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Written by Hania Amaad 5:51 pm Articles, Current Affairs, International Relations, Published Content

A War of Attrition: The Taliban vs ISIS-K

What is the relationship between the Taliban and ISIS? Are they allies or dissimilar enemies? Hania Amaad details the formation and outlook of the ISIS-K and its interactions with the Taliban.
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Ms Hania Amaad completed her bachelor's in business administration from IBA Karachi. As an avid reader of current affairs, she’s fond of writing on international relations and political issues.

A Taliban Insurgence

ISIS-K has always been viewed as a threat in Afghanistan, but the infamous Taliban insurgency shook the country to its core. It created havoc, instilled fear and distress to usurp the country’s capital city, Kabul, and has had a detrimental effect on the country’s political stance. As the uprising emerged, the country began to fall, one city after the other in quick succession.

The former president fled his palace, American personnel were discreetly rushed to airports, and what began as a deal to negotiate with the current Afghan government ended as a Taliban coup becoming the sole rulers of the state. From this point forward, a new chapter of regressive policies began, resulting in gender inequality, mismanaged finances, and a dwindling economy – all in all, a humanitarian crisis with widespread violence throughout the region.  

The Taliban may have captured the palace and usurped a country, but they continue to struggle as part of the global economy, international politics, and internal political regimes. Despite not complying with any of their former agreements with the US, the Taliban continue to expect international acceptance as a ruling party while experiencing threats from ISIS internally.

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Formation of the ISIS-K

ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) is a jihadist self-proclaimed caliphate group that believes in a pan-Islamic state. Initially, they were inspired but later got expelled by Al-Qaeda due to religious differences and have since become rivals. On the contrary, ISIS has been at odds with the Taliban since its inception.

In an open letter in 2015, the Taliban threatened ISIS leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi with dire consequences if he did not cooperate under the Taliban flag. It was officially published on their website in several languages and signed by their deputy leader, Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor. In the same year, ISIS announced the formation of its local group: ISIS-K (Khorasan).

It was primarily based on historic regions that covered eastern Iran, southern Pakistan, Turkmenistan, and Afghanistan. They even took in high-ranking officials from the former TTP (Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan), who were trained to the best of their abilities alongside local Afghans.

Their organizational bases were operated in Syria and Iraq, through which funding and weapons were arranged simultaneously. According to some terrorist experts, the figure could rise to $100 million. Rationally using all the resources, they quickly gained control of one city after another.

Aims and Goals of ISIS-K

ISIS-K advocated a jihadi movement in Afghanistan which would remove the Taliban from the presidency. They even intended to overthrow the Pakistani government through mass casualties through their high-end operations controlled by their so-called caliphates. As a strong anti-Shia group, they wanted to wage a war in Iran to “purify” the land.

Clashes between the Taliban and ISIS-K

ISIS-K and the Taliban had several clashes in the first three years that included: targeted bomb blasts on Afghan media, several attacks on the capital, a 20-hour siege at a prison where dozens were killed, and the deadliest being the attack on Kabul that killed 13 American soldiers and more than 100 Afghans. They even attacked schools, hospitals, and maternity wards, killing newborn babies.

The mass casualties targeted Afghan minorities of Hazara and Sikh communities and government officials. Over the years, civilian casualties remain the highest in number, with a record of over 10,000 in the year 2018. There was a slight decline in 2019 and a further decrease in 2020, but it grew back again in 2021. A United Nations Assistance Mission report recorded 77 attacks in the first 4 months by ISIS-K. 

The growing clash between the two sectarian groups was merely the lust for power. It was more about religious differences and the unorthodox ways of ruling an Islamic state. While the Taliban’s goal was to rule only Afghanistan, ISIS-K persisted in ruling across the border by the ethnic cleansing of all the Shia groups. The Taliban even insisted on working with Pakistan to a certain extent and even with the US government to broaden their operations.

