Born in blood, fuelled by revenge and sustained by hubris, the “War on Terror” left nothing but shattered nations and lost lives in its wake. The occupation that began with the whine of B-52 bombers and the rout of the Taliban ends with the death of dozens at the Kabul airport, the names of whom will be added to the butcher’s bill of this 20-year conflict along with all the victims, mostly faceless, mostly uncounted, that are the legacy of what was called the “Forever War”.

The fact that it was the Afghanistan branch of Daesh, known as the Islamic State Khorasan that carried out the attack is another proof, if any further was needed, that the “War on Terror” has produced nothing but more terror.

Product of war

Daesh or ISIS, which did not exist before the US invaded Iraq, is a true child of American foreign policy. It was in the US-controlled detention camp Bucca that this nihilistic death cult was born, and it was in the chaos caused by the US invasion that this cancer bred and multiplied, finally metastasising across the region and the world.

Daesh entered Afghanistan in 2015, with former Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan fighters flocking to their banners along with disaffected members of the Afghan Taliban and a smattering of fighters from the alphabet soup of militant groups that operate in Afghanistan. Setting up their base in the eastern province of Nangarhar, the ISIS-K, while distinct from its parent group in Syria, also operated along the same lines of almost exclusively attacking civilian targets with the aim of causing high casualties and just this year they claimed responsibility for bombing a girl’s school in Kabul, an atrocity that claimed the lives of 90 people, mostly children.

War, like politics, makes for strange bedfellows and so we are now treated to the unusual spectacle of seeing a degree of cooperation between the US and the Taliban against the ISIS-K. But this too is not without precedent: in 2019, the Taliban and ISIS-K were involved in a bitter battle for control of the lucrative timber business in the Korengal Valley of the Kunar province, all under the watchful eyes in the sky of the US army.

Seeing the conflict play out on their screens, the US forces made a decision to intervene on the side of the Taliban, using airstrikes and drones to pin down the ISIS-K forces and allow the Taliban freedom of movement. For their efforts, the team involved in this operation was jokingly dubbed the “Taliban air force”.

It gets better: in 2018 when Taliban fighters had routed Daesh in Jowzjan it was the Afghan army that sent in helicopters to rescue IS-K fighters, in what the Afghan National Army termed a surrender, but what many others see as proof that the Afghan government was in fact supporting this group in its fight against the Taliban.

Existential threat

For the Taliban, the ISIS-K presence is intolerable as it poses not just a physical but also an ideological threat and so over the past several years we have seen many instances of the Taliban taking on the ISIS-K. Furthermore, the Taliban are close to Al-Qaeda which in turn is a bitter rival of Daesh.

For the US, the Taliban in this particular case are the lesser of two evils as unlike Daesh, they do not have an expansionist, internationalist agenda. That calculation is likely to colour further interactions on this common threat in the future as well.

But knowing all this does not make it any less surreal, and now we are forced to ask a question none may have ever imagined asking: what will the Taliban’s counterterror strategy be?

While ISIS-K does not possess the wherewithal to pose an existential threat to the Taliban and has in fact seen its capabilities greatly degraded over the past few years, it certainly possesses the ability to stage deadly attacks across Afghanistan, especially at a time when the Taliban are stretched thin trying to consolidate their hold. Ideologically, it is now presenting itself as the “true” resistance to the West and accusing the Taliban of allowing “spies” and “crusaders” to leave Afghanistan under a deal.

Whether this tack will succeed in increasing recruitment is an open question, and will largely depend on what attitude smaller militant groups adopt towards it. Thus far, it seems that those groups have no immediate intention of leaving the Taliban umbrella, with prominent jihadist ideologue Mufti Abu Zar criticising ISIS-K’s actions and praising the Taliban victory.

Similarly, the Turkistan Islamic Party, the group that is on top of China’s hit list has also resisted ISIS-K’s overtures. How­ever, as pressure increases on the Taliban to act against such groups, as Pakistan is demanding with the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, there remains a possibility that just as the Taliban may con­sider these groups for leverage/ barga­in­ing in the region, these groups may the­m­selves use a possible alliance with ISIS-K as a lever against the Taliban.

This article first appeared in Dawn.