Islamic State and Taliban: Deciphering Competition for the Leadership

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The violence map of Afghanistan in 2017 has not been different from its previous years. The civilian and security forces causalities have rather gone up. What is strikingly different is that Islamic State in Afghanistan has claimed more attacks than Taliban particularly in last half of the 2017. The rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan has also created problem for Taliban to widen its influence. The tussle between Islamic State and Taliban although has intensified over the years but the Afghan government has failed to exploit the division. Moreover, the external powers have all the means to use both of them as proxies. Apart from the external help, a tactical change in religious philosophy will determine the trajectory of Islamic State’s prowess in Afghanistan. Rise of Islamic State in Afghanistan

After its military success in Iraq and Syria, Islamic State (IS) started extending its branches by trying to persuade likeminded outfits to join them. Initially the prospect for IS in the South Asia region was seen as implausible due the existence of other terrorist organisations particularly the influence of al-Qaeda and Taliban. Now down to the couple of years IS has emerged strong force to reckon with. In Af-Pak region, IS consists of the former Taliban and Pakistan Taliban fighters. The emergence of IS goes back to 2014, when a delegation sent by Baghdadi to contact TTP fighters in South Waziristan and Baluchistan. Initially the defecators from TTP maintained low profile when they left to Afghanistan after the Pakistani military launched Zarb-i-Azb operation in North Waziristan. They got settled in Nangarhar districts. Taliban welcomed its old hosts; it was time for them to reciprocate. For Afghan government, TTP particularly Mangal Bagh’s men from Khyber Agency bordering Durand line were seen as potential asset to off balance the Taliban-ISI nexus. It was like the beginning of tit-for tat between two neighbours. My enemy’s enemy is friend; the acrimony started flaring up from the region. The NDS according to Borhan Osman, an Afghan analyst was not only wooing Mangal Bagh’s fighters but also other different factions of the TTP and were allowed to be treated in government hospitals. He further said that the NDS “expected their protégés to fight against the Pakistani government. It also saw a role for them to fight, or at least stand, as a bulwark against the Afghan Taliban”. However, that bromance did not last long. When IS paid allegiance to Baghdadi, a rift emerged between host Taliban and IS in Nuristan and Nangarhar. Within couple of months IS took territory from Taliban and started killing Taliban fighters and its sympathisers. Taliban has to assemble its fighters to take out IS- now seen a strategic enemy- from the areas which erstwhile were its strongholds. IS started publically executing Taliban fighters and its sympathisers, sent a message that they are very ruthless than Taliban. Afghan government was forced to rethink its policy of using them as assets as neighbouring states took development very seriously.

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Now what makes IS strong is that it is recruiting new fighters in the region, mostly those who see Taliban as a religiously flexible and lackey’s of foreign agencies. Those who constitute IS’s top leadership are mostly from Pakistan’s tribal areas particularly those who control the opium trade routes. The infighting within TTP and between Taliban and IS can also be seen in that prism. One who controls opium trade routes controls organisation. The opium trade route that crosses through South Waziristan had always been under the control of militants from Mehsud tribe. Therefore, financial woes of its parental organisation will not have any impact on IS in Afghanistan.

The other factor that would play an important role is the Iran-Saudi rivalry that is going to be played in Afghanistan. What Taliban could not do, IS done it succinctly by stoking sectarian conflict with aim of being portrayed as an only bulwark against Shia expansionism. The unabated attacks against Shia’s in Afghanistan forced Iran to reach out to Taliban. Many Hazara Shia’s joined Taliban against IS. The presence of Salafi’s also known as mowahedin in Taliban would make them prone target for the Saudi’s. Over the years they were loosely under control of Taliban leadership. But resentment was rising against Taliban’s top leadership for either being too soft in applying religious rulings or not being able to control the illicit activities. IS in Afghanistan has been successful in the areas where Salafi Islam is dominant. In Nangharhar, Salafi communities provided base for IS to thrive. Salafi scholars saw IS as an organisation that is pure in its ideology and also has a vision for the political state. The Salafi’s within Taliban have been close to Saudi’s and if Riyadh sees Taliban-Iran cooperation materialising, they can reach out to Salafi’s within Taliban who over the years have maintained a separate network within the group.

Religious Ruling’s

The other factor that will determine success of each group depends on who attracts young fighters. IS has an upper hand here, it still has model of a political state to offer its followers which it ruled for many years in Iraq and Syria. The second and more importantly Taliban is still seen as nationalistic driven outfit that often puts it at odds with jihadi sympathisers.

The new ruling from the IS in Iraq and Syria after it lost its territory is a master stroke. It will add its fortunes in the Af-Pak region. These two rulings are fatwa (decree) on takfir- that is excommunicating the other. IS excommunicated every other organisation be it al-Qaeda, Hamas, Muslim Brotherhood, Taliban and others. The other ruling is tatarus- using humans as shield, in military connotation it is known as collateral damage. Previously IS defended tatarus and argued that there is nothing wrong in it. By rescinding takfir, IS in the AF-Pak region will attract those outfits that were earlier hesitant to join it partly because of its condescension towards other organisations. The other terrorist organisations may not fully integrate with it but in future may coordinate and will come each other rescue. Tatarus will be used to win hearts and minds of the people once Taliban is defeated militarily and ideologically.


With elections looming, the Afghan government and US would try its best to bring some sort of stability. Even if Taliban is forced to come on negotiation table they will not commit to ceasefire, a pre-requisite for any peace talks. If they do that, Taliban will lose young fighters who don’t want to talk. There is already enmity within Taliban regarding Pakistan’s influence on top leadership. Therefore, the external elements will see where to rely and on whom to bet their strategic calculations. What’s becoming obvious is that IS is not only a reality but a force that would be reckoned with. They have all the means to destabilise the region.

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Islamic State and Taliban: Deciphering Competition for the Leadership. (2020, December 14). WritingBros. Retrieved February 25, 2024, from
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