Rival Taliban Factions Clash, 56 Killed
Taliban fighters in Afghanistan
NEW DELHI: Violent clashes between two rival Taliban factions in southern Afghanistan resulted in at least 56 fighters killed. The fighting comes as factions within the Taliban reject the new leader, Mullah Mohammad Rasool, who was appointed following long time Taliban chief Mullah Omar’s death.
The rival faction, led by Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, has rejected the appointment. “The fight took place in the Arghandab district of Zabul province. Most of the area is under the Taliban control. We've been asking for military assistance for very long now,” police chief Mirwais Noorzai told Al Jazeera.
Anwar Ishaqzai, governor of southern Zabul province, said the Taliban splinter group - known as the High Council of Afghanistan Islamic Emirate - has joined up with fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Levant (ISIL) group. "The Taliban faction under Mullah Rasool was backed by the ISIL and Uzbek fighters in the fight," he said, adding that "About 40 Taliban from Rasool's group and 10 from Mansoor's have been killed in the fight."
The spokesperson for the breakaway faction, Abdul Manan Niazi, however denied the link with the Islamic State. "We will never join them. Their ideologies are different; they come from a different background and a different history," he told Al Jazeera. "These are all false accusations. We can never ask for their support to fight our enemies or to re-establish Islamic rule."
The infighting is directly related to two important considerations: one, on the prospect of the peace process and two, on the influence and presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. This is located in the context an upswing in violence, with the Taliban making some of its biggest gains in the last thirteen years, including the capture of the important city of Kunduz. The gains prompted the United States to change its strategy and commit to leaving troops in Afghanistan, as opposed to plans to cut down and eventually withdraw foreign troops in the country.
The infighting has served a blow to a nascent peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban leadership, with the Taliban having agreed to dialogue with the government for the first time in thirteen years. The peace process was brokered by Pakistan, a country Afghanistan shares a tense relationship, and initial success had seen an improvement of ties between the two countries.
With confirmation of Mullah Omar’s death, and the appointment of Rasool -- who incidentally holds favour with Pakistan and whom many believe has been acting as the de facto Taliban leader for years, as Omar was either predisposed or dead -- the peace process was dealt a severe blow. The large and powerful faction within the Taliban that rejected dialogue was emboldened, and Afghanistan saw one of its bloodiest periods yet with the Taliban capturing key areas in a major victory.
Although Pakistan and Afghanistan tried to hold a few high level meetings to keep their engagement on track, soon enough Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was using the same harsh rhetoric against Pakistan as former President Hamid Karzai used to, blaming the neighbouring country for not doing enough to rein in terrorists.
Pakistan and Afghanistan have shared a shaky relationship, with a large number of Afghans blaming Pakistan for supporting and hence perpetrating the Taliban. Ghani decided to reach out to Pakistan despite the criticism, with some going so far as to accuse Ghani of sleeping with the enemy.
Ghani’s decision to improve ties was directly linked to Pakistan’s influence over the insurgents, which, in turn, is ironically the main source of ammunition for Ghani’s anti-Pakistan critics. When Ghani came to power in September last year, he quickly signalled a change in policy. Ghani soon after being sworn-in visited Pakistan, and then Pakistan’s army chief and head of intelligence visited Kabul. Afghanistan and Pakistan’s tense equation had sunk to an all-time low under the presidency of former Afghan President Hamid Karzai. Karzai had been openly critical of Pakistan -- accusing the neighbouring country of supporting the Afghan Taliban and providing refuge to the group’s leadership.
Delegations from the two countries made visits across the border; six Afghan army cadets were sent to Pakistan for training; military efforts were coordinated across the shared border; and Ghani and Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif both issued statements in support of cooperation and bilateral ties.
The two countries even signed an agreement between Afghan National Directorate of Security (NDS) and Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) -- a move widely criticised by the camp opposing the betterment of ties.
The shift in policy seemed to be bearing fruit, with reports circulating that the Afghan Taliban -- under pressure from Pakistan was on the verge of agreeing to talks with the Afghan leadership. This was huge. For the first time in thirteen years -- since the US invasion of Afghanistan -- the Taliban, which has thus far maintained that the Afghan government is illegitimate, was ready to initiate a peace process.
Then Ghani’s trip to Washington happened, where US President Barack Obama announced the decision to slow troop withdrawal. The Taliban, in turn, issued a statement vowing to continue fighting. "This damages all the prospects for peace, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said of the announcement. “This means the war will go on until they are defeated.”
All this has been the source of much criticism. In an interview with The Guardian, former Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- said that the country’s historic struggles against British imperialism and Soviet invasion will have been in vain if it succumbs to pressure from Pakistan.
This view was echoed by Karzai’s associates who sat in on the interview. Rangin Dadfar Spanta, a former foreign minister and national security adviser said that the policy amounts to the humiliating “appeasement” of a hostile power who would never change its ways. In a similar vein, Omar Daudzai, one of the most influential officials of the Karzai era who served as chief of staff and interior minister, predicts, “There could be a bloody summer, there will be fighting and there will be disappointments on the dialogue table from time to time.” Daudzai, a former ambassador to Islamabad, added that whilst he thought Ghani’s attempts to woo Pakistan were “courageous,” they would ultimately fail to change the country’s behaviour.
And this is by no means an isolated view. An important figure within Afghanistan, Karzai echoes a distrust that runs deep with the Afghan people.
