On 8 October and 15 October, the hardline Sunni Islamic State – Khorasan (IS-K) carried out suicide bombings at Shia mosques in Afghanistan, in Kunduz and Kandahar respectively, both during the weekly Friday prayers.
In response, the Taliban government pledged to increase security around Shia mosques to protect Shiite worshippers, Reuters reported.
Reading about the Taliban's assurances to Afghanistan's Shia community reminded me of what Rupert Colville of the UNHCR once wrote, while describing the ethnic cleaning of the Shia Hazara community in Afghanistan:
"Some were shot on the streets. Many were executed in their own homes, after areas of the town known to be inhabited by their ethnic group had been systematically sealed off and searched.
"In at least one hospital, as many as 30 patients were shot as they lay helplessly in their beds. The bodies of many of the victims were left on the streets or in their houses as a stark warning to the city’s remaining inhabitants ... [who] were instructed over loudspeakers and by radio announcements not to remove or bury them."
This blood-curdling description of the mass-murder of Shiites, however, is not of the activities of the IS-K, which has claimed responsibility for multiple suicide attacks in Afghanistan in the past month, but actually of the Taliban when it occupied Mazar-e-Sharif in August 1998.
Now the Taliban, which also follows Sunni fundamentalism along with Pashtun nationalism, is back in power and the Shia community in Afghanistan is fearful of facing the same persecution that it had to endure under the Taliban two decades ago.
The difference between then and now, however, based on the events that have transpired in the past few weeks, is that Afghanistan's Shiites have an additional source of worry – the IS-K.
And it might actually be the Taliban that temporarily protects them from this new threat, not out of compassion or brotherhood, but for the control of Afghanistan.
With Several Similarities, Why Are IS-K and Taliban on Opposing Sides?
A lot has happened in Afghanistan since the 1998 Mazar-e-Sharif massacre. The United States invaded the country in 2001 to topple the Taliban regime. Its troops remained in the country only to withdraw 20 years later after a war that ended in defeat.
And a new player has made itself known. The IS-K, an affiliate of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) that adheres to “jihadi Salafism”, has conducted a series of attacks in a show of brutality that has perhaps overshadowed the brutality of the Taliban.
It has also been referred to as the "sworn enemy" of the Taliban by a significant number of columnists, such as those in The New York Times and The Associated Press.
That reference can be tricky to understand. Both groups do seem to have more similarities than differences.
After all, as Gul Bukhari wrote in her column disagreeing with the "sworn enemy" argument, both the Taliban and the IS-K share "a visceral hatred of the Shia and have carried out pogroms on them" and "all share the political aim of establishment of a Sharia-ruled Islamic state/society."
The difference, however, and it is a very important one, lies in where they want a Sharia-ruled Islamic Society. The Taliban has it where it wants it – in Afghanistan. IS-K wants it where ISIS has always wanted it – in the whole world.
As argued in detail by Thomas Joscelyn in the Long Wars Journal, ISIS wants to establish a Caliphate that consists of the entire ummah, while the Taliban only wants establish an "Islamic state" in Afghanistan.
Consider some of the threats that the original ISIS made towards the West, reported by multiple newspapers and magazines like The Washington Post and The Atlantic:
"We will conquer your Rome, break your crosses, and enslave your women."
"If we do not reach that time, then our children and grandchildren will reach it, and they will sell your sons as slaves at the slave market."
Contrastingly, what did the Taliban say in its first press conference?
"We want the world to trust us."
No wonder the IS-K accuses the Taliban of being traitors to their cause, of being a "Mullah Bradley" project, or a US proxy, as reported by The Indian Express.
The talks that the Taliban has entered into with the US along with its assurances (albeit hollow) of being less radical in its governance of Afghanistan than it was 25 years ago, displays the fundamental difference between it and the IS-K.
But Why is Taliban So Keen on Gaining the World's Trust This Time Around?
But you may wonder, if the 'new' Taliban wants to improve its international reputation and legitimacy, it is pertinent to ask, why did the 'old' Taliban not care about the world's approval during the late 1990s?
Multiple explanations are plausible. The first is an ideological one.
Twenty-five years ago, the Taliban, to quote Kamal Matinuddin from his book, The Taliban Phenomenon, believed "in non-interference in the affairs of other countries and similarly desire[d] no outside interference in their country's internal affairs." Isolationism was the official policy.
