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The New Power Struggle within Afghanistan


Published January 19, 2023

Both al-Qaeda and ISIS face serious challenges in trying to re-establish themselves in Afghanistan. The return of the Taliban’s control in the country could create the biggest opportunity for al-Qaeda to reconstitute and reorganize in more than a decade, but it is not well positioned to seize it.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should America do anything differently in dealing with the Taliban, ISIS, or Al-Qaeda?
  2. Is it possible to have peace with the Afghanistan? What would it look like if Al-Qaeda and ISIS were to remain in Afghanistan?

Additional Resources:

  • Read “Jihadi vs. Jihadi,” by Cole Bunzel. Available here.
  • Read “The Islamic State, HTS, And The U.S. Role In Syria,” by Cole Bunzel. Available here.
  • Read “The Biden Administration’s Saudi Climbdown: The Failure of Recalibration,” by Cole Bunzel. Available here.
View Transcript

The Taliban’s rapid takeover of Afghanistan last summer raised fears that the country would once again become a safe haven for Islamist militants intent on international terrorism. And to some extent those fears are justified.

al-Qaeda, of course, between 1996 and 2001, was hosted by the Taliban in Afghanistan, and it was there that it plotted its signature terrorist attacks including the attacks of 9/11. 

Today, however, the situation is more complex. Al-Qaeda now has a major jihadi competitor in the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, and both face serious obstacles in their quest to use Afghanistan as a platform for their international agendas. 

al-Qaeda and the Islamic State are bitterly divided over what role a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will play in the global jihadi landscape. al-Qaeda presents itself as the more moderate of these groups and has sought to remain close to the Taliban. For al-Qaeda, the Taliban’s victory as an epic triumph—the fulfillment of God’s promise to give victory to the believers over the unbelievers. The outcome in Afghanistan, according to al-Qaeda, proved that “the path of jihad,” not compromise or conciliation, was the right way to deal with infidel states. 

But for ISIS, the idea that the Taliban have achieved any kind of “victory” in Afghanistan is laughable. What really happened, in its view, was that the United States willingly handed power to the Taliban, who have effectively become a US client. So for ISIS, this was not a triumph at all, but rather evidence of the Taliban’s willingness to collaborate with the Americans. In the view of ISIS, the Taliban is an infidel, apostate group that has strayed from its roots and must be fought. Indeed, that is what ISIS in Afghanistan has been doing since the U.S. departure—conducting terrorist attacks on Taliban targets and certain civilian populations. 

So where does the Taliban fit into all this? Clearly the Taliban are not aligned with ISIS. The enmity between these groups is genuine and will persist. But what about al-Qaeda? Does the Taliban seek to promote al-Qaeda and its agenda of international terrorism? The answer here seems to be yes and no. 

In its February 2020 deal with the United States, the Taliban pledged not to allow any group, including al-Qaeda, to use Afghanistan to attack the United States and its allies. And recently, the Department of State assessed that the Taliban have taken steps to meet that commitment; though the military predicts that the Taliban will likely loosen its restrictions on al-Qaeda in the future.

The way I think one has to look at this, then, is that the Taliban want to have it both ways: they want to secure international recognition as the legitimate rulers of Afghanistan and they want to maintain their relationship with al-Qaeda. In part, this is because some factions of the Taliban are more closely aligned with al-Qaeda than others.

Today, the Taliban also have a strong interest in holding al-Qaeda in check. Particularly as they pursue international recognition and acceptance, it would be folly for the group to permit al-Qaeda to launch attacks on the West or even on fellow Muslim states. 

It is not hard to imagine a scenario, therefore, in which the Taliban provide space and financial support for al-Qaeda to operate while also prohibiting them from launching offensive operations. The Taliban’s second attempt at governing Afghanistan involves a balancing act between adhering to their hardline principles and making pragmatic concessions to secure their rule.

Meanwhile, ISIS will continue to operate by attacking the Taliban and civilians to try to destabilize the Taliban’s rule. ISIS in Afghanistan is much larger than al-Qaeda—it has some 2000 militants compared to al-Qaeda’s less than 200. And ISIS will probably benefit from the reduced military pressure in Afghanistan that comes from the U.S. absence. However, for reasons to do with geography and the version of Islam that it represents, ISIS has only limited appeal in the country. 

None of this is to minimize the threat that these jihadi groups pose to Afghanistan, its neighbors, and the world. The United States and its allies must remain vigilant and proactive, lest one or both of these groups re-emerge in force. And while ISIS certainly has the upperhand at the moment, exactly how successful the jihadis might be in utilizing Afghanistan remains to be seen.