A recent attack on a Shia village suggests the Taliban is becoming increasingly sectarian, or is working more closely with ISIS. Both options are bad news for Afghanistan, writes Milo Comerford.
During last week’s deadly attack on the Hazara village of Mirza Olang in Sar-e Pul province, northern Afghanistan, the black flags of ISIS allegedly came together with the white of the Taliban. The attackers, reportedly a coalition of fighters from the erstwhile jihadi rivals, killed at least 50 Shia Muslim villagers, seven Afghan troops, and took several hundred captives, many of whom have now been released.
In addition to its tragic scale, several other features of the attack set alarm bells ringing. The first notable factor was the alleged combination of ISIS and Taliban fighters in the assault. Evidence about the nature of the ‘collaboration,’ if any, remains unclear. Zabihullah Amani, a spokesman for the provincial governor, said the insurgents were a mixed group of Taliban and ISIS insurgents, under the command of Sher Mohammad Ghazanfar, a local Taliban commander who allegedly pledged allegiance to ISIS ‘Caliph’ Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The Taliban itself was swift to deny any involvement, with one commander saying “the Afghan government and its foreign masters are making false claims that we are working with Daesh [ISIS] just to discredit us in the local community.”
These contesting narratives paint a picture of a fluid landscape of jihadi militancy, with fighters from rival groups often changing sides or cooperating with militants from other groups. The Afghanistan Analysts Network’s Obaid Ali suggests that, with sympathies for ISIS rising among younger fighters, Taliban commanders might find it opportune to claim allegiance to the group on an ad hoc basis.
The Taliban and ISIS have been historical enemies, notably seen when the Taliban deployed hundreds of ‘special forces’ against ISIS in its strongholds on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Ideologically, their claims to the religious legitimacy of their respective jihads are mutually exclusive, and the groups have engaged in a battle for hearts and minds over which is more authentically “Afghan.”
As such, the possibility of a lowering of the ‘firewall’ between the groups will be a concerning one for international and Afghan policy makers. An Afghan security source told AFP there had only been around three known incidents of collaboration between the groups in the past, and these instances had been aimed at Afghan forces, rather than civilians.
Another notable feature of the attack was its target. The Shia-majority Hazara community have long been persecuted in Afghanistan, but often within the context of the complex patchwork of ethnic and tribal affiliations that criss-cross Afghan identity, and into which the Pashtun-majority Taliban expertly (or belligerently) weaves itself.
With ISIS’ influence, however, comes a more explicitly sectarian agenda than under the Taliban. The group has consciously attempted to export its methodology of pitting Sunni against Shia from the polarised context of Iraq and Syria to Afghanistan, which has remained largely resilient to the sectarianism that increasingly characterises conflict throughout the Middle East. The Taliban itself has condemned ISIS attacks on Shia as attempts “to divide the nation,” and a “plot to ignite civil war.” This historic rift takes place within the context of the Taliban’s affiliation with al-Qaeda, whose leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has clashed ISIS over its targeting of Shia, believing this to be a counter-productive strategy. However, an increasingly sectarian geopolitical tenor may be rubbing off on the Taliban, as well as the strategic aims of its international funders.
There is a risk that ISIS exports not just its ideology, but also its fighters, with growing concerns about militants travelling to Afghanistan from the Levant via Iran, something which has so far been only an “aspiration,” according to the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan. ISIS’ alleged role in the Sar-e Pul attack, which took place far from the jihadi group’s base in eastern Nangarhar province, will feed fears that the group will increasingly shift its focus further afield as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria. Last week, ISIS-claimed attacks on the Iraqi Embassy in Kabul and a Shia mosque in Herat killed more than 30 people.
It could be that, given ISIS’ territorial setbacks, it is learning from al-Qaeda’s resilience and longevity in Syria. Al-Qaeda’s consolidation in Idlib province emerged from its veiling of its overt Salafi-jihadi agenda, and building alliances with more trusted ‘moderate’ local forces, to embed themselves and increase support among communities. Jihad in one country, before international jihad, to use a Trotsky, Stalin parallel.
The US-led invasion of Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks was premised on disrupting a growing hub for global jihadism. But, does the country once again risk providing conditions for serving as a launch pad for international jihad? As the United States considers its position in Afghanistan, the country’s ‘longest war,’ such equations will be at the front of policy makers minds.