Triple Crossfire in Afghanistan: ISIS, the Taliban, and America

The fight for control of Afghanistan

Jack Murphy
October 10, 2019 - 2:06 pm
A soldier in Afghanistan

DVIDs, Photo by Staff Sgt. Keifer Bowes


As America’s war in Afghanistan grinds through its eighteenth year, the United States is seeking an exit strategy via peace negotiations with the Taliban as both players engage in a secondary conflict with a newer player on the scene: ISIS.

“All they did was change their t-shirts,” a former Army intelligence analyst said to Connecting Vets of ISIS in Afghanistan, who consist of Taliban elements who rebranded themselves starting in 2014.  A 2015 Frontline documentary features in interview with a Afghan ISIS member named Abu Rasheed who said that he used to be Taliban but switched to ISIS in 2014.

“Were you Taliban before?”

“Yes, we were fighting holy wars Taliban.  Our holy war was just because there was no Caliphate then,” Rasheed responds to the journalist conducting the interview.  “But god says that when there is a Caliphate you must join the Caliphate,” he continued, referencing the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

As the U.S. moves to create a peaceful solution with the Taliban, the transformed ISIS members are complicating the equation.

The rebranding of some Taliban members as ISIS was a means to attract global attention, specifically from the United States. This bares similarity to ISIS in the Philippines who are really little more than criminals, kidnappers, and extortionists who use ISIS as a banner to fight under in hopes of giving them the legitimacy of claiming to be fighting for a global pan-Islamist movement no matter how tenuous those connections may be.

While ISIS sees themselves engaged in a political project which encompasses the entire world, the Taliban view themselves as local actors concerned with Afghanistan itself.

When it comes to the expanding influence of ISIS in Afghanistan, the Taliban has had their own ideas about who should actually be in charge. 

In 2018, the Taliban squared off with ISIS in the province of Jowzjan.  The battle reached a climax when the Taliban assaulted a ISIS stronghold in Darzab, over running their positions which were manned by approximately 600-700 fighters.

Throughout 2019, clashes have escalated between the two groups to the south in Kunar.  While the Taliban had a reputation for enforcing a brutal interpretation of Islamic law, ISIS has become known for being even more barbaric in their torturing and murdering of civilians on the battlefield.  The locals, to include the Taliban itself, see ISIS as a foreign entity trying to assert itself in their territory and reject it as such.  ISIS’ lack of legitimacy in Afghanistan is a view that the Afghan Army and the Taliban appear to be aligned on.

These ongoing security dynamics also figure into the ongoing peace negotiations between the Taliban and the United States government, the later of which is seeking an exit strategy from a country that they have been occupying for close to two decades.

“That is a terrorist group [ISIS] that doesn’t recognize Afghanistan as a nation state,” acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells testified before Congress. “This is a group that focuses on caliphate and borderless territory under the organization’s control. That’s a deep threat to all the people of Afghanistan, including the Taliban.”

Wells went on to say that peace negotiations need to include creating a unified Afghanistan that can stand up to terrorist groups like ISIS.

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