South Asia

Choosing Between Taliban and ISIS: A Dangerous False Dilemma

Since ISIS presence in Afghanistan is still a secondary threat, Afghanistan should degrade Taliban’s terror structure before shifting the focus of the war.

The ISIS and Taliban's flags. Credit: Reuters

The ISIS and Taliban’s flags. Credit: Reuters

One narrative that is increasingly gaining currency with many geopolitical actors in Afghanistan is: concede more to the Taliban so that the bigger enemy – the so-called ISIS in Afghanistan – can be eliminated before it becomes intractable.

Everyone promoting this narrative has their own reasons. As we have written earlier, Russia fears that many amongst the 5,000-strong Russian-speaking ISIS cadre would move to Afghanistan as the war in Syria winds down. Hence, it is endeavouring to portray the Taliban – a  ‘local, Afghanistan-based movement,’ in envoy Zamir Kabulov’s words – as a lesser threat.

For much the same reason, Iran continues to make overtures to sections of the Taliban. In November last year, Afghanistan’s former intelligence chief, Rahmatullah Nabil, accused Iran of supporting the Taliban in order to counter the threat from ISIS.

Then there’s Pakistan. This focus on ISIS works well: not only does it take the heat off its proxy – the Taliban – but the threat serves as a convenient bogeyman for Pakistan, allowing it to remain relevant to the US and, in the process, counterbalance India’s influence.

The US, too, appears to be reevaluating its stand. Its fear is that when the war in Syria winds down, ISIS’s remnants could move to sanctuaries in Afghanistan, further destabilising what is already a perilous situation and posing a potential threat to US interests worldwide. Consequently, arguments that state ‘it’s time to make a deal with the Taliban – the enemy we know’ are not uncommon. Overall, there is a danger that the new Trump administration could buy into this argument.

A false dilemma

In our view, this idea that peace in Afghanistan boils down to choosing the lesser of the two evils is a false dilemma, a forced either-or situation that ignores facts for the sake of lower costs and lesser inconvenience. It is a false choice because the Taliban and ISIS in Afghanistan are no different from each other.

First, take the myth around ISIS itself. As we have highlighted earlier, the Wilayat Khorasan (WK) – the ISIS in Afghanistan – at the moment comprises mostly cadres of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There are currently no Arabs in its ranks. Apart from the TTP, other elements under the WK banner are some Afghan Taliban cadres at odds with the post-Mullah Omar leadership, the Pakistani Lashkar-e-Islam and Uzbeks from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) who were driven out of Pakistani sanctuaries by Operation Zarb-e-Arb. A recent addition is the Pakistani anti-Shia outfit, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, which – after the deaths of its top leadership – has aligned with the TTP and moved base to Afghanistan.

The WK is anti-Pakistan army, anti-ISI and also anti-Taliban. It does not represent much of a threat to the Afghan state, definitely not as much as the Pakistan-backed Taliban does. The conspirators in this enterprise are known. They are not new faces from West Asia with ‘global aims’ as they are being portrayed. For example, Abdul Raziq, the police chief of Kandahar who has kept his province free of the Taliban, referred to ISIS’s presence in Afghanistan, saying “there are many who claim to be Daesh (ISIS) but what I have seen are some black flags and the same people.”

The Taliban is still a threat

Now, coming to the Taliban. Over the past couple of years there has been a refashioning of the Taliban as a military force. It is not the Taliban of the past, ideologically driven by a vision of what Afghanistan should resemble as interpreted by Mullah Omar. It is estimated that the ideologically driven component is presently only in a third of the outfit, the bulk of whom are susceptible to pressure from the Pakistani deep state. The remainder is a motley mix of those who have issues with other tribesmen or other tribes, a few driven by revenge, ‘Punjabi’ advisors, mercenaries who have rented their services to the ISI, criminal gangs and narcotics traffickers.

The first signs of a change in the Taliban’s complexion came in October 2015 when the organisation mounted an offensive in Kunduz. The Taliban forces comprised not only Afghans but also an ensemble of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz, Kazakhs, Uighurs, Chechens, Dagestanis along with members of the al Qaeda and some Pakistanis. Initially, this lot fought under ISIS’s black flag but, following adverse reactions, the black flag has given way to the predominantly white Taliban flag.

It would be imprudent and even foolish to play down the Taliban’s role as a global threat. It has entered into understandings or provided sanctuaries to known transnational terrorist groups like the al Qaeda, the IMU, assorted Central Asian militant groups and Pakistani outfits like Harkat-ul-Ansar and Lashkar-e-Toiba. It has killed its own countrymen, been involved in sectarian strife and also had a hand in the killings of foreigners – American soldiers, Iranian diplomats in Mazar-e-Sharif and others.

Its constituent, the Haqqani Network (HQN), has killed many foreigners including Indians, CIA personnel and those from Jordanian intelligence and Soviet soldiers during the Afghan jihad. It was behind the 2009 kidnapping of American soldier Bowe Bergdahl and of two foreign professors from the American University of Afghanistan in 2016. The HQN has also been involved in many high profile attacks in Kabul specifically targeting foreigners – the Indian embassy, the US embassy, International Security Force headquarters, hotels and guesthouses known to host foreigners, to name a few. This is apart from engaging in shakedowns, extortion, protection rackets, kidnappings for ransom and smuggling to fund its activities.

Like the WK, the Taliban’s ideology is archaic and not in consonance with the modern world. Its treatment of women and minorities, its attitude towards religion and Afghanistan’s culture are deplorable. Its destruction of the Bamiyan Buddha was strikingly similar to ISIS’s sacking of Palmyra. The Taliban is incapable of being refashioned to bring it on par with the world and, if allowed back, will always remain a global basket-case, a drag on Afghanistan’s modernisation and a hub for narcotics trafficking and terrorism.

There are many similarities between the two groups and, given their shifting allegiances and weak ideological underpinning, there’s the possibility that they might end up joining forces with each other. While they are currently at odds with each other, there is always the ubiquitous threat to Afghanistan (and also to Pakistan and India) that a construct like the WK could attract elements within the Taliban who are unhappy with the peace process. There is a floating element, like those involved in narcotics trafficking, who would move wherever the circumstances are more favourable for them. Terror operates through fear, and the fear that is generated by the WK would also attract many groups who are now at the end of their utility cycle.

With these precedents in place, our contention is that both pose exactly the same threats to the world. Given that WK is still a secondary threat, it would augur well for Afghanistan and the region to degrade Taliban’s terror structure before indulging in the luxury of shifting the focus of the war. Investing in a strong and diverse Afghanistan Republic is the resolution; wilting in front of Taliban is a recipe for disaster.

Anand Arni and Pranay Kotasthane are with the Geostrategy Programme of the Takshashila Institution.