The Taliban’s challenge is to root out Daesh's Khorasan wing without sowing the seeds of another long war.

Note: This is the second of a two-part publication examining the rise of Daesh-K and the extent of its relationship with the Taliban. The first article can be found here.

The attack on Kabul last week that killed Taliban garrison commander Hamdullah Mukhlis, a lieutenant of interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani underlines the struggle that the Afghan “emirate” faces in rooting out Daesh’s Khorasan wing. 

In the first half of this two-part article, we examined the roots of Daesh on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border – largely found among veterans of an insurgency against Islamabad. This second part traces Daesh’s less successful attempts to win defections and land from the Taliban insurgency in 2010s Afghanistan – attempts that raised both risks and opportunities for the insurgency.

Daesh had minor success in infiltrating the Haqqanis, a subsection of the Taliban movement that later played a major role against them, attracting two senior commanders – Azizullah Haqqani and Abdul-Rauf Zakir, both charged with planning suicide attacks. In contrast to the Pakistani insurgency, however, Taliban commanders of any rank who defected to Daesh were few and far between.

Along with emigres from the Pakistani side of the border, Daesh attracted Afghan recruits with misgivings about the Taliban movement, like Abdul-Rahim Muslimdost, a reporter and former captive of the United States who served briefly as Daesh’s political leader in Khorasan before breaking away because of its brutality. 

Enablers and defectors in Daesh’s growth

The seniormost Taliban defector was Abdul Rauf Khadim, former Kabul corps commander during the “emirate” and a former prisoner of the United States.  Increasingly unhappy with the Taliban insurgency’s politics, he founded a short-lived front in the Taliban stronghold of Helmand, fighting his former colleagues before an American airstrike slew him in February 2015.  Like Khadim, irritation at Taliban politics – particularly a succession crisis in 2015-16 – motivated another short-lived front in the Afghan south, led by Qari Saifullah among his Kakar clansmen.

A stranger front was founded in Juzjan by Niamatullah Qawim and Qari Hikmatullah, both of whom had been sacked by the Taliban. Qawim had publicly surrendered to Ashraf Ghani’s then-deputy, Abdul-Rashid Dostum, before joining Daesh. After an attempt to wheedle them back by current Taliban deputy prime minister Abdul-Salam Hanafi, Taliban regional commander Sayed Abdul-Rahman led a campaign that routed this front in summer 2018. Curiously, much of this front escaped to Dostum’s terrain, where its leaders Qawim and Habibur-Rahman Rahbar claimed to have been promised support by the government to fight the Taliban insurgency.

This may have been self-serving talk, but a pattern did emerge where Daesh fronts fighting Taliban rivals would escape into government territory, even during the last Taliban campaign in the east during 2019-20. There Kabul also jailed fleeing Daesh governor-generals, veteran Pakistani insurgent Aslam Abdullah and Abu Umar Ziaul-Haq, the latter eventually killed in prison by Taliban fighters who captured Kabul in 2021.

The Taliban insurgency during the late 2010s claimed a link between the United States, Afghan intelligence, and Daesh. The first claim can be reasonably dismissed – American airstrikes killed the first three Daesh governors-general Saeed Khan, Abdul-Haseeb Haseebullah, and Abdul-Rahman Ghalib – but it should be noted that until their ceasefire in February 2020, the United States continued to bombard the Taliban opponents of Daesh with equal alacrity. 

This mutually hostile triangle can be summarised in the assassination of the well-reputed Taliban commander for Kunduz province, Abdul-Salam Baryalai, in early 2017: he was injured in a Daesh suicide attack weeks before an American airstrike finished him off. His namesake, Abdul-Salam Saadat, was similarly killed by airstrike during the 2019 campaign in eastern Afghanistan.

The claim about Afghan government cooperation deserves more notice. This is not entirely surprising – both the regime and Daesh portrayed the Taliban movement as agents of Pakistan, Kabul having flirted with Pakistani insurgents who later joined Daesh – but it should be noted that this was probably restricted to a few sectors of a fractious government, such as intelligence

Other cases saw cooperation between Taliban fronts and such government officials as Kunar governor Abdul Sattar Mirzakwal in 2019. A shared enemy enabled the Taliban to increasingly bury the hatchet with former rivals, as well as resolve internal issues.

Shared enemies and buried hatchets

For example, much of the eastern Taliban, including the Haqqanis, came from the 1980s mujahideen party founded by Younas Khalis; his son Anwarul-Haq Mujahid founded a Taliban front, his aide Muhammad Abdul Kabir served as prime minister for the “emirate”, and his friend Jalaluddin Haqqani served as a major Taliban leader. But Khalis’ second-in-command Din-Muhammad Arsala and his family had resisted the Taliban; Din-Muhammad's nephew Abdul-Zahir even participated in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

By the 2010s, however, Din-Muhammad was leading negotiation attempts with the Taliban, whom Abdul-Zahir helped fight Daesh. Thus a shared enemy lent the Taliban common cause with independent actors in the Afghan periphery. The eastern Taliban also united against Daesh; the Haqqanis, as particularly skilful talkers and fighters, played a particularly strong role with longstanding aide Abdullah Bilal leading the campaign.

At least three field commanders – Usman Turabi in Kunar, Ahmad Alijan in Logar, and Nida Nadeem in Nangarhar – went on to serve as provincial governors after the Taliban takeover. Several others – including Naik-Muhammad Rahbar, Abdul-Hadi Malik, and Abdul-Samad Tur – were assassinated in early 2021, in what might have been an early sign of Daesh vengeance that continued with Mukhlis’ elimination this week.

Looking forward

Contrary to considerable speculation, the Taliban insurgency appeared to have put far more emphasis on fighting Daesh than did their predecessors: the Taliban’s most senior commanders – interior minister Sirajuddin Haqqani, defence minister Abdul-Qayum Zakir, and spymaster Abdullah Shirin – fought against them during the latter 2010s, while insurgency-period military commander Daud Muzzammil is the latest commander sent to ferret out the Daesh Khorasan wing. 

The Taliban’s challenge is to root out a Daesh almost entirely stripped of its Khorasan terrain without provoking such further antagonism as might presage another long war.

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