Have the Taliban Changed in the Past Twenty Years?

The Taliban have sought to rebrand themselves as a moderate political movement. Even though this so-called new Taliban or Taliban 2.0 has won the approval of some Western officials and analysts, there are no indications that the militant group is willing to make significant political concessions, moderate its extremist ideology, or change its harsh social policies with respect to women’s mobility, education, or right to work.

The Taliban do appear eager to engage the international community, presumably out of the need for international recognition and future economic assistance. They have made positive overtures to religious minorities and have even offered a general amnesty to opponents. But actions speak louder than words. Despite promising to form an inclusive government, the Taliban have monopolized power in their hands since assuming power in Kabul. Amnesty International alleges the Taliban brutally murdered nine ethnic Hazara men in July. The Hazaras are one of the largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan who faced severe repression by the last Taliban regime because they practice Shia Islam in a Sunni-majority country. Media reports suggest Taliban fighters are searching door to door for Afghans who worked for the previous government or the United States, as well as for journalists and human rights activists. There are also reports that the group has covertly detained, forcibly disappeared, and even executed their perceived enemies.

Aqil Shah
Aqil Shah was a visiting scholar in the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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The Taliban have prevented many women from returning to work, especially in the media. They have practically excluded women from higher education by banning co-education and have imposed harsh restrictions on news, music, and entertainment.

What Is ISIS-Khorasan, the Group That Has Claimed Responsibility for the Blast at the Airport in Kabul?

The Islamic State in the Khorasan Province (ISKP or IS-K) is a regional affiliate of the self-proclaimed Islamic State (IS) that operates mainly in Afghanistan. It was initially based in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangahar Province on the border with Pakistan. The group was formed in 2015 by disaffected commanders of the Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan, which seeks to overthrow the Pakistani state. These commanders had escaped to Afghanistan following Pakistan military offensives in the districts adjacent to eastern Afghanistan (previously known as the Federally Administered Tribal Areas) in 2014. Their stated mission is to restore the historical region of Khorasan, comprising Afghanistan and Central Asia, as a part of a global Islamic caliphate. While IS has provided the group both recognition and funds, IS-K is an operationally autonomous network that has attracted former members of various jihadist groups in the region, including the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani network (HQN).

What Is the Strength and Status of IS-K?

At its peak, IS-K successfully recruited thousands of fighters and captured Taliban-controlled territory in Nangarhar, Kunar, and Jowzjan provinces of Afghanistan. By 2018, it had suffered significant leadership and cadre losses because of relentless U.S. airstrikes, Afghan military operations, and, to some extent, Taliban offensives.

But the group is far from defeated. In fact, experts believe it has reconstituted itself as a decentralized network of sleeper cells concentrated in urban centers like Kabul and Jalalabad to avoid further attrition and detection. These sleeper cells have reportedly carried out a string of high-casualty terror attacks targeting Western charities, Shia religious centers, public demonstrations, hospitals, and schools. One such cell was planning to assassinate the top American diplomat in January 2021 but was foiled by Afghan intelligence.

In the first four months of 2021 alone, IS-K carried out seventy-seven attacks in Afghanistan, representing a significant uptick from 2020. The group’s deadliest attack to date was the August 26 suicide blast amid the U.S. evacuation operation at Kabul airport, which killed thirteen U.S. troops and at least 170 Afghan civilians. The group’s purest claim to the mantle of global jihad, extreme tactics (such as mass public executions) and lethal attacks have helped it lure a variety of extremist militants to its ranks.

What Crossover Is There Between the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, al-Qaeda, and IS-K?

The militant landscape in Afghanistan is complicated to say the least. The three main groups—the Taliban, HQN, and al-Qaeda—are closely aligned. They have multi-generational ties between them that date back to the anti-Soviet Afghan jihad and that have been reinforced over time by the experience of fighting U.S. and NATO troops and by family bonds, including intermarriages.

The Taliban and HQN are integrated at the top: Sirajuddin Haqqani, the leader of HQN, is also a deputy to the supreme leader of the Taliban. While HQN fights under the Taliban umbrella, it retains relative operational autonomy in its primary zone of operations in eastern Afghanistan. When asked if HQN was a group distinct from the Taliban, one of its main leaders responded: “We are the Taliban.”  The Taliban and the HQN also have the same external patron, Pakistan’s Interservice intelligence (ISI), which has supported these groups as a hedge against Indian influence in Afghanistan.

According to the UN Sanctions Monitoring Team, Haqqani also acts as the primary liaison between the Afghan Taliban and al-Qaeda. All three groups have an adversarial relationship with IS-K, in part because it has exploited their internal conflicts to poach their disaffected members.

