The attack on Kabul airport was claimed by the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISIS-K), which was founded by former members of theTehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), after they fled from Northwest Pakistan. They officially claim they are enemies of the Taliban and the US, Taliban because its imposition of Sharia laws is not as per teachings, while the US remains a historical enemy. Pakistan claims it has also faced attacks by the ISIS-K, whereas reports emerge of ISIS-K being in contact with the ISI.
Afghanistan’s ambassador to India, Farid Mamundzay, had mentioned in an interview, prior to the Taliban takeover, ‘the Taliban has close links with as many as 20 terror groups who operate across the region from Russia to India. Their activities are already visible on the ground, and they pose a significant threat to the region.’ US drone strikes on ISIS-K targets were possibly based on Taliban intelligence, though it objected to these attacks.
The Taliban has, on multiple occasions, announced it would not permit any terrorist group to operate from its soil. How true will this statement hold on ground can be assessed from its linkages with these groups.
The Taliban has refused to act against the TTP,claiming it as a part of its organization, despite being supported by Pakistan for over two decades. The TTP leadership, while targeting the Pak army, swears allegiance to the Taliban leadership. The Taliban has requested Pakistan to engage in talks with the TTP. The fighting cadre of the Taliban, ISIS-K, and TTP largely originate from Madrassas in the same tribal belt in Northwest Pakistan.
The Taliban handed over security of Kabul to the Haqqani network, a globally proscribed terrorist group, known for most suicide attacks in Afghanistan targeting US forces and its brutal killings of minority Shias. The leaders of Haqqani network, sanctioned by the UNSC,are part of the ruling dispensation in Kabul.
The Taliban had stated that it is at war with the ISIS-K. However, when it overran Kabul, it opened doors of all prisons and released terrorist prisoners including those belonging to the ISIS-K, though to satisfy the US, it assassinated key ISIS-K members in jail. Release of prisoners emboldened terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan. There are also reports that thousands of terrorists from neighbouring countries, including Uzbekistan and Xinjiang entered Afghanistan, to fight alongside the Taliban. Many of them continue with their bases in border districts, exploiting instability in the country by strengthening their cadre.
The JeM and LeT, both UNSC proscribed terrorist groups, operated alongside the Taliban,on directions of the ISI. JeM chief, Maulana Masood Azar was in Kandahar in the third week of August requesting Taliban’s support in J and K. He is reported to have met Maulana Baradar, the head of the Taliban’s political commission. Similarly, Hizbul Mujahideen chief, Syed Salahuddin in a released statement mentioned, ‘I pray to Allah that he strengthens the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan so that they may support Kashmiris against India.’
While the Taliban may not supress these two Pak backed groups, it will not officially support their agenda. However, it would ignore terrorist training camps operated by these groups on its soil as also recruitment of its militia members for operations in Kashmir. Any claims from the global community on the presence of terrorist camps would be denied. In case of firm proof, the camps would be sidestepped, as they are mostly temporary structures.
Other global terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan, including the ETIM (East Turkistan Islamic Movement) and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU),also fought alongside the Taliban during their war with the US. It is unlikely that the Taliban would militarily engage them to meet regional or global demands.
The Taliban had specifically agreed to distance itself from al Qaeda, despite reports emerging of al Qaeda operating in conjunction with the Taliban. With the US withdrawal the al Qaeda issued a statement which asked the Taliban to, ‘liberate the Levant, Somalia, Yemen, Kashmir and the rest of the Islamic lands from the clutches of the enemies of Islam.’ Interestingly, the al Qaeda statement ignored Xinjiang and support to the IMU. The al Qaeda is functional, though would have lost power to launch major operations.
Logically, if the Taliban acts against groups which fought alongside it, it may compel them to turn inwards, making governance difficult. There are already signs of internal resistance. Many of these groups have regions where they dominate, beyond the reach of the Taliban. To overrun these region would imply launching military operations, which may not be within the capability of the Taliban. The unwillingness of the Taliban, to act against terrorist groups, has already been witnessed when it refused to accede to demands of its erstwhile benefactors Pakistan.China would only invest once peace reigns in the country, which is distant.
Thus, terrorist groups may continue to proliferate, though not with official support of the Taliban. It may adopt a policy of non-interference as long as they do not target the Taliban and regions it controls. Hence, Taliban’s linkages with proscribed terrorist groups would continue, though subdued.
Syria, Iraq, Libya and the Horn of Africa are examples where multiple terrorist groups operate, each following its own end goals. Clashes occur between groups through they mostly manage to keep regions of influence and operations separate. The weaker the nation in economic and military power, the more the likelihood of growth of terrorist groups in remote regions. A classic case is Pakistan, whose North-western region is claimed to be home to the Taliban, ISIS-K, al Qaeda, TTP etc.
With Afghanistan under Taliban rule, a similar weak economic and military status exists. The existence of terrorist groups would remain a threat to neighbouring countries, which could spill across the region. The Taliban can not eradicate groups which fought alongside it as allies. It may request them to suppress their activities for a short period but would not shut them down. With passage of time the Af-Pak region would become the global hub of terrorism.
The author is Major General (Retd)