Ghani had taken a major gamble by reaching out to Pakistan, as the move was unpopular with powerful critics within Afghanistan. Although at one point it seemed like the gamble could yield results, as indicated by the Taliban agreeing to talks, the optimism was short-lived. In the end, the anti-Pakistan camp in Afghanistan was proved right, and Afghanistan currently is witnessing one of its most bloodiest periods yet as the Taliban makes some of its biggest gains since its government was overthrown 13 years ago.
Additionally, the infighting may serve to bolster the Islamic State, which has seemingly been making inroads into the troubled South Asian country. At the time of writing, news emerged that Islamic State militants kidnapped and killed seven people, including three women, in the southern province of Zabul, whilst the Taliban factions were engaged in heavy clashes.
The Islamic State may take advantage of the factionalism within the Taliban, as it has done in other countries where rival groups exist, including Yemen and Libya. However, an important caveat is that the exact role and presence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan remains unknown, with many maintaining that its presence has been exaggerated.
Further, and most importantly, the question remains whether the Daesh parent group is actively involved in recruiting or training or is the Islamic State in South Asian countries an independent initiative that bears the name for the sake of bearing the name?
In Afghanistan, the attacks claimed by Daesh are increasing. In May, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives-laden vest outside a bank in Jalalabad, the capital of the eastern province of Nangahar, killing at least 34 people and injuring 125 others.
The attack was claimed by a group called ISIS Wilayat Khorasan, with a statement issued naming the suicide bomber as Abu Mohammad Khorasani. A photograph purportedly of Khorasani was included, showing the attacker seated on a prayer mat, a scarf covering his face and a Kalashnikov rifle by his side. A black Daesh flag was visible in the background.
Referring to this claim, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said: “Who claimed responsibility for the horrific attack in Nangahar today? The Taliban did not claim responsibility for the attack, Daesh claimed responsibility for the attack.”
Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports indicate that the Taliban and Islamic State have declared “jihad” against each other. Helmand province police chief Nabi Jan Mullahkhil was quoted by Afghanistan's Mashaal Radio saying that authorities had obtained “documents” that suggest that the two militant groups had turned on each other, according to independent news outlet Khaama. Khaama reported, “Reports of minor clashes between the fighters of Taliban group and the newly emerged Daesh have published in the past.”
Whilst the above portrays a frightening scenario, with disgruntled Taliban fighters providing a suitable recruiting ground for the Islamic State’s aspirations in the region, the presence of the Syria and Iraq-based militant group in the South Asian country is still fairly limited.
In fact, despite Ghani’s announcement, Afghan officials and Nato forces in Afghanistan have gone on the record to say they doubt the claims of the Islamic State’s influence in the country. Daesh’s claim on the attack in Jalalabad has also been questioned. "We have not yet seen evidence of ISIS direction or support of the attacks," Lt. Col. Christopher Belcher, spokesman for the international military coalition in Afghanistan, said in a statement reproduced by Reuters.
"Jalalabad continues to be an area with significant Taliban influence, and this attack fits the pattern of past Taliban attacks in the region, underscoring that this attack does not represent a fundamental change in the security environment."
A similar position was put forth by a spokesperson for Afghanistan's Ministry of Defense. "I do not believe that it was carried out by Daesh," Brigadier General Dawlat Waziri said, as quoted by Reuters.
Daesh itself seems to be unclear on whether it carried out the attack or not. “ISIS was not behind the deadly blast in Jalalabad, and we condemn such an attack,” Sheikh Muslim Dost, a spokesperson for the group in Afghanistan, told The Daily Beast. “This is an act of the Pakistani agencies to damage reputation of the ISIS.”
These may seem like two contrary positions. Does the Jalalabad bombing suggest that Daesh is a contender in Afghanistan or does it not?
Reports of Daesh in Afghanistan began to emerge late last year, when in September 2014 insurgents reported to be associated with the group battled Afghan security forces in the Arjistan district of Ghazni province. At the time, officials reported that the insurgents had raised the black flag of the Islamic State. However, the incident is now mired in controversy as the officials recanted their statements and said they had embellished the story so as to receive more resources.
In February 2015, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s Chief of Police denied that Daesh was present in the area, insisting that the insurgents were local Taliban fighters.
Nevertheless, Daesh announced its expansion into “Khorassan Province” and officially appointed Hafiz Saeed Khan as the Wali (Governor) of Khorassan. The group also appointed former Guantanamo Bay detainee and senior Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Rauf Khadim as Khan’s deputy. The appointments and announcements followed a video released in January 2015 -- by disgruntled Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) militants and a handful of little-known Afghan Taliban fighters -- that pledged allegiance to Daesh.
Since then, there have been isolated reports of Daesh’s black flag being raised in parts of Afghanistan. In Farah province for instance, a group of militants who pledged allegiance to Daesh set up a training camp; in Sar-i-Pul province, local officials reported that insurgents had raised the black flag of Daesh in Kohistanat district; in nearby Darzab district of Jawzjan province, 600 insurgents reportedly raised the black flag and began fighting on behalf of Daesh.
Earlier this year, in Nangarhar province, Taliban factions and Daesh-affiliated insurgents clashed in what was widely perceived to be a turf war. In March, Afghan National Army (ANA) officials reported that a clash between rival Taliban and Daesh factions in the Arghandab district of Zabul had killed seven Daesh fighters. Also earlier in March, Hafiz Waheed, a Daesh-linked militant was killed in an airstrike in Afghanistan.
However, it is important to note that these are isolated incidents, which have been difficult to verify The Taliban continues to remain the main extremist group opposed to the government in Afghanistan, but factors already outlined, namely the infighting, the recent death of Omar, and the potential of peace talks with the Afghan government -- may give Daesh a boost.