Brutally Ineffective: How the Taliban Are Failing in Their New Role as Counter-Insurgents
“If someone doesn’t surrender to us, we kill them.”
– Qari Nurullah Fateh, Taliban fighter in Jalalabad
In recent months, the Taliban’s efforts to crush the Islamic State in Afghanistan have grown increasingly brutal. Suspected members of the Islamic State have been hung in public or beheaded. The Taliban have increased the tempo of deadly night raids and deployed over 1,000 additional foot soldiers to carry out the fight in Nangahar province. These tactics are ruthless and — unfortunately for the Taliban — they’re not working.
Following their capture of Kabul on Aug. 15 — after waging a nearly two-decade conflict with the Afghan government and its Western supporters — few could dispute the effectiveness of the Taliban’s approach to insurgency. But now, with foreign troops withdrawn, the group seems overwhelmed with the Herculean challenge of maintaining its own cohesion, forming a new government and framework of governing policies, stabilizing the country, and dealing with a collapsing economy and dwindling social services. Additionally, the Taliban are struggling to combat a growing insurgency from the Islamic State in Afghanistan (also known as Islamic State-Khorasan), as illustrated by at least 54 attacks conducted by the Islamic State between mid-September and late October. After enjoying success as insurgents, the Taliban are failing miserably as counter-insurgents, unable to fend off Islamic State attacks against population centers and their own personnel.
The longer it takes the Taliban to defeat the insurgency posed by the Islamic State, the greater the threat will be to their newfound position as the rulers of Afghanistan, for two main reasons. First, the Islamic State will pose an increasing challenge over time to the Taliban’s legitimacy as both a jihadist movement and a government. And second, the more time and attention that the Taliban need to devote to combating the Islamic State, the less they will have for governance and critical concerns like food security and averting an economic collapse. To address these issues, the Taliban will need to evolve their approach to the Islamic State from one of counter-terrorism focused primarily on brutal suppression, to one that includes elements of counter-insurgency such as the provision of goods in exchange for local political acquiescence. And they will have to decide if, or to what extent, they will accept help from foreign governments and institutions — assistance that could simultaneously benefit and constrain them in their battle against the Islamic State.
A Bitter Rivalry: From the Virtual to the Physical
While often described as a terrorist group, the Islamic State in Afghanistan is best thought of as a form of a revolutionary insurgency. Scholars Amira Jadoon and Andrew Mines argue that the Islamic State in Afghanistan’s ultimate goal is “to establish a beachhead for the Islamic State movement to expand its so-called caliphate to Central and South Asia.” To do this, Jadoon and Mines explain, the Islamic State engages in terrorist attacks and attempts to recruit fighters away from other jihadist groups, but it also “seeks to acquire the same territory as the Taliban.” The group’s aims of conquering territory and replacing existing governing structures with those of the caliphate thus make the Islamic State in Afghanistan more akin to an insurgency than a pure terrorist group. As Barnett Rubin recently commented, “the alternative to the Taliban is not Karzai, Abdullah, Saleh, or Massoud. It is the Islamic State in Afghanistan.”
As a rival insurgency, the Islamic State in Afghanistan set its sights on the Taliban almost immediately after its emergence in 2015, lacing its propaganda with insults labeling Taliban fighters as apostates. Following the signing of the Doha agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration, the Islamic State in Afghanistan mocked the Taliban and their “American masters.” While the Taliban and the Islamic State had always clashed, the rivalry escalated following the Taliban’s agreement with the United States — a deal the Islamic State described as “further evidence of the Taliban’s deviation” from the true path of jihad, according to scholar Cole Bunzel.
In turn, the Islamic State in Afghanistan announced a new offensive and began working to poach Taliban and Haqqani network commanders who were unhappy with the deal by, for example, engaging in sectarian and takfiri violence against those it judged to be non-believers as a way of attracting the most hardcore jihadists into the organization. Most recently, the Islamic State’s strength has been bolstered by the escape of an untold number of its members from Afghanistan’s prisons during the Taliban’s summer campaign. The Taliban-Islamic State rivalry in Afghanistan is intensified by the former’s close relationship with al-Qaeda and its affiliates, bitter enemies of the Islamic State and its global network of branches. In every country or region where al-Qaeda and Islamic State branches are co-located, they are in conflict, and Afghanistan is no different. Even the youngest generation of Taliban fighters, many born after 9/11, revere Osama bin Laden and view al-Qaeda as having near-mythical status.
