Some former members of Afghanistan’s U.S.-trained intelligence service and elite military units—now abandoned by their American patrons and hunted by the Taliban—have enlisted in the only force currently challenging the country’s new rulers: Islamic State.
The number of defectors joining the terrorist group is relatively small, but growing, according to Taliban leaders, former Afghan republic security officials and people who know the defectors. Importantly, these new recruits bring to Islamic State critical expertise in intelligence-gathering and warfare techniques, potentially strengthening the extremist organization’s ability to contest Taliban supremacy.
According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, a few members of the US-trained forces joined the extremist group’s regional affiliate, ISIS-Khorasan, after Taliban started searching their homes and demanding that they present themselves to the country’s new authorities.
While the number of defectors who have joined ISIS is small, the recruits have brought significant expertise to the terror group, right from intelligence-gathering to warfare techniques.
Rahmatullah Nabil, former head of Afghanistan’s spy agency National Directorate of Security, told WSJ that ISIS has become very attractive to the Afghan forces “who have been left behind”.
“If there were a resistance, they would have joined the resistance … for the time being, ISIS is the only other armed group,” Nabil said. After the Taliban’s dominant takeover, the new rulers faced brief resistance in Panjshir valley. But the resistence grew week after holding out for a few weeks with most of its leaders fleeing abroad.
The WSJ report said that thousands of former Afghan soldiers and police personnel have remained unemployed since the Taliban takeover and only a fraction of them have decided to work under the new rulers.
With the ISIS ranks swelling gradually, there are fears that the terror group could eventually pose a threat to the western world.
Like nearly all other Afghan government employees, they haven’t been paid for months, the report said.
It said that in addition to protection from Taliban, ISIS is luring the former Afghanistan soldiers with significant amounts of money.
The US intelligence community has assessed that Islamic State in Afghanistan could have the capability to attack the United States in as little as six months, and has the intention to do so, a senior Pentagon official had told Congress last week.
Colin Kahl, under secretary of defence for policy, said it was still unclear whether the Taliban has the ability to fight ISIS effectively following the US withdrawal. The United States fought the Taliban as well as striking groups like Islamic State and al-Qaida.
What is ISIS-K?
Months after the Islamic State declared a caliphate in Iraq and Syria in 2014, breakaway fighters from the Pakistani Taliban joined militants in Afghanistan to form a regional chapter, pledging allegiance to IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
The group was formally acknowledged by the central Islamic State leadership the next year as it sunk roots in northeastern Afghanistan, particularly Kunar, Nangarhar and Nuristan provinces.
It also managed to set up sleeper cells in other parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, including Kabul, according to United Nations monitors.
Latest estimates of its strength vary from several thousand active fighters to as low as 500, according to a UN Security Council report released last month.
“Khorasan” is a historical name for the region, taking in parts of what is today Pakistan, Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia.
Taliban vs ISIS-K
Despite being hardline Sunni groups, the Taliban and ISIS-K have been at each other’s throats for several years in Afghanistan.
The groups have differed on the minutiae of religion and strategy, while claiming to be the true flag-bearers of jihad.
That tussle has led to bloody fighting between the two, with the Taliban emerging largely victorious after 2019 when IS-Khorasan failed to secure territory as its parent group did in the Middle East.
In a sign of the enmity between the two jihadist groups, IS statements have referred to the Taliban as apostates.
The Taliban also alleges that ISIS-Khorasan Province was a creation of Afghanistan’s intelligence service and US that aimed to sow division within the Islamist insurgency. The claim has been denied by Washington and the ousted Afghanistan government.
ISIS-K has been responsible for some of Afghanistan’s most lethal attacks in recent years, such as targeting schoolgirls, hospitals and even a maternity ward in Kabul, killing newly born babies and pregnant women.
It also claimed the airport bombing attack in Kabul in August when scores were scrambling to flee the war-torn country.