It is said that of all things dreadful, the dispensation in Kabul fears the spring season the most. To the untrained eyes that might appear to be a mistake. After all, how can a season so desired be so dreadful for Afghanistan? Because of the Taliban.
Since their eviction from Kabul, but pretty much nowhere else in Afghanistan, Taliban has always used the thaw in winter to mount their annual campaign against, first the Unites States led International Coalition, and then the Afghanistan National Army. This year is no different. The only difference is, it is getting bloodier every passing year. 2015 was the bloodiest in over six years and experts believe that 2016 will only be worse. And if that was not enough, a new dimension has come into play: Islamic State.
In a snake pit that Afghanistan politics is, the advent of Islamic State was not initially seen as a threat. For whatever it's worth, it was even seen as a short term opportunity.
The Ashraf Ghani-led team in Kabul got a brilliant idea. It was understood that given the circumstances, Islamic State will pose more challenges to Taliban than the Afghan government. At least in the short to medium term. This, they rightly calculated, would put extra stress on Taliban’s logistic and firepower. Taliban is amidst one of its worst power struggles since its very inception. That power struggle too is putting extra stress on its capabilities. But is it on the back foot? Far from it.
Let’s look at the power struggle first.
Even after the killing of Mullah Dadullah, the opposition faction of Taliban is as active as ever, and there is no way a reconciliation between the factions can be reached in the near future. Sources close to The Sunday Indian also confirm that the division between different factions, which was sort of fluid till Dadullah’s death, has started to solidify and take ethnic and tribal manifestation as those leaders who have formed various opposition groups have started to draw from the anger and sense of betrayal of their respective tribes.
As far as opposition activities are concerned, there are now two major factions opposed to the accession of Mullah Akhtar Mansour. The faction led by Mullah Muhammad Rasool is the most active one, but another faction opposed to Mansour but not explicitly siding with Rasool either has also emerged and vying for time.
However, it is not to say that reconciliation is completely out of question in the foreseeable future. The rival faction has kept the possibility open and Rasool has yet not declared himself “Amir ulMomneen,” a title that Mullah Omar held. This is to give indication to the rank and files of Taliban that he is not after power and that he only asks for his fair share in power.
The death of Dadullah has of course given a temporary setback to this group as Dadullah was a seasoned fighter, however it has not affected the overall morale of the force as there is no indication of mass desertion of its fighters to original Taliban. Dadullah’s 900-950 odd fighters still remain in the opposition faction after his death. They needed someone who was from either the Kakar tribe to which Dadullah belonged or married to that tribe in order to hold on to his fighters. They got one in the form of Sher Muhammad Mansur. Sher Muhammad Mansur is from Paktia and is from a sub-tribe of KakarPashtuns. It was from another sub-tribe from Kakar that Dadullah belonged. Sher Muhammad Mansur also has legend of his grandfather, Nasrullah Mansur with him, who had fought Soviets in the 80s.
As far as other deputies are concerned, Baz Muhammad Haris, a Nurzai from Farah province, has now been promoted as the main deputy after Muhammad Rasool. Even though he brings in only 600-650 fighters, compared to Dadullah’s 900-950 who are now de facto and de jure under Sher Muhammad Manur. Baz Muhammad Haris has started to increase his influence in his province of Farah and is expected to break away some more Taleb commanders of his Nurzai tribe rom the main Taliban.
He also managed to rope in Raz Muhammad, a Nurzai like him but from other province to come and join the opposition. He joined the opposition with his 250 fighters in the month of January. Raz Muhammad is from the Shindand in Herat and is the most powerful commander in the district, and among the top three in the Herat province. He also has influence, in substantial proportions, in the province of Herat and Nimroz, and minor proportion in Helmand too. He is scouting for more fighters from these provinces. In hierarchy, he will be under Baz Muhammad Haris for the time being.
Another commander among Herat’s top three, Mullah Abdul MananNiazi, is also a deputy in the opposition faction. He is even bigger than Raz Muhammad in Herat and comes from Achakzai tribe of in and around Gulran district. But he also has substantial base in the city and province of Kabul among the Achakzais. He has been entrusted with the job of arranging fund for the faction through abduction, extortion and other means. Since he himself is a big opium producer and trader, he has also been tasked to take care of the opium trade for the opposition faction. Sources confirm that he has already started operations through Pakistan and Dubai but the funds are still much smaller comparison to what the main Taliban faction brings in every month.