The Taliban as Counter-Insurgents: Brutally Ineffective
Switching from insurgency to counter-insurgency is no easy task. There is an old adage that “insurgents win simply by not losing.” The inverse of this saying implies that counter-insurgents can only win by resolutely defeating an insurgency. But history suggests that brutal suppression is typically insufficient to do so, and a draconian approach defined by wanton and indiscriminate violence often backfires. Effective counter-insurgents need to carefully blend the use of targeted violence with efforts to promote political legitimacy, protect the population from harm, and provide tangible reasons for citizens to support the government. To date, the Taliban have failed at each of these aspects and, due to its inherent tendencies of violence, paranoia, and self-preservation, the group seems unlikely to be more successful at them for the foreseeable future.
With regards to the use of violence, the Taliban have thus far mostly attempted to use brutality to destroy the Islamic State. Their actions have included night raids — an unpopular tactic that alienated Afghans when it was used by the United States — and extra-judicial killings of suspected Islamic State members. The Taliban have also engaged in indiscriminate targeting and harassment of Salafist communities, which Taliban fighters tend to equate with the Islamic State. While these actions have undoubtedly resulted in the deaths of many Islamic State members, they have thus far been insufficient to stop the Islamic State from continuing to conduct attacks against Taliban fighters and various “soft targets” such as Shiite mosques. The Taliban have, in recent weeks, shown some proclivity to engage in talks with Salafi clerics and local leaders in areas that they have assessed to be Islamic State strongholds. It remains to be seen, however, whether the Taliban will elevate such attempts at local diplomacy above what has thus far mostly been a focus on the use of ruthless suppression. Interviews with Taliban fighters in which they express a persistent desire to pursue martyrdom opportunities against the likes of the Islamic State suggest that violence will remain a central feature of the Taliban’s approach.
Beheadings and night raids are unlikely to lead to the destruction of the Islamic State, for two reasons. First, the Islamic State is not a localized phenomenon in a specific geographic region of Afghanistan. The group’s base of support has traditionally been strongest in various provinces in the east of the country (e.g., Nangarhar) that have a Salafist undercurrent. The absence of Salafism across much of the rest of Afghanistan has served as a limiting factor on Islamic State expansion to date, but the group has consistently demonstrated a presence in Kabul and more recently has conducted notable attacks in both Kunduz and Kandahar as well. The Taliban cannot merely overrun by force or lay siege to Islamic State strongholds to defeat the group as it did with the National Resistance Front in Panjshir. After all, the United Nations assesses that the Islamic State is now active in every province in Afghanistan. Second, the Islamic State has shown itself to be incredibly resilient. Since its establishment in 2015, the group has experienced waves of expansion and contraction, the latter occurring as a result of sustained counter-terrorism operations by the United States, Afghanistan’s former intelligence and special security forces, and the Taliban — sometimes in tacitly coordinated ways. And yet, the Islamic State has persevered and is again in the midst of an expansion phase. The ideological underpinnings of the Islamic State attract a steady (albeit small) stream of Afghan recruits and its current position as the last remaining armed resistance to the Taliban regime make it attractive for those seeking revenge against the Taliban. The latter dynamic likely explains recent reporting of former Afghan intelligence and special security forces joining the Islamic State’s fight against the Taliban.
With regards to political legitimacy, because the Taliban took control of Afghanistan by force, they lack the legitimacy that a representative government might have acquired through a popular mandate and good governance activities such as the provision of goods and services and upholding the rule of law. Their consistent marginalization of anyone who is non-Pashtun, non-Sunni, and non-male during their short time in government has also led to consistent protests against them. Unsurprisingly, the Taliban have also failed to protect minority groups from violent attacks by the Islamic State, including the high-profile bombings of Shiite mosques in early and mid-October and smaller, less lethal attacks in Shiite neighborhoods since then. Further undermining their legitimacy is the Taliban’s failure to protect their own members from Islamic State attacks. The most notable of these was the sophisticated attack in early November on a military hospital in Kabul that killed Mawlawi Hamdullah Rahmani, a prominent Taliban military commander, in addition to dozens of others.
The Taliban are also staring down fast-approaching humanitarian and economic crises in Afghanistan. Roughly 23 million people — approximately half of Afghanistan’s population — are at severe risk of starvation over the coming winter months, according to the U.N. World Food Programme. The country is also teetering on the brink of outright economic collapse. Without vast sums of international aid, the Taliban have no means of preventing these outcomes or of relieving what is likely to be the mass suffering of Afghanistan’s people — offering little to nothing to Afghans in the way of enticements to support their new government. The international community is aware of these conditions but is wary of providing aid that would inevitably help the Taliban consolidate political legitimacy without having to change their behavior in return.
