Attacks in Kabul Highlight Taliban-Islamic State Tensions

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 9 Issue: 1

Over the last two months, a spate of terrorist attacks has struck the Afghan capital of Kabul. Islamist insurgents carried out at least five strikes in Kabul in January and, in December 2017, a suicide bomb attack at a cultural center in the Afghan capital killed dozens of people (First Post, January 29). These attacks have primarily been attributed to the Afghan Taliban, prompting the United States to end possible negotiations with the group (Dawn, January 30).

The mass casualty attacks, most of which were perpetrated by the Afghan Taliban, have put the U.S.-backed Afghan government in a difficult situation. Significantly, this surge in Taliban attacks—perhaps the first time that Taliban attacks have reached this tempo before the start of the spring fighting season—represents a shift in the group’s tactics. This shift is visible in the group’s target selection: foreigners, government workers and police and soldiers on duty in the capital. Breaching the secure areas of Kabul and attacking the Intercontinental Hotel and Marshal Faheem National Defense University, as well as targeting on-duty police officers, are calculated attempts to lower the morale of Afghan government officials. In part, this tactical shift is designed to deter the Afghan people from joining or holding any government office. On the whole, however, the Islamist insurgents seem determined to showcase their resolve amid increasing pressure from the United States.

Adding to the tensions, the Islamic State-Khurasan Province (IS-KP) seems committed to competing with the Afghan Taliban, also claiming responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks in Kabul and elsewhere. Since assuming the position of Emir of IS-KP, Aslam Farooqi has masterminded a number of terrorist attacks against Kabul’s Shia community (Daily Times, July 16, 2017; Pakistan Today, February 1). However, Taliban leader Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada is keen to avoid a prolonged turf war with IS-KP. According to reports, Akhundzada took steps to mitigate the conflict with IS-KP in advance of the Afghan Taliban’s rollout of its new strategy. In October 2017, he tried to initiate a ceasefire with IS-KP, instructing Taliban fighters not to attack IS militants (Express Tribune, October 8, 2017).

Akhundzada and Farooqi are both trying to consolidate their positions in Afghanistan. For Farooqi, this process is much more difficult amid concerted U.S. efforts to drive out IS-KP from Afghanistan. Meanwhile, Akhundzada appears to have adopted a strategy designed to keep his men from becoming entangled in a multi-front conflict. However, as Islamic State continues to lose territory in Syria and Iraq, some of its fleeing militants will likely continue to travel to Afghanistan and join the ranks of IS-KP. If IS-KP’s numbers grow, the Afghan Taliban leader would likely be forced to develop working relations with IS-KP. The nature of the relationship between the Afghan Taliban and IS-KP will shape the future role of militancy in Afghanistan. Whatever course this takes, however, resumed talks with the Afghan Taliban seem highly unlikely in the near future.