In the wake of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, an erroneous impression in many circles seems to be taking root. It is that because the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (IS-K) in Afghanistan, with a stronghold in the Nangarhar province, is the Afghan Taliban’s competitor and enemy, and because the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and al-Qaeda have taken a Beyat (pledge) on the Taliban Emir’s hands, the TTP, al-Qaeda, and the Taliban can be categorised as an allied group and the IS-K as an opponent group, that because of the Beyat there can be no collaboration among these two groups, that their different ideologies (the group of three is Deobandi and IS-K is Salafi) make any collaboration out of the question, and that, therefore, the Taliban can serve as an ally in the fight against the IS-K.
As Abhinav Pandya wrote in his recent piece in The National Interest, “Following the [Kabul airport] attack, IS-K, hitherto a second fiddle in the Afghan conflict theatre, emerged as a new target of the global war on terror and … is leading some to have a rosier view of the Pakistan-backed Taliban, which are now being viewed as a counterweight to ISIS.”
Shifting Alliances, But a Common Goal
Now, though the facts of the enmity, the Beyat, and the different ideologies are absolutely correct, the conclusions being drawn from those are not. Just casting an eye over the origins and the fractured nature of these outfits, and the historical shifting and re-shifting of their alliances, clearly demonstrates they have more in common than not. Though the Taliban and the IS-K have been competing over territory, resources, and recruits, they share their core political ideology and aims.
All of the TTP, the Taliban, the IS-K, and al-Qaeda have a visceral hatred of the Shia and have carried out pogroms on them. All share the political aim of establishment of a Sharia-ruled Islamic state/society, and they have demonstrated that they easily set aside ideological differences where it suits them.
And this is why the conclusion that the Taliban et al are sworn enemies of the IS-K, and therefore can serve as an ally by getting it to sever ties with al-Qaeda and fight along with the West against the IS-K, is the most dangerous argument being advanced.
The historical shifts and interlinkages have happened for various reasons in the past: a particular leader may not be acceptable so commanders and members leave and join one of the other outfits, or tactically, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” can be at work in a particular time frame, or disillusionment with the weakening strength or direction of an outfit at a particular time has triggered jumping ships.
None of these outfits is like a nation-state, or monolithic, with streamlined command structures. In 2015, the IS-K itself “was primarily formed by disgruntled TTP members and leaders dissatisfied with the leadership of their own group [Mullah Fazlulah],” notes the May 2021 CTC report by Abdul Sayed and Tore Hamming on the revival of the TTP. Indeed, most of the IS-K members consist of, besides the TTP, disgruntled or temporarily loaned cadres of various militant groups like the Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM), and fighters from Uzbekistan and India, etc.
Taliban & IS-K Had a Common Enemy Until Recently
The Founding member of the IS-K, Hafiz Saeed Khan, was a Deobandi militant from Orakzai who first joined the Afghan Taliban in its fight against the US, then joined the TTP, and then went on to found the IS-K, having taken Beyat on the leadership of Salafi leader of the ISIS, Abu Bakr Baghdadi in Iraq. Indeed, many other leaders and commanders of the TTP, including former spokesperson Shahidullah Shahid, Khyber Agency chief Gul Zaman, Peshawar chief Mufti Hassan, Kurram Agency chief Hafiz Quran Daulat, and Hangu chief Khalid Mansoor, left with Sayed to join the IS-K back then.
There are scores of examples like his. But the now fairly long history of these cross-ideological Beyats do put paid to the notion that ideological differences would trump political expediencies and joint ventures/projects. Consider this: the reason for Sayed’s move to the Salafi group consisted of entirely earthly and opportunistic realpolitik. Pakistan army operations against the TTP in 2014 had led to its weakening and its members largely moving across the border into Afghanistan. Hakimullah Mehsud had been droned, and Sayed, who considered himself eligible for succession, was unhappy with Mulla Fazlullah’s selection to head the TTP, and angry that Fazlullah was cutting him and many other TTP leaders off from funding and resources.
Other examples include Hafiz Sayed of Jamat-ud-Dawa, a Salafi who worked and trained with Jalaluddin Haqqani at his Haqqania Madressah. And though the Haqqanis didn’t care for Sayed’s Salafi views, the overarching aim, i.e., Jihad against a common enemy, made it okay to share training camps and rotate fighters.
This kind of cross-pollination has happened for decades, and all these groups should be viewed as indistinguishable in the context of terrorism against the secular world, and the polemical material and fatwas against each other in their literature ought not to be taken to mean that they can or will not work in unison against common enemies. In this context, it would be useful to remember that the Taliban and the IS-K until very recently had considered the Afghan government and the allied forces a common enemy, till the US decided to pick the Taliban over the others and began to negotiate with it alone.
There Are No 'Sworn Enemies'
Osama bin Laden, a Salafi, took Beyat on Deobandi Mullah Omer. Indeed, al-Qaeda has renewed its Beyat for the third time under the current Taliban chief, Mullah Haibatullah. The most comical example that refutes the ideological/sectarian hurdle to cooperation is the fact that the property business Jalaluddin Haqqani and his brothers ran in Bhara Kahu outside Islamabad, Pakistan, was actually fronted by a Shia man from the former Kurram agency.
Take the rise and fall and the rise again of the TTP itself, about whom respected academic Abdul Sayed has written that it can never ally with the IS-K to carry out joint attacks against Pakistan, because one, the TTP is reliant on the Taliban and such a collaboration will never be tolerated by the Taliban, and second, because the TTP declared the IS-K as a pawn of the regional intelligence agencies, including the ISI. But by the same token, the IS-K also sees the Taliban as a proxy of the ISI.
Each group’s jihadi literature and polemics aside, which seek to establish each group as the more radical Islamist aside, there are developments on the ground that do not fit with the “sworn enemy” narrative.
For example, there was a pattern of spectacular attacks within Afghanistan during the Taliban-US negotiations that the IS-K was conveniently allowed to take credit for.
The Kabul airport attack in late August that killed around 170 Afghans and 13 US servicemen was another attack claimed by the IS-K. But it is hard to believe that it took place without tacit collusion of at least the Haqqani Network faction of the Taliban, who were in control of security in Kabul in general, and of the airport in particular. It is hard to believe that ordinary people with passports could not cross Taliban check-posts but an IS-K suicide bomber laden with dozens of kilos of explosives did.
On Recognising the Taliban
The “IS-K and TTP bad, Taliban good” is also a fairly transparent construct of the Pakistani state, which its shills in the media are advancing in order to not only gain recognition for the Taliban but to also garner resources to fight off the differentiated bad guys. This could get the gravy train for the Pakistan army to keep flowing, and also provide the black and white categorisation to the US that it craves so that it can recognise the Taliban and get over and done with the whole sordid business.
It will be far harder for the US and its western allies to recognise the Taliban if they were to accept that where terrorism is concerned, there is absolutely no difference in any of these jihadi groups. This is the time to tread very carefully and not buy into fallacious and dangerous conclusions in order to avoid twenty more years of mistakes.
(Gul Bukhari is a Pakistani journalist and rights activist. She tweets @GulBukhari. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)