The Taliban, once a pariah, now finds itself courted by several powerful regional players. Even Russia, the group’s historical enemy, has recently turned to the group for intelligence sharing against a common foe: the Islamic State (also called ISIS). Zamir Kabulov, Russia’s special envoy to Afghanistan, recently said, “Taliban interests objectively coincide with ours.” Kabulov, a former KGB officer who negotiated with Taliban leaders in the mid-1990s after the group captured a Russian plane and took seven Russians hostage, rationalized the new cooperation by adding that “the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban have said they don’t recognize [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi as the caliph; that is very important.” However, such a shortsighted alliance carries critical security risks for Afghanistan and the region.
Russia has long fretted that jihadists from its Caucasus region and the former Soviet republics would join ISIS’ ranks in Syria in Iraq and then return home with new skills and weapons. In Afghanistan, in particular, Russia sees as a threat the local affiliate of ISIS, known as the Islamic State in Khorasan (an old reference to a vast territory comprising parts of Afghanistan, Iran, and Central Asia that featured prominently in Islamic teachings). ISIS’ Afghan affiliate is made up of renegade members of the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban, and it was recently designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the United States, a year after its creation in January 2015. Accordingly, the Pentagon has now authorized the U.S. military to go on the offensive against ISIS in Afghanistan.
In the past year, the group has challenged the Taliban leadership through turf wars and recruiting, maintaining presence in 25 out of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, according to the United Nations. It has picked up scores of senior Taliban advisers and foot soldiers (which is not surprising given that the salaries it offers new recruits are two to three times higher than those offered by the Taliban). Recently, the group even launched a radio station, the Voice of the Caliphate, to disseminate its propaganda in a daily 90-minute broadcast in both Pashto and Dari to boost its popularity. There is little information about how strong the group is, where it gets its material and financial support from, how many members it commands, and how much control ISIS’ core leadership exercises over it. The group’s popularity does seem to be growing, though; in December, John Campbell, the commander of international forces in Afghanistan, said that it has between 1,000 and 3,000 fighters in Afghanistan and that its influence would grow if left unchecked. Janan Mosazai, who served as the Afghan ambassador in Pakistan until last month, claimed that ISIS fighters enter Afghanistan through Pakistan.
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