This publication focuses on possibilities for a peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban insurgency as the protagonists of the armed conflict in the country. But several armed groups are active in Afghanistan alongside the Taliban, while the Taliban itself comprises a number of sub-groups with varying levels of allegiance to the central leadership.
Antonio Giustozzi in a 2017 report describes how the organisation of the Taliban has become increasingly fragmented since 2007, as the original political leadership of the Quetta Shura has struggled to maintain control over various regional commands. The Quetta Shura has also been beset by internal power struggles and factionalisation. Ongoing fragmentation has meant that different Taliban Shuras began to develop along comparatively distinct trajectories, with varying degrees of militarism, internal cohesion or attitudes to reconciliation with Kabul.
Michael Semple and Theo Farrell also writing in 2017 go further, describing the Taliban movement as being ‘in disarray’, with several factions vying for power, varying levels of morale, alienation of many Taliban from their leadership and growing internal disaffection over the armed campaign. Aspects of these analyses are echoed in the perspectives of different Taliban caucuses presented in this Accord.
Islamic State in Khorasan (ISK) province is perhaps the most notorious armed group currently operating in Afghanistan. Islamic State (IS or Daesh) announced the establishment of ISK in 2015. Felix Kuehn in this publication describes how ISK grew out of growing friction among different jihadi and other militant groups. It has now developed into a significant rival of the Taliban, which has found itself in open conflict with ISK – although there are also instances of local collaboration between the two.
Devastating suicide bomb attacks in Kabul in early 2018 demonstrated the intent of ISK to derail democratic progress in Afghanistan and dissuade Afghans from participating. The level of indiscrimination of ISK violence holds some niche appeal among the most extreme elements of the Afghan insurgency and the fact that it can still inflict such damage on soft but prominent targets like voter registration centres means that ISK maintains serious capacity to spoil peace efforts. A May 2018 report by the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) listed three ways in which ISK could disrupt any peace process in Afghanistan: by attacking sensitive targets; by fuelling ethno-sectarian tension; and by presenting themselves as more committed to jihad than the Taliban.
While atrocities claimed by ISK show the group’s capacity to cause harm and grab headlines, most commentators still question the level of threat that it poses to the Afghan government. Thomas Ruttig of the Afghan Analysts Network in an April 2018 interview with Himal stressed that ISK is strategically insignificant, confined to localised areas of particular Afghan districts primarily in Nangarhar in the east. Small groups that have declared their affiliation to ISK elsewhere in the country lack serious means or influence.
Many ISK are former Taliban who use the ‘fear factor’ of ISK affiliation opportunistically. But Ruttig’s analysis stresses that ISK failed to exploit the opportunity to recruit large numbers of disgruntled Taliban following the movement’s split after the announcement of the death of its founder Mullah Omar in 2015. Deep ideological and religious gaps exist between the two groups, and many of even the most ardent Taliban dissidents in 2015 refused to join ISK. ISK’s lack of strategic strength means that they do not currently feature in any plans for peace talks.
USIP has suggested that the same dynamics that make ISK a potential spoiler may also provide common cause for the main conflict parties to support a peace process, as the Afghan and US governments and the Taliban have all have invested human and other resources in fighting ISK. Meanwhile, part of any de-escalation process with the Taliban will involve the movement verifiably dissociating itself from ISK and other armed groups opposed to a political process.