Terrorism is a war the Taliban cannot win

Posted: December 2, 2021 in Straits Times
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Have been very delinquent in posting of late. Been consumed with a lot of bigger papers and stuff at home. Have a few to catch up on, first up is my latest column for local paper the Straits Times looking at the complexity of expecting a terrorist group to manage another terrorist group, this time the Taliban and the hope they will deal with ISKP. Been involved in a few conversations about Afghanistan of late which have been for the most part deeply depressing, something that is exacerbated by the clear absolute lack of interest that increasingly is visible in western capitals.

Terrorism is a war the Taliban cannot win

A Taliban fighter displays their flag at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Nov 5, 2021.PHOTO: REUTERS

Winning a war is a confusing experience for an insurgent or terrorist group. The sudden crush of responsibility that follows taking over a country calls for a very different skill set from that required while trying to overthrow a government.

Not only are you now expected to deliver on a whole suite of basic public services, but you also have to provide security – the very thing you used to undermine. This can come in the form of defending borders, stopping criminality, or fighting terrorist groups; the last, ironically, is a growing headache for the Taliban, now that it is the ruler of Afghanistan.

Along with the outside world, the Taliban views with apprehension the growth of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria-Khorasan (ISIS-K) group, the local affiliate of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) militant group.

There is little love lost between the Taliban and ISIS-K. Since the emergence of ISIS-K in 2015, it has been a thorn in the Taliban’s side, competing for recruits, funding and influence. The two have fought each other regularly, with the Taliban usually winning.

However, since the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul in August, this dynamic has changed. From being an insurgent group that was fighting against a competing faction as well as the government, the Taliban is now the government trying to squash a non-state group. In some ways this is not dissimilar to what it was doing before. Prior to taking over, the Taliban was quite effective in its fight against ISIS-K, using violence and intelligence. The problem now is that, as the ruling authority in Afghanistan, the Taliban is expected to protect people as well as fight.

GROWING VIOLENCE

This is a weakness that ISIS-K has ruthlessly exploited, launching not only a campaign of targeted assassinations of Taliban figures around the country, but also horrendous large-scale attacks on civilians. The dramatic assault at Kabul airport that killed over 180, including 13 US service members, in August has since been followed by attacks on Shi’ite worshippers at mosques in Kunduz and Kandahar that left dozens dead, as well as an assault late last month on the Daoud Khan Military Hospital in Kabul that killed 25, including at least one senior Taliban figure.

These brutal ISIS-K attacks are single-mindedly focused on undermining the Taliban’s authority by aiming at soft targets. Underscoring that intent, an ISIS video on the group’s Telegram channel on Sunday branded its rivals as “Biden hirelings” and gloated that “the Taliban militia are lost in panic, they do not know how to conceal their shame”.

ISIS-K, estimated to have some 4,000 fighters, has been very precise in its attacks, seeking maximum carnage and also to deploy suicide bombers whose battlefield names often identify them as being members of minority groups that might come into conflict with the Taliban. The aim is not only to undermine the Taliban’s claims of being in charge, but also to highlight to those minorities that ISIS-K is fighting alongside them.

The growing violence by ISIS-K worries the United States, the country’s Special Representative for Afghanistan Tom West said on Monday. American officials reportedly believe that absent security pressure, ISIS-K could develop the ability to strike the West within six to 12 months.

However, outside powers have little faith in the Taliban’s capability to deal with the ISIS-K menace. In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee late last month, US Under-Secretary for Defence Colin Kahl said “we would not count on the Taliban to be the ones responsible for disrupting (external threats from ISIS-K). We will have our own unilateral capabilities to do that.”

This is not to say that the US has not engaged with the Taliban. Central Intelligence Agency director Bill Burns was one of the first senior foreign officials to visit Kabul after the Taliban took over. ISIS-K was clearly on the agenda among other things. But it is clear that the US remains to be convinced that the Taliban has the capability to deliver not only on ISIS-K, but also in keeping all of its various factions in line.

MULTIPLE GROUPS, DIVERSE AGENDAS

There is still no clear evidence that the Taliban has ejected Al-Qaeda from its territory, nor has it visibly clamped down on any of the other non-Afghan factions that had been fighting alongside itself for years. These other groups are undoubtedly happy with the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, and are now keen to replicate this in their countries of origin. Pakistan, Central Asia, Iran, Russia, China and others are all looking askance at the situation.

For the Taliban, contending with multiple groups with diverse agendas is going to be a major problem going forward. It is going to have to find ways of moderating the impulses of groups it has been fighting alongside for years, as well as clash with competing terrorist organisations on the ground. It is also going to have to contend with external pressures as outside powers start to stir up its own proxies on the ground.

This sort of proxy meddling, using one faction to go after another, has a long history in Afghanistan and the wider region.

Neighbouring Iran has mastered the practice on the world stage through the development of Hizbollah as an international terrorist force which it uses against the US and Israel, while it recruited thousands of Shi’ite Afghans to fight on its behalf in Syria. Pakistan is another master of proxy group manipulation, regularly using jihadist groups as a deniable proxy in its conflict with India. In turn, Delhi is constantly accused of manipulating separatist groups in Pakistan against the state.

And it is not just a practice found in the wilds of Central and South Asia. In the tumult of post-World War II Europe, leftist terror groups, often supported by the communist bloc, would wreak campaigns of violence. In some cases, parts of the security apparatus in non-communist countries would manipulate right-leaning groups to either target the leftists, or commit atrocities in their name to force the government’s hand to clamp down harder.

More recently, the West has been quite openly using groups close to proscribed terror organisations to fight on the ground in Syria against ISIS. This was most obvious with the open support of the YPG, a Kurdish group closely linked to the PKK, a longstanding terrorist menace within Turkey.

But there was also a strange moment at the peak of the ISIS threat in Syria and Iraq when discussions in Western capitals circled around the idea that the West might want to explore cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra – an organisation born out of Al-Qaeda – to fight ISIS, its implacable enemy; the logic being my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Today, Nusra’s successor Hayat Tahrir al-Sham is trying to remodel itself as the Salvation Government in parts of northern Syria which are not controlled by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. It has openly lobbied for engagement with the West, this time offering itself as a responsible government and alternative to the brutal Assad regime or ISIS.

There is, of course, a rich irony in all of these contortions. The Taliban and Al-Qaeda were themselves born out of a context in which the West had sought to manipulate groups on the ground to fight against the Soviet Union. That succeeded beyond expectations, but has produced blowback that we are still feeling today. No doubt the choices that are being made now will resonate in unexpected ways in the years to come.

Terrorist groups are by definition extremists. Governments, political forces and others have always sought to manipulate other extremes in society to fight back against a terrorist group that is challenging their authority. Yet in doing this, they are invariably stoking the very fires they are trying to put out. And once these catch, it is almost impossible to entirely extinguish them.

Already representing a minority community and still not trusted by many outside Afghanistan, the Taliban is going to struggle to entirely rule its country. Similarly, it is going to find it hard to entirely eliminate the terrorist threats that might emerge.

More likely, as its fight against ISIS-K goes on, it will increasingly find that its rival will thrive, drawing in more and more of those who are alienated by Taliban rule. Credible stories are already emerging of former Afghan soldiers joining ISIS-K.

While this will undoubtedly undermine the Taliban government, it will also inflict greater suffering on the Afghan people, who will have to endure yet another chapter of seemingly endless conflict in their country’s history.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and author of a forthcoming book exploring China’s relations with Central Asia, titled Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.

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