The Taliban Takes on Islamic State: Insurgents Vie for Control of Northern Afghanistan
Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 16 Issue: 16
The Jamestown Foundation
Fierce fighting between the Taliban and Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), the Afghan chapter of IS, have seen hundreds of militants killed in Jowzjan and Faryab provinces, two provinces in northern Afghanistan considered to be IS-K strongholds. About 300 militants were killed in two weeks of clashes between IS-K and the Taliban, which began on July 25 in the Darzab district of Jowzjan. It was the Taliban’s third major offensive against their rivals, and saw about 200 IS-K fighters hand themselves over to government forces rather than face the Taliban. Video footage from August 1, released by the government, showed IS-K fighters demanding protection in return for their surrender (Khabarnama, August 2).
The Taliban reportedly attacked IS-K forces, inflicting heavy losses on the group. Senior commanders on both sides were killed in the fighting. A spokesperson for the Jowzjan governor told local outlets that Haji Qumandan, the deputy leader of IS-K in northern Afghanistan, had been killed. The governor also reported the deaths of many senior Taliban members, including Haji Shakir, the district chief for Sangcharak district of Sar-e Pol (Khabarnama, July 25). An earlier report on July 18 claimed that two IS-K fighters targeted a Taliban gathering in Sayyad district of Sar-e Pol, killing 15 Taliban militants and wounding five others (Khabarnama, July 18).
Sar-e Pol, Jowzjan and Faryab are not the only provinces where the Taliban and IS-K have engaged in heavy clashes. The fighting appears to be a growing trend that has hit record levels of violence in the last three years following emergence of IS-K in Afghanistan. While a truce of sorts appears to be in place between the two groups in Afghanistan’s southwestern and southern provinces, in the north it appears to be the Taliban’s intention to eliminate IS-K forces entirely (Khabarnama, July 2018).
Darzab: IS-K’s Northern Stronghold
IS-K has come to dominate Darzab district in the southwest of Jowzjan province in northern Afghanistan—to the west lies Sar-e Pol province, while Faryab province is to the east. As of 2012, the district had a population of 52,800 people (IFPS, August, 2012). IS-K’s presence in northern Afghanistan began to emerge in 2015, when Qari Hekmat, a former Taliban commander in the north, shifted allegiance to IS-K and started recruiting local insurgents and building alliances (AAN, March 4). The group’s fighters are dominant in Darzab, having sidelined the Taliban and other armed actors there. The district faces many reports of IS-K carrying out killings, attacking international aid workers, beating teenagers, preventing female education and exploiting mineral resources (Tolonews, December 9, 2017; Tolonews, July, 5, 2017; khabarnama, February 8, 2017; 1tvnews, April 17).
It is unclear why IS-K has focused its energies on Darzab, Qush Tepa and the rest of Jowzjan province. Bashir Ahmad Tahyanj, a member of parliament from Faryba province, however, told The Jamestown Foundation that Darzab’s strategic geography, coupled with the local population’s highly conservative views, have paved the way for IS-K’s emergence. 
IS-K first began to seriously establish its presence in Darzab district in early 2017. In June that year, two groups of Taliban fighters who had switched allegiance to IS-K staged a series of attacks on government outposts in Darzab. In those battles, IS-K fighters killed at least 10 government fighters and many civilians (AVA, April 10, 2017).
Since then, three major battles have taken place between Taliban and IS-K fighters. The first major attack took place in the second half of October 2017. The Taliban had mobilized hundreds of fighters from several provinces to oust Qari Hekmat and his forces from Darzab (AAN, November 11, 2017). The second military offensive of Taliban insurgents against IS-K fighters took place within four months, but again failed to recapture the territorial control of Darzab district. Qari Hekmat and his forces survived the attack, which lasted for around 10 days starting from January 19, 2018, and involved hundreds of Taliban fighters. In early April, Qari Hekmat was reportedly killed in a U.S.-Afghan joint raid in the north, but even without their leader IS-K survived a third Taliban attack on the district.
Composition of IS-K in Darzab
The presence of foreign fighters among IS-K in Darzab and other northern provinces is an additional concern. In August 2017, the Jowzjan police chief confirmed the presence of foreign fighters including Chechens and Uzbeks—like the prominent Aziz Yuldashev, son of Tahir Yuldashev—along with Pakistani and even Uyghur fighters on the battlefields of Darzab, fighting against Afghan government forces (Khabarnama, August 25, 2017).
Abdul Ahad Elbek, the Faryab deputy provincial council chief, had reported that Russian and Tajikistani citizens were present alongside other IS-K fighters in the battlefields of Jowzjan and Faryab. It would be weeks before Afghan senior security officials confirmed the presence of these foreign fighters in Jowzjan. (Khabarnama, August 10, 2017).