As far as the current bastion of the opposition group is concerned, it is at the time being limited to Zabul, Farah and Herat provinces. However, efforts are on to spread the influence to Paktia, Helmand and Kabul as well. It is expected that in the coming months, these provinces will also see opposition presence as the main Taliban faction had to divide its fighters in order to simultaneously fight Afghan Army, Islamic State as well as the opposition faction. It is not unreasonable to believe amidst such schism that Taliban’s strength would have diminished. But it would come as a surprise that far from being on the back foot, the organisation has upped its ante and is taking on the Islamic State in East Afghanistan.
Islamic State had increased its presence in Afghanistan since late 2014. However since November 2015, the Taliban has been countering them rather viciously. Sources confirm that Taliban’s Special Forces, which number close to 1200, and are well equipped and trained, have been lading operations against the Islamic State in several provinces and have started to give results, although they too have lost quite a few men of their own.
Islamic State’s biggest presence and their de facto capital in Afghanistan is the province of Nangarhar. In November 2015 there were close to 550-600 Islamic State fighters there. This province is an otherwise Taliban stronghold but by November end, Islamic State, comprised mostly of erstwhile Taliban fighters and commanders, had ejected Taliban from as many as 6 districts in this province. However, operations by Taliban’s Special Forces between January and April have meant that less than 150 Islamic State fighters remain now. They are scattered in all districts now. And for the time being, their threat has lessened.
Kunduz had close to 110-120 fighters from Islamic State at the turn of the year. All of them were concentrated in the lone district of Dashte Archi. However, out of these, as many as 70-80 fighters were previously from the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (a faction that split from IMU and had pledged allegiance to Islamic State in August 2015). The operation by Taliban Special Forces has seen their numbers dwindle to around 35-40 with unknown whereabouts. It is said that they have gone underground for the time being.
Farah had over 35-40 fighters from Islamic State. Most of them have been eliminated by Taliban. Those left, joined the Taliban back out of fear. Similarly, Helmand had over 130-140 fighters at the turn of the year. They were all concentrated in Kajaki district as the district’s previous Taliban commander had defected and joined Islamic State taking all his men with him. The commander and most of his men have been eliminated by Taliban. The number has dwindled to 20-25 now.
Apart from these, there is almost no presence of Islamic State anywhere as of now. The Afghan government and agencies are deliberately inflating the number of IS fighters in order to draw the world’s attention back to Afghanistan. Renewed interest will mean fresh doses of international funding, which has dwindled considerably in the recent years. What is surprising is that for a very long period, the Afghan Army had not mounted any operation against the Islamic State. Whatever operations were conducted, were done only after the Taliban had neutralised the threat to a large extent. This was deliberate. As mentioned earlier, the Afghan government believed that the presence of a small number of Islamic State fighters would mean that Taliban shall have to dedicate some of their fighters and logistics towards fighting them, leaving much lesser logistic and fighters to fight the Afghan Amy. However, this does not appear to be happening. While the Taliban has managed to considerably dwindle the number of Islamic State fighters, it has also increased its attacks on the government held areas across a wide region.
On the other hand, although the Islamic State has been contained for the time being, that situation can change anytime. The dissatisfied Taliban ranks and files will always like to have a second option. The Islamic State also pays well compared to Taliban. Nevertheless, the biggest challenge for the Islamic State is that most of its commanders in Afghanistan are either from Pakistan’s tribal areas or from among the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. This means that the Islamic State does not have enough traction in Afghanistan proper as of now. Since the Islamic State gambit has failed for Afghan Government, it is now desperate for peace talks with the Taliban and is almost begging Pakistan directly as well as through China to reach some sort of a framework. Pakistan has used this opportunity to push India out of the picture for the time being, and has asked certain assurances from Kabul.
“Afghan Ministry of Defense and Interior are in serious need of reforms and leadership change. Most importantly, in the face of a resilient Taliban insurgency and growing footprints of Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State, or ISIS), these institutions must remain ready and resilient. It is because of these and other challenges that the Afghan security forces must be professionally prepared and capable of confronting the enemy. However, this can only be achieved through implementing comprehensive reforms at the security sectors sooner than later,” says Ahmad Murid Partaw, an Afghanistan Security expert with US CENTCOM.
Meanwhile, facing a common resilient enemy – which in this case is the Islamic State – the Al Qaeda and Taliban have re-strengthened their cooperation and it is expected that a joint operation against the Islamic State will be taken up so that the pressure on Taliban to fight at three simultaneous fronts is relieved.