Current trendlines in Afghanistan therefore suggest that the Islamic State will persist — and likely intensify — as an armed resistance against the Taliban regime. The longer this occurs, the greater the challenge will be to the Taliban, on two fronts. The first regards the Taliban’s legitimacy as a jihadist movement. Some analysts have argued that the rise of Sirajuddin Haqqani inside the Taliban organization and his past declarations of support for international attacks may portend the Taliban tacitly or actively going beyond their traditional focus as a nationalist — as opposed to global — jihadist movement. But the Taliban’s steadfast clinging to the validity of their signed agreement with the United States, statements of Haqqani solidarity with the Taliban, and the arguably equal strength of the Kandahari faction of the Taliban suggest that the group will likely remained focused on Afghanistan. While the future here is murky, it is possible that the Taliban’s transition to a government will leave the Islamic State carrying the mantle of global jihad in Afghanistan, although many are also concerned about a possible al-Qaeda resurgence.
The second major challenge that the Islamic State will increasingly pose is to the Taliban’s legitimacy as a government. If the Taliban prove unable to protect the most vulnerable groups of Afghanistan’s citizens from attacks by the Islamic State, that will inevitably undermine the Taliban’s claims of governmental effectiveness and drive those groups to increasingly take up arms to protect themselves, as many have done already. These trends will be exacerbated if the Taliban (as seems likely) prove unable to provide enough food and economic relief to avert the looming humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, and if they move to consolidate control or continue to pursue oppressive policies in areas with minority populations. The successful persistence of the Islamic State as an armed resistance group — an eventuality that seems more probable than not — thus has the potential to lead not only to the future strengthening of the Islamic State, but also to the multiplication of other armed resistance groups as various marginalized populations in Afghanistan conclude that this is a viable and necessary path to take.
Giving Bad People Good Ideas
If the Taliban stand any chance of stabilizing Afghanistan, diminishing (if not defeating) the Islamic State, and preventing the emergence of additional armed resistance groups, they will immediately need to engage in at least two major changes. First, their cadres of fighters will need to stop behaving like guerilla fighters and armed thugs, and start behaving like counter-insurgents and local police. This entails a shift in mindset from the largely indiscriminate “violence first” approach that the group has been using for the past two decades to one of “protection first,” in which preventing harm to civilians — as opposed to targeting them — is paramount. In this regard, the Taliban need to remind their new generation of fighters of the group’s own formative history of the 1990s, when the Taliban seized control of Kandahar (and ultimately, much of the country) by protecting the population from warlords and criminals.
Second, it appears increasingly likely that getting the scale of international assistance required to give the population tangible reasons to support the Taliban’s government, and to keep Afghanistan from descending into a humanitarian nightmare, will require the group to work closely with and make concessions to the international community. Such concessions will undoubtedly need to include improved protections for, and inclusion of, minorities and women. However, as Andrew Watkins so clearly pointed out, this will be one of the most difficult choices that the Taliban will confront. Such concessions to the international community are likely to threaten the group’s cohesion, which has traditionally been the Taliban’s foremost priority. They would also further delegitimize the Taliban in the eyes of the Islamic State and its supporters.
At one point during the Taliban’s war against the Afghan government and its Western backers, a captured Taliban fighter allegedly said, “You have the watches. We have the time.” Today, the Taliban find themselves increasingly in the role of watch-wearer. Time is running short to move away from brutal suppression tactics and toward a more effective counter-insurgency approach in order to prevent the further expansion of the Islamic State and potential emergence of other armed groups. Unless the Taliban change their approach to both security and governance, they could find themselves thrust into the midst of yet another Afghan civil war, caught between the Islamic State and multiple competing militia, terrorist, and insurgent groups all vying for control of the country. As the de facto government of Afghanistan, the Taliban no longer have the luxuries of endless time and selfish preservation. If they want to avoid being the next government to be toppled by an insurgency in Afghanistan, they should immediately focus on the protection of all Afghan civilians from the likes of the Islamic State, while simultaneously finding a way to garner and accept the international support required to avoid a country-wide famine and economic collapse.
Colin P. Clarke, Ph.D., is the director of policy and research at The Soufan Group and a senior research fellow at The Soufan Center. You can find him on Twitter at @ColinPClarke.
Jonathan Schroden, Ph.D., directs the Countering Threats and Challenges Program at the CNA Corporation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan research and analysis organization based in Arlington, Virginia. He is also an adjunct scholar at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his and do not necessarily represent those of CNA, the Departments of the Navy or Army, or the Department of Defense. You can find him on Twitter at @jjschroden.