British military personnel onboard a A400M aircraft leaving Kabul on Saturday. Associated Press
US President Joe Biden has claimed a US drone strike eliminated a Daesh-Khorasan (Daesh-K) “planner” and a “facilitator” and wounded another person in his effort to exact revenge for the suicide bomber and shooting attack on soldiers and civilians gathered at the Abbey gate to Kabul’s airport. In that incident 170 people died, including 13 US military personnel and 28 Taliban guards controlling access to the airport where US and allied aircraft have been evacuating tens of thousands of foreigners and vulnerable Afghans since the middle of this month.
If the experts are correct, Daesh-K has an estimated 2,000 members still operating in Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan. While the US has claimed to have killed or captured 2,000 Daesh-K fighters during the six years the group has been present in Afghanistan, this feat was achieved while Washington had thousands of US and Afghan troops and scores of intelligence agents on the ground as well as electronic surveillance equipment which could identify and track Daesh-K fighters.
The Afghan army has disintegrated and Biden is set to withdraw all remaining US forces from Afghanistan tomorrow, reducing his chances to make Daesh-K continue to pay the price of mass murder at the airport. Taliban intelligence did not warn the US of the specifics of last week’s deadly attack and the movement’s fighters deployed outside the airport failed to detect the explosives carried by the bomber. This revealed that Biden cannot depend on the Taliban for intelligence or effective cooperation. From now on, he will have to rely on “over the horizon” radar and aerial targeting.
Although its fighters swept into Afghanistan’s capital unopposed on August 15th, the Taliban leadership has not yet appointed administrators to get the civil servants and bankers back at work, provide the public with security, reactivate the economy, reopen the airport once foreign forces depart, and carry out the other myriad tasks that governments perform. The Taliban has also not asserted command-and-control of its fighters who belong to diverse groups which may or may not obey commands from Kabul.
Instead, leaders who have returned from Quetta in Pakistan and Doha in Qatar have been debating the formation of an inclusive caretaker government which represents all sectors of the society — except of course women who, with the exception of doctors and nurses, have been ordered to stay at home.
While shops in urban bazaars may be open, families either do not have cash or hoard whatever money they possess to purchase essential food and medicine as prices rise and the value of the Afghan currency plummets. Some schools are open with separate classrooms for boys and girls, others remain closed as do universities. Women rarely venture out of their homes since Taliban fighters cannot be trusted to respect them. Men who do go out fear patrolling Taliban fighters armed with US automatic weapons seized from the arsenal of the US-sponsored Afghan army.
Despite the Taliban’s laidback approach to asserting control and forging a government, Biden seems to believe that Daesh-K can be tackled effectively by US “over the horizon” efforts.
According to a June report issued by the Pentagon’s Inspector General cited by al-Monitor, Daesh-K has taken “advantage of the political instability and violence in Afghanistan… to bolster its public support and recruitment efforts,” notably of disaffected Taliban members and “educated extremists.”
In the view of al-Monitor, the United States and the Taliban share an interest in thwarting (Daesh-K), but expectations should be low” as Afghanistan is a “textbook breeding ground for terrorist groups. And with the Taliban, it just got exponentially worse.” Indeed.
Al-Monitor predicts that radicals and foreign veterans of the Syrian conflict “could soon make their way to Afghanistan” where they would swell the ranks of Daesh-K. The Pentagon report, referenced by al-Monitor, holds that Daesh, the parent movement, remains cohesive and operates as a “low-level” and “well-entrenched” insurgency in rural areas of Iraq and Syria.
Daesh-K was established as a Daesh-branch in 2014, drawing membership from ex-Taliban fighters and radicals from Pakistan and Afghanistan. Daesh-K’s leader swore allegiance to Daesh commander Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in 2015 and proclaimed the group the Daesh emirate in Afghanistan.
Based in the east, Daesh-K followed the harsh model of Daesh rule in its defeated caliphate in Syria and Iraq by executing opponents, assassinating tribal chiefs, taking slaves, closing schools, suppressing minorities and women, exacting high taxes and tariffs, and smuggling.
During its brief reign in Syria and Iraq, Daesh became the richest takfiri group in the world. This enabled the parent movement to finance its branches in the Maghreb, North Sinai, Afghanistan, and elsewhere.
The relationship between the Taliban and Daesh-K has never been good. The two are rivals with different ideologies and goals. The Taliban, formed by Afghan and Pakistani Pashtun students indoctrinated at religious schools in Pakistan, adheres to the nationalist-ultraorthodox ideology promulgated by the religio-nationalist Deobandi movement which emerged in India after the 1857-59 army mutiny against British rule and played a role in the 20th century Indian independence movement. The Afghan Taliban’s objective is the takeover of Afghanistan. Having achieved this end, the Taliban now has to prove its ability to govern and run a poor, bankrupt, divided country.
To tackle this Herculean task, the Taliban has to cooperate to a certain extent with the US, other Western powers and international organisations such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Unless the Taliban does this, there will be no money and limited humanitarian aid. Daesh-K is certain to accuse the Taliban of collaborating with the imperial powers.
Daesh-K follows a different hardline religious ideology, regards Taliban as apostates, and seeks to establish a new Daesh caliphate in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and other parts of neighbouring Central Asian countries, Russia and India. The adoption of Korasan to designate this branch of Daesh is significant as it harks back to pre-Islamic Persian history (224-651 AD) when the rich, cultivated, and cultured Sassanian Empire ruled Greater Korasan.
Unable to match the Taliban in warfare, Daesh-K has opted for destabilisation and anarchy.
It has carried out attacks on US and allied troops, Taliban fighters, schools, mosques, public facilities, and hospitals. In late 2019 and early 2020, US-led Nato forces and the Afghan army launched a crackdown on the movement, killing and capturing its leaders, and seizing more than 1,400 of its fighters and their families. Although, some observers claimed the movement had been defeated, in May 2020, Daesh-K gunmen killed 24 women and newly born babies at a Doctors Without Borders maternity clinic in Kabul; and that November Daesh-K shooters struck Kabul University, murdering 32 professors and students and wounding 50. Daesh-K clearly remains a potent threat.
Last week’s suicide bombing exacted the movement’s highest ever toll.