Unofficially, the former had already happened, but questions persist as to the durability of the goodwill of both sides, having warred against each other for two decades. In recent weeks, several attacks have taken place, including operations against Afghan security forces and at least one government airstrike causing civilian casualties.

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Very different ideologies

During the last months and years, both the Afghan government and the Taliban have also regularly reported how they defeated ISKP by clearing out whole districts. One day before the attacks, several ISKP key figures  were arrested by government forces in Kabul, according to government officials. Although some former Taliban members have joined ISKP, the Taliban themselves have been engaged in a large-scale conflict against the group, primarily due to ideological issues, the existence of which are often glossed over by those on the outside unfamiliar with Islamic polemics.

"The ideological hurdle between the two groups is still very high, which indicates that following a peace deal, many Taliban fighters are unlikely to want to defect to Islamic State," said Thomas Ruttig. Theologically, Islamic State is known for its foreign, imported brand of Salafist extremism, while the Taliban market themselves as native sons of the soil, heirs to Afghanistan’s deeply rooted, centuries-old Sunni Hanafi traditionalism.

Some observers believe that overall the ISKP is still a small, insignificant player in the country. But the fact remains that ISKP has not been eliminated, despite reports of over 10,000 of its fighters being killed since 2015. Generally, these have been caused by Afghan forces, U.S. airstrikes and the Taliban. "This demonstrates incredible resiliency, being able to consistently bring in new recruits and continue operating while losing members in such staggering numbers”, said Andrew Watkins, a senior analyst on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group.

An unknown quantity

Estimates of the group's membership today still put their strength in the hundreds, perhaps even 1,000 remaining members or more. Nevertheless, there is reason to doubt those official numbers, especially those put forth by the Afghan government, which, according to many observers, has an opaque, problematic relationship with ISKP.

A few analysts have suggested that the Kabul government would benefit by keeping ISKP around in small numbers, using its existence to blame the Taliban for any given terrorist attack, suggesting a similar strategic relationship to the one between the Assad regime and IS in Syria. Others like Watkins say such theories amount to little more than "conspiratorial thinking, held together by grains of truth".

"We can't deny that the Afghan government has at times behaved very strangely toward ISKP fighters and commanders, arresting them alive and even treating them surprisingly well in custody," said Watkins. "But it is important to say any comparison of Kabul’s relationship to ISKP with Assad's regime to IS is strongly off-base. The Afghan government has devoted considerable military resources to its campaign against ISKP in Nangarhar, at times over the last five years even implicitly taking action that would clearly benefit the Taliban in rural areas of the province," Watkins underlined.

When it comes to the peace process, Watkins suggests that the terrorist group is interfering for ideological reasons. "ISKP has clearly become more active in direct response to the deal between the United States and the Taliban. In their own propaganda, they have decried the deal, labelling it as proof that the Taliban are the 'kufr' and infidels they have always accused them of being. In the months before February, ISKP did not claim a single incident in Kabul, but in the days leading up to the signing ceremony in Doha, the group resumed activity with a vengeance."

Emran Feroz

© 2020

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