The 'old' Taliban merely aimed to install a Pashtun government in Afghanistan, establish and rule by Sharia Law, and restore 'peace', according to the official handout circulated by Taliban government in 1997 and analysed by Matinuddin.
Then there is the financial explanation, which exhibits the 'new' Taliban to be a seemingly pragmatic actor in international affairs.
International recognition of the 'new' Taliban government would award it with multiple benefits that the 'old' Taliban did not want or need, such as the release of Afghanistan's assets that were frozen by the US after Kabul fell.
Nor did the 'old' Taliban want diplomatic immunity, unlike the 'new' Taliban which is, as argued by Shirin Jaafari in an article for The World, striving for international recognition so that its leaders (many of whom are wanted criminals) can freely travel abroad.
The Predicament of Shia Muslims in Afghanistan
Regardless of how much or how little it has changed since it last ruled Afghanistan, there should be no reason to believe that the Taliban's loathing for Shiites has dissipated.
However, the Taliban still has a country to run.
In order to resolve the catastrophic humanitarian crisis that is currently plaguing Afghanistan, the Taliban needs a shred of legitimacy that would lead to global aid.
To receive any form of aid, it needs to at least show the world that it is trying to abide by certain established norms of the 21st Century.
This means that not only can it not carry out mass-executions of Shiites and leave dead bodies rotting on the streets, it also has to display a semblance of responsibility towards Afghan Shiites, who are now literally a part of the Taliban's Afghanistan.
There is another factor that would be of concern to the Taliban: Territory.
Of all the major requirements for establishing a Sunni caliphate today, like an army to fight with and social media to propagate its message, the caliph needs territory to exercise this supreme authority upon.
For IS-K's long-term goals, Afghanistan is a target territory.
The Taliban, which itself is an insurgency, is aware of how quickly territory can be snatched away from the ruling regime by a force that conducts relentless attacks.
The bombing of Shia mosques last week sends a strong message throughout Afghanistan – that the Taliban does not have a grip on the country, and that Afghan soil is still up for grabs.
The security of the Shiites is inextricably linked to the security of Afghanistan and therefore, the ability of the Taliban to rule. The greatest threat to this presently is the IS-K.
Reports have emerged of cooperation between the Taliban and the Shia Hazaras in the recent past, with some being recruited into the former's rank-and-file, The Diplomat reported.
Even before the US withdrawal, the Taliban was making minor attempts to incorporate Shiites into their movement, reminding them of how both Shias and Sunnis once fought against the Soviets, and how they now must fight against the current foreign occupiers, the Americans.
In fact, in late April, the Taliban even recruited a Hazara cleric for the post of governor in Balkhab, in northern Afghanistan.
While it is no way a sign of peace between the Afghan Shiites and the Taliban, it nevertheless displays the latter's priorities.
It would rather maintain stability in Afghanistan and be incorporated into the international system than rule as a hardline Sunni state that exterminates Shiites at the cost of being isolated by the world.
The Taliban's limited overtures to the Shiites can also be perceived as a non-aggression offer towards its old foe Iran (a Shia majority nation), whose support it wouldn't mind if it wants to lead a healthy government in Kabul and simultaneously deal with the IS-K.
The Taliban and Iran almost went to war in 1998 when the former laid siege to the Iranian embassy in Mazar-e-Sharif and killed multiple Iranian diplomats.
Iran-Taliban relations have been heated since then, but they are showing signs of cooling down because after the US withdrawal, both regimes need each other.
Iran does not want Afghanistan to become a launchpad for Sunni extremist terrorist groups like the IS-K, while the Taliban wants the support of regional countries to establish a government which can engage in regional trade.
Additionally, if the Taliban wants to defeat IS-K, it cannot be simultaneously engaging in hostilities with Iran. If it wants to avoid that clash, it has to restrain itself from slaughtering Afghanistan's Shiites.
"If the Taliban starts killing Shia, it will lead to a civil war and Iran will have no other choice but to get involved", a professor of international relations in Iran told the Financial Times.
Nobody knows who is going to emerge victorious from what seems like an inevitable clash between the Taliban and the IS-K.
But until the IS-K has been eliminated or has been at least incapacitated, it would be wise of the Taliban to not make any more enemies both within and outside Afghanistan, by targeting Shias or by not trying to defend them.