However, ISIS-K is against these policies and claims itself as the only jihadi group to have not cooperated with Western powers. Also, the Taliban follows the Sunni Islamic Hanafi School of Law, while ISIS-K follows a pan-Islamic view. While the Taliban seeks to cooperate, ISIS-K condemns any mutual cooperation and believes more in “purifying the lands” of non-believers.

The sectarian and national differences convinced ISIS-K to oust the Taliban from power through militants. However, the growing power of ISIS was threatening not only the Taliban but Americans as well.

Taliban and America vs ISIS

It seems rather absurd, but after fighting for more than 20 years, the Taliban and the US have finally found a common enemy: ISIS. While the Taliban government fears its power being sabotaged, America envisions Afghanistan as the hub of territorial activities around the world under the ISIS regime. US President Joe Biden even dismissed any possibility of an alliance between the two extreme groups, calling them “sworn enemies.”

Historically, the US assisted the Taliban in counter-terrorism activities by ISIS-K through military and intelligence. They would locate the radio signals of the Taliban’s military and help them in tracing ISIS-K’s attacks. This was done under cover and not on a political level. It brought small success initially but gradually defeated ISIS-K by the year in late 2019. Almost 1400 of their fighters and their families surrendered to the government.

The group disintegrated and had to shut down its terrorist activities, only to come back to power stronger after the Taliban insurgence. Despite cooperating previously to remove the threat, America is reluctant to provide similar assistance to the Taliban this time. This is mainly because the Taliban might reject any interception of signals due to sovereign breaching.

Secondly, even if they were to have joint cooperation by providing intelligence and tracking the ISIS-K hideouts, America would still be insecure as all the senior security officials are recruited from the Haqqani network. This will be problematic for the Taliban as well since none of the jihadi groups would want to join forces with the US at any cost.

The Taliban will lose all their support from internal groups, and this will only strengthen ISIS-K’s cause. Therefore, a wiser approach for the US would be to step out of the local militant groups and let one of them knock out the other.

A Devastating Intra-jihad War

The Taliban will face difficulties in the intra-jihad war because they are new to counterinsurgency policies. Despite the fact that Al-Qaeda previously expelled ISIS-K and the Haqqani Network continues to work in collaboration with the Taliban, none of them would fight against each other or in collaboration with the US. Since the Taliban’s insurgence, their policies have eased up with both Pakistan and the US government.

However, this proves to be an opportunity for ISIS-K which strongly condemns such unity and trains anti-Taliban fighters for deadly attacks. Secondly, the Taliban has reconsidered hand-cutting punishment for theft and believes in executing it in extreme cases only, but ISIS-K strictly follows hand-cutting for theft. The most unexpected move was to allow women to work (in some departments) and girls to go to school (wearing a headscarf), which enraged ISIS-K, who are against women’s rights.

Many of the Islamist group prisoners were freed from the prisons and have rejoined the group only to strengthen its position. According to a media report, the number doubled from 2000 to 4000-5000 militants within a span of a few months. The rebellion between the groups escalated, with the Taliban killing their commandos and the ISIS-K targeting civilians and hospitals to prove their agendas.

The aggravating threat of internal politics has become very difficult to manage without international cooperation. The ongoing intra-jihad war has become very uncertain. Even if we assume the Taliban will take strong control over Afghanistan, these groups will opt for transnational violence to prove their strength.


For the past two decades, Afghanistan has been a key host to all terrorist activities. The Taliban’s weak control over the land is pushing other groups to strengthen their positions. This would have a devastating effect on neighboring countries like Pakistan and Iran. The anti-Shia policy will come into action in Iran, and Pakistan will be used as a secondary base for operations. The strong proposition of ISIS-K to attack the US and its allies will come into effect.

This is why America has willfully pulled out its troops and Biden threatened ISIS to not “metastasize beyond what it is.” China, on the other hand, fears Afghan terrorist groups attacking China. This is why the killing of Chinese teachers in Pakistan was quickly buried so that a direct fight isn’t taken up by China against ISIS, and it continues to invest in Pakistan for a well-developed infrastructure. This will persuade Pakistan to deal with these groups on their own and not allow them to cross the border.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article/paper are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Paradigm Shift.

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