The Afghan Air Force conducted airstrikes on April 22 which killed 25 militants, 6 of whom belonged to the Islamic State (ISIS). The raids, carried out in the Paktia and Nangarhar provinces in Pakistan, were part of an effort by government forces to expand operations against militants in Afghanistan. This effort has been accompanied by a renewed commitment by the United States to combat militant insurgency within the country. In January of 2016, the Obama administration established new regulations regarding operations in Afghanistan: military commanders are now permitted to target fighters linked to ISIS as well as Al Qaeda in airstrikes and raids. Approximately 70 to 80 percent of the airstrikes carried out by the United States in Afghanistan from January to March 2016 were directed at ISIS militants.
The shift in U.S. military policy within Afghanistan does not, however, apply to the Taliban, which currently controls a large stretch of territory in Helmand province. Military commanders are not permitted to strike at Taliban militants, in part due to expectations that the Afghan Air Force take the lead in combatting such fighters. Only militants who are active members or affiliates of ISIS are considered to be legitimate targets for operations.
In fact, many former and would-be Taliban fighters and recruits have been drawn to ISIS by its relatively generous compensation, and by divisions and infighting within the Taliban itself. A potential mass defection of Taliban fighters has been described as the organization’s “worst nightmare” by one source. The Taliban also opposes the rival group for ideological reasons. Unlike ISIS, the Afghan Taliban does not possess widespread regional or global pretensions; rather, its scope is limited to Afghanistan itself.
The complicated relationship between ISIS and the Taliban began with the the former’s infiltration of Afghanistan in January 2015, when it declared its occupation of the historical, transnational region of Khorasan, which encompasses Afghanistan and areas of neighboring countries such as Pakistan and Iran. In June 2015, the Taliban issued a letter statement which opposed ISIS operations in Afghanistan. Since April of the same year, ISIS and Taliban militants have clashed in several southern and eastern provinces of the country. The Taliban has even established a special operations task force of well-trained and equipped fighters for the sole purpose of combating ISIS.
The rivalry between the two groups has significant implications for the nature of the enmity between the Taliban and the Afghan government, as well as between Taliban fighters and U.S. forces. While Afghan security forces continue to combat the Taliban, some former fighters have been incorporated into a government initiative called the Popular Uprising Program, which aims to form civilian militias comprised mainly of district villagers in order to defend and prevent the recapture of territory taken from ISIS by the Afghan army. Meanwhile, the Afghan Taliban has vigorously condemned U.S. airstrikes within the country. Thus, the long-term impact of the hostility between ISIS and Taliban militants on security and foreign involvement remains to be seen.