(Bloomberg Opinion) — The global jihadist community has had a mixed reaction to the Taliban’s remarkable sweep to power in Afghanistan.
Al-Qaeda — Osama bin Laden’s alma mater — was brimming with enthusiasm, heralding a triumphant new era of Islamic rule that proves jihad, and not the “democracy game,” is the way to achieve power. The al-Qaeda linked news agency, the Global Islamic Media Front, released a statement of congratulations that said: “May Allah grant the mujahideen in Somalia, the African Sahel, Yemen, Syria, Pakistan, the Indian subcontinent and everywhere the same victory.”
Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, the dominant faction in the insurgent-held regions of Syria’s Idlib province, was also impressed, describing the Taliban’s victory as an example of steadfastness in the face of a foreign occupation.
The Islamic State wasn’t so positive.
As jihadist expert and fellow at the Washington-based Center for Global Policy, Aymenn Jawad Tamimi, notes in his blog, IS has argued the Taliban’s actions weren’t so much a conquest as a takeover coordinated with the U.S. The Islamic States’ path was better, the group argued, because “supporting Islam does not pass through the hotels of Qatar nor the embassies of Russia, China and Iran.”
It’s here the Taliban may run into some problems of its own. It’s already attempting — albeit pretty unsuccessfully so far — to play both sides, trying to keep the international community onside with its promises of a more moderate version of itself — complete with footage of schoolgirls being ushered into classrooms — while its heavily armed soldiers detain rights activists and beat journalists on the streets.
Now there’s been an attack at one of the gates of Kabul airport, where thousands have crowded with fistfuls of documents and hopes of a passage to safety. In the lead up to Thursday’s blasts, statements from the U.S. and the U.K indicated the main threat was coming from IS-K or the Islamic State of Khorasan, a group affiliated with the organization that overran large parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014 and 2015 with the aim of establishing a so-called caliphate. The target — vulnerable civilians, foreign troops and Taliban fighters — clearly proved too good to pass up.
Established in Afghanistan’s east in 2015, IS-Khorasan sees the Taliban as its enemy, and the two groups have clashed repeatedly over the years. While the Taliban is inward looking — its ambitions focused solely on Afghanistan — IS-Khorasan has transnational dreams and draws its new supporters from the ranks of the Taliban who have rejected the U.S.-led the peace process. It’s mounted several major assaults on the capital, including back-to-back bombings in 2018 that killed 29 people including nine journalists in the deadliest attack on Afghanistan’s media since 2001. Dozens more were killed last year in a 20-hour siege at a prison in the country’s east when IS militants attempted to free hundreds of their members.
During the first four months of 2021, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan recorded 77 attacks claimed by or attributed to IS-Khorasan. Their targets? The minority Shia Muslim community, women, civilian infrastructure including a Médecins Sans Frontières maternity ward, and military personnel.
If these two groups do battle, the main victims, as always, will be civilians. They bore the brunt of the Taliban’s brutal rule from 1996 to 2001 and then the invasion of U.S. and NATO forces, with their air strikes and ground attacks, and the resurgence in suicide attacks that followed. More than 47,000 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict — nearly 1,700 of them in the first six months of this year alone — while an estimated 66,000 military and police have been killed, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project.
And then there’s the spillover — into Pakistan, Central Asia, China and India. New Delhi is no stranger to cross-border terrorism, and the Taliban will likely provide a haven for anti-Indian terrorist groups such as Lashkar-e-Toiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed. There are genuine concerns these groups will use Afghanistan as a base to launch their attacks in Kashmir as they did in the 1990s.
Adding fuel to this fire is the increasing belief — particularly among those who lean toward jihad and violence but are not quite there yet — that politics doesn’t work, nor does democracy or the nation state as defined by the West. They may see the Taliban as a model and alternative, says Rasha Al Aqeedi, senior analyst and the head of the nonstate Actors program at the Newlines Institute in Washington. “Certainly,” she says, “the idea will be glorified again and the appetite to do something will be there — and that is always a problem.”
Al Aqeedi says IS actions will actually help the new rulers of Kabul. “If anything,” she says, “it strengthens the Taliban’s positioning as a lesser evil.” Just think about that: The Taliban as the lesser evil. If there’s anything that symbolizes the failure of the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan, this is it.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ruth Pollard is a columnist and editor with Bloomberg Opinion. Previously she was South and Southeast Asia Government team leader at Bloomberg News. She has reported from India and across the Middle East and focuses on foreign policy, defense and security.