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Spike of violence across Afghanistan

May 4, 2022

Summary: The Taliban are being confronted with two distinct strands of violence – terror attacks from Islamic State and ambushes from an emerging collection of local anti-Taliban groups.  They will struggle to find the capacity to deal with either.

There has been a surge of violence in Afghanistan over the last few weeks.  This has two main forms, terrorist and guerrilla.  Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) emerged in eastern Afghanistan in late 2014.  They struggled to gain territory and influence, having to fight both the Taliban and the Ghani government.   By 2020 they had suffered significant reverses.  Since the return of the Taliban, they have made efforts to return to the fray – with, by their definition, some success.  Women, children, schools, mosques and civilians going about their daily lives are dream targets for ISKP.[1]  They have claimed responsibility for some recent bloody attacks against Sunni and Shia mosques.  The Shia Hazara community look to be bearing the brunt.[2]  ISKP thrive in failing states.  Their ambition in Afghanistan is to trigger inter-factional fighting between Sunni and Shia. 

The Taliban have no love for Shia Muslims either.  Their security forces, impressively equipped with US Army booty, but poorly schooled in the complex arts of counter-insurgency, do not look capable of dealing with terrorism.  They will struggle to convincingly demonstrate that they are protecting Shia citizens of Afghanistan.[3]  The Taliban appeared keen to minimise media reporting of security incidents by targeting journalists to preventing them from accurately reporting.[4]  If the Taliban are unable to protect Afghan citizens, Afghans may arm themselves.  Some Hazara groups look to be doing this, with the intention of defending themselves from ISKP and the Taliban.[5]

The second strand of violence comes from armed groups opposed to the Taliban’s seizure of power.[6]  Often these bands include former members of the Ghani government and its armed forces.  The National Resistance Front (NRF) declared itself as an anti-Taliban movement within days of the Taliban taking Kabul.  It is led by Ahmad Massoud, son of the legendary Tajik leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud and supported by Amrullah Saleh, a former government intelligence chief and a Vice President at the time of the government collapse.  The NRF have claimed several ambush-style attacks against the Taliban, with a centre of gravity around the provinces of Panjshir and Baghlan, in ideal guerrilla terrain just to the north of Kabul, but sometimes further afield.[7]  Other smaller local anti-Taliban groups appear to be emerging.[8]     

It is very early to gauge where this is going or whether either form of violence will cause the Taliban to falter.  After their own experience with rapid collapse, in late 2001, the Taliban took several years to emerge with a credible insurgency capability tied to a political and propaganda platform.  They had the crucial advantage of a safe haven in western Pakistan.  ISKP do not have any innate popularity in Afghanistan and have always struggled to dominate ground.  Their methods, always brutal, will work against them.  Local Afghan resistance groups may generate more credible momentum in the longer-term, particularly if the Taliban leadership maintain a highly oppressive reliance on religious stricture.  However, if history is any guide, resistance groups will lack focus, bickering over local issues and squabbling over resources.  This will likely dissipate their potential.  And this time, at least, it looks as if the appetite of international powers to invest in and sustain a long-term insurgency is minimal.    









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