What Is the History of the Relationship Between the Taliban and IS-K?

IS-K and the Taliban are mortal enemies. The two groups have fiercely competed over resources, recruits, and territory in eastern and northern Afghanistan. The Taliban have repeatedly clashed with IS-K to wrest back control of several rural districts in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, where IS-K was initially able to establish a territorial base. The Taliban summarily executed imprisoned IS-K fighters, including its former leader Maulvi Zia ul-Haq, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Omar Khorasani, after taking over Kabul.

IS-K leaders view the Taliban as “filthy nationalists” because of their parochial agenda of ruling Afghanistan, in contrast to IS-K’s exalted aspiration of establishing a global Islamic caliphate. They painted the Taliban as U.S. stooges after the Taliban signed the February 2020 Doha agreement with the United States. In a lengthy statement released days after the Kabul airport attack, the group has also branded the Taliban as the “Pakistani militia”—referring to Pakistan’s backing of the Taliban—to dent the Taliban’s claimed legitimacy as an Afghan nationalist group. IS-K has used the airport attack to burnish its global jihadist credentials by positioning itself as the only group in Afghanistan that is fighting both foreign troops and the Taliban, who it has derided once again as puppets of U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration because of their close cooperation against IS-K.  

The Taliban Have Pledged to Stop Terror Groups, Including al-Qaeda, From Attacking the United States. Are the Taliban Likely to Honor This Commitment After the U.S. Departure?

In addition to IS-K, the United States’ main counterterrorism target in Afghanistan is al-Qaeda.  But it is hard to predict whether the Taliban will fulfill its pledge to deny al-Qaeda safe haven in Afghanistan.

According to UN counterterrorism officials, the Taliban retain close ties with al-Qaeda. Although the Taliban have reportedly begun to register, restrict, and monitor foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda, their leadership has not credibly committed to limiting the threat from al-Qaeda or its affiliate al-Qaeda in the Indian Sub-continent, let alone severing its ties with the group. The Taliban continue to provide al-Qaeda leaders safe havens in south and eastern Afghanistan along the border with Pakistan, presumably in return for funds and training in specialized skills such as bomb making. In fact, al-Qaeda fighters have been killed fighting alongside the Taliban against Afghan security forces and U.S. troops in Taliban-controlled areas.  Upon entering Kabul, the Taliban reportedly freed thousands of jailed militants from two prisons in Kabul, including al-Qaeda operatives, Taliban, and HQN fighters.  

What Are the Regional and Global Security Implications of IS-K’s Resurgence?

 The main security concern of both regional and global powers is to prevent Afghanistan from devolving into a safe haven for international jihadists as it did before the September 11, 2001, terror attacks against the United States. Terrorism experts believe IS-K does not pose an immediate global terror threat, at least until it can expand its territorial presence in Afghanistan and replenish its ranks. But the Kabul airport attack has raised alarm bells in regional capitals from Tashkent to Islamabad. This is because the group’s resurgence is likely to act as a morale boost for jihadists in South and Central Asia and beyond­—especially if it continues to demonstrate its lethality and resolve by executing mass casualty attacks.

The group also poses a potent internal threat to Taliban rule, both because of its ability to draw away Taliban fighters and its demonstrated capacity to carry out hard-to-stop, complex assaults against civilians and government installations at will. More broadly, IS-K could become a direct challenge to the Taliban’s monopoly over violence in Afghanistan if it is able to wrest back territory in the rural districts of provinces, such as Nangarhar and Kunar, along Afghanistan’s mountainous border with Pakistan.

IS-K’s resurgence in Afghanistan will be worrisome for India. In the past, the group has targeted Kashmiri and other Indian Muslims for recruitment. India had maintained close ties with the governments of former Afghan presidents Ashraf Ghani and Hamid Karzai. Hence, India has been reluctant to formally engage the Taliban. But the country has a major stake in a stable Afghanistan. New Delhi has invested over $3 billion in development and reconstruction in Afghanistan. India’s main security challenge in Afghanistan is to prevent ISI-backed anti-India militant groups (like Lashkar-e-Taiba) from finding a safe haven as they did the last time the Taliban ruled Afghanistan. To this end, India has initiated diplomatic contact with the Taliban to emphasize its concerns about future terrorism emanating from Afghanistan.

IS-K further threatens internal security in Pakistan because of its ability to exploit Sunni-Shia divisions in that country. Since early 2021, it has expanded its reach into the restive southwestern Balochistan province of Pakistan, where it has reportedly partnered with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (a proscribed local Sunni sectarian terrorist group) to attack members of the Shia Hazara minority, which has been one of its primary targets in Afghanistan.

Correction: The text has been updated to include mention of Pakistan’s intelligence services.