The Taliban’s Campaign Against the Islamic State: Explaining Initial Successes

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This paper examines the strategies employed by the Taliban de facto authorities in Afghanistan in response to the threat posed by the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K) in 2021–22.

Despite a recent decline, the Islamic State (IS), and its South Asian branch IS-K, remains one of the most resilient terrorist organisations on the planet – as recent reports of it planning attacks in Turkey and Europe show. Research carried out in late 2021 to mid-2022 with Taliban and IS members shows that IS-K represented a serious challenge for the Taliban in Afghanistan in this period. While they initially dismissed the threat from IS-K, the Taliban soon developed capabilities to confront it – these capabilities, and IS-K’s responses to them, are the subject of this paper.

The paper outlines five key counter-IS techniques that the Taliban adopted after August 2021: indiscriminate repression; selective repression; choking-off tactics; reconciliation deals; and elite bargaining.

While their initial response was to indulge in indiscriminate repression, the Taliban gradually moved towards an approach focused on selective repression, with the aim of leaving the local communities in areas of IS-K activity relatively untouched. They also considerably improved their intelligence capabilities in this period. By the second half of 2022, the Taliban had succeeded in destroying enough IS-K cells and blocking enough of the group’s funding to drive down its activities and contain the threat. The Taliban also experimented with reconciliation and reintegration, and managed to persuade a few hundred IS-K members in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province to surrender, contributing decisively to the dismantling of most of IS-K’s organisation there.

However, there were also significant flaws in the Taliban’s approach. This paper finds that their selective approach to tackling IS-K struggled to find firm footing in the absence of a solid system of the rule of law and of external oversight. The Taliban’s leadership appear to be struggling to figure out how to ensure that the lower layers of their security apparatus follow orders to avoid arbitrary violence. The paper further shows how the Taliban have failed to follow through with their initially promising reconciliation and reintegration efforts.

For its part, IS-K showed remarkable organisational resilience in response to the rising tide of the Taliban’s counterterrorism efforts. The group transformed itself into an underground organisation, relinquishing all its bases and moving most of its assets to northern Afghanistan. With this approach, and true to the reputation of its founding organisation, IS, IS-K in Afghanistan managed to survive, even when faced with potentially existential challenges, such as a crackdown on its financial hub in Turkey. IS-K has come increasingly to rely on online activities, including for recruitment.

The Taliban learned faster than most observers expected them to in response to the challenge of IS-K, and scored significant successes. The longer-term prospects of their counter-IS efforts, however, remain dependent on IS-K continuing to struggle financially, because the drivers of mobilisation into its Afghan ranks remain largely unaddressed.


Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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