As the world salutes the 20th anniversary of the start of the Afghanistan War, and ponders the chaos and bloodshed following the war’s ending and US exit, new deadly clashes scar the region and point to a dismal future.
The Taliban recently captured four members of the Islamic State Khorasan Province, ISKP, a sect inordinately more resilient, more violent and more hardened than the Taliban. Perhaps in retaliation or as provocation, the ISKP announced it had captured and beheaded a Taliban member.
This points to the possibility that the Taliban is discovering – much like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the aftermath of the Arab Spring – that being in power is much trickier than being in opposition.
The ISKP, also known as Wilayat Khorasan, formed in 2014 from an amalgam of groups aligned with Pakistani Islamist Jihadist group Tehrik-i-Taliban and pledging allegiance to Islamic State.
Cornell University doctoral candidate and US Military Lieutenant Colonel Paul Lushenko writing in the journal Small Wars and Insurgencies, estimates ISKP numbers are between 1,000 to 5,000 and persist despite both Coalition and Taliban-led operations to eradicate them.
Anthropologist and former Lieutenant Colonel in the Australian Defense Forces David Killcullen has detailed vividly how warfare at the margins of conflicts provides the evolutionary selection pressure in a landscape unique to chronic insurgency warfare which breeds hardier and hardier enemies.
ISKP have not only survived but, as testament to their resilience and evolution, they have thrived despite the deployment of the largest non-nuclear bomb ever unleashed in combat – the GBU-43/MOAB – with a blast radius of a mile and a yield of 22,000 lbs. of explosives.
ISKP seeks to corral Afghanistan and Pakistan as part of Islamic State’s ambition to expand in Central and South Asia. They are particularly effective at local subjugation – beheading campaigns are still reliably effective – and terrorisation of the population.
Some ISKP members are reportedly ex-Taliban having been expelled for their ‘extreme savagery’ and have now gone on to find fulsome career advancement in ISKP. The macabre distaste one jihadist group shows for another is often an attempt at currying legitimacy as an overarching political authority.
While it may appear local, ISKP has global ambitions and has proven adept at international recruiting, digital propaganda and inspiration for jihadist attacks overseas. This may likely escalate as Afghanistan endures incoherent governance by the Taliban.
The recent targeting of Taliban by ISKP for attacks in the hornet’s nest of jihad, Jalalabad, which has birthed schools of jihad since the 1980s, foreshadows a violent future for Afghanistan.
As a daughter of Pakistani migrants to Britain, I traveled across all of Afghanistan by road with my parents in 1975. I have traveled to Pakistan for almost 50 years.
Years later, growing up to become a physician and a publicly anti-Islamist Muslim public voice, I was devastated to learn that Jalalabad had become Osama Bin Laden’s lair and an al-Qaeda den. As it did for the world, 9/11 changed me profoundly, launching a lifelong quest to understand how my religion of Islam had become weaponised by first al-Qaeda and then many other Islamist jihadists in the post-9/11 era.
In 2012 I traveled as a physician and humanitarian observer to Swat Valley in the South Wazirstan area of the Khyber Pakhtunkwah Province (KPK) in northwestern Pakistan close to the Afghani border.
I was there to observe the deradicalisation of Taliban child operatives being rehabilitated by a joint Pakistani civilian and Pakistani military effort in Malakand. I sat in sessions with Pakistani neuropsychologists during the psychotherapy of these young, traumatised militants. Some of them recounted their radicalisation and induction into jihad directly to me speaking in their broken Urdu, as I am fluent.
Pakistani Pathans of the paramilitary Frontier Corps of KPK safeguarded me during my visit; they are highly trained through years of battling the Taliban.
In the daytime as a physician, I treated local villagers. I thought of all those families, grieving mothers, fatherless sons, broken child soldiers and brave Frontier Corpsmen when I saw footage of Taliban soldiers clad in American fatigues entering the US hangar at Kabul minutes after the Americans exited.
In early August, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken remarked on the United States’ commitment to diplomatic engagement to advance negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
All hopes for diplomatic engagement seemed to be definitively extinguished with the American exit, the closure of the US embassy in Kabul and the departure of the final American diplomats from Afghanistan. This was as Russia maintains its embassies ironically under protection of the Taliban while Germany keeps its embassy open with skeleton staff.
Instead of American diplomacy with the Taliban, Afghanistan, under the aegis of the US-armed Taliban may indeed host a burgeoning and vast global hub for evolutionary jihadism providing an environment ripe for novel mutations of Islamist militancy.
When the Taliban accepts international aid – inevitable as the humanitarian crisis inside Afghanistan deepens – this will only legitimise them further as infidels in the eyes of ISKP.
As the Taliban seeks a modicum of legitimacy from Pakistan, China, Russia and others in the region, the competition to be the most authentic Islamist and the most legitimate actor in Afghanistan will only increase.
If there is to be any halt to the escalating jihadist warfare, the West and neighbouring states have little alternative but to continue the legitimisation of the Taliban, using foreign investment and international aid as leverage to push for a modicum of human rights.
Rendering a Talibanised Afghanistan into an international pariah state will likely ensure more militancy, economic hardship, radicalisation and ungoverned spaces which will create an incubator for more jihadism.
The repercussions on neighbouring Pakistan are particularly worrying where there is a large Pathan population; over 1.4 million Afghani refugees permanently settled there. Many inside Pakistan have divided sympathies with the Taliban which could ensnare the Pakistani state across the Durand line, the porous 1,600-mile border between the two nations.
It seems today there are no good alternatives in Afghanistan. While the US and coalition forces have left the war on terror in Afghanistan, neither war, nor terror has left Afghanistan.
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Qanta A. Ahmed is an author, physician, Senior Fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum and Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. @MissDiagnosis
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