Soon after the claims of foreign fighters’ involvement in Darzab district by local officials in northern Afghanistan, another report emerged in December 2017 stating that Algerian and French fighters had joined IS-K in Darzab. The report bolstered fears of a growing presence of foreign fighters among IS-K militants in that area (Tolonews, December 10, 2017).
IS-K’s ranks in northern Afghanistan—particularly in Darzab, Qush Tepa and other Jowzjan and Faryab districts—are an unusual combination of foreign and Afghan fighters. This has attracted the attention of the Afghan government and international forces, which have been concerned about northern Afghanistan becoming a destination for IS fighters fleeing the battlefields of Iraq and Syria. Moreover, the trend has also concerned Russians and citizens of Central Asia who are part of the broader picture of the IS-K formation in northern Afghanistan.
Roots of Resentment
The Taliban made clear its unwillingness to tolerate IS-K from the day the group first emerged in 2015. In early October that year, Taliban officials announced the formation of an elite force—one that insurgents claimed was better trained and equipped than regular Taliban fighters—and deployed it to provinces where IS-K had emerged (BBC Persian, December 23, 2015).
The Taliban then began a broad offensive against IS-K affiliated groups. In late November, insurgents brutally killed IS-K members in Zabol province (Pazhwok, November 9, 2015). Ahead of Zabol in June 2015, they crushed IS-K fighters in western Farah province. Later, the Afghan national army would say IS-K had been stamped out from the province entirely (al-Arabia, June 1, 2015). Since then, there have been no reports of IS-K activities in Farah and other western provinces bordering Iran. Some believe the Taliban had been subcontracted by Iran to ensure the provinces remains free of the group.
Fighting between the Taliban and IS-K continued into the following years in other areas of Afghanistan. In 2016, Nangarhar emerged as a major IS-K stronghold and became the focus of the Taliban. Fighting between the two insurgent groups resulted in a large number of casualties, although interestingly the Taliban found it was unable to eliminate the IS-K Nangahar strongholds. Instead, in many areas, IS-K emerged as a dominant player, controlling wider areas of land and winning territory from the Taliban (BBC Persian, January 6, 2016). Clashes between the Taliban and IS-K continued, even as the Afghan government and U.S.-led international forces targeted IS-K with the “mother of all bombs” and killed IS-K leaders (BBC Persian, May 7, 2017).
In contrast to the Taliban’s success against IS-K in south and western Afghanistan, the group has failed to suppress IS-K fighters and eliminate their strongholds in eastern and northern parts of the country.
The Role of Russia
Concurrent with IS-K emergence in Afghanistan, Russia has continuously developed its relations with the Taliban. In April 2016, a senior Russian official confirmed his country’s relations with the group but denied any cooperation with them (Azadi Radio, April 11, 2016). Russia’s Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Zamir Kabulov, told the press that his country’s concern about IS-K is the main reason for Moscow’s contacts with the Taliban (BBC Persian, December 26, 2016). In fact, Russia’s concerns go further. Moscow is continuously engaged in discussions with regional players, including Pakistan and China, to address regional security and the risk of IS-K infiltration into the Central Asian region (8am, April 1, 2016).
Afghan experts believe Russia first started talks with the Taliban in 2006, urging the group to fight the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and counter drugs trafficking to Central Asia (VOA Dari, November 13, 2016). No official sources confirm Moscow’s relations with the Taliban as early as 2006, although Russians in more recent years have been vocal about their country’s channels of communication with the Taliban. This has led to assumptions that the Taliban’s aggressive stance against IS-K in northern Afghanistan, particularly in the Darzab district of Jowjzan, might be due to Moscow’s involvement. If true, utilizing the Taliban as a proxy against IS-K in Afghanistan seems to be a double-edged sword for the Russians who are putting at risk their relations with Kabul. Moreover, such a tactical stance only strengthens the Taliban, which still brutally kills Afghan and international forces and is responsible for thousands of civilian casualties every year.
Russia has been uncompromising in its stance toward Islamic State, and Moscow is doubtless concerned about the emergence of IS-K in Afghanistan. The heavy Russian military presence in Tajikistan and its involvement with the Taliban clearly illustrates that Moscow sees IS-K as a strategic threat both to Russia and Moscow’s wider “security belt” throughout Central Asia.
Waliullah Rahmani is a security and political affairs expert specializing in terrorism, insurgency, Afghanistan-Pakistan affairs and Islamic movements. He has led a think-tank in Kabul and advises national and international organizations on regional security and political trends of South Asia and the Middle East.
 Author interview (July 2018)
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