only relevant but is capable to hit us, and that tells us about its potency. The number of their casualties compared to their recruitment also tells about their strength, and is a bit worrying,” Azamy pointed out, advising caution to all parties engaging in the peace negotiations.
Azamy also recalled a conversation he recently had with a Taliban member in Qatar who apparently told him: "Today we are calling the name of Allah Akbar, fighting against people sitting on the other side of this wall. Tomorrow we will be sitting on that side of the wall and some other elements will be doing the same to us."