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What Comes Around Goes Around: ISIS-K Mimics Taliban’s Destructive Insurgency
Infrastructure and development are always victims of war, but the Taliban, like many guerrilla groups, went out of their way to wreak havoc on infrastructure and civilian targets over their 20 year insurgency. In just the few months before their August 2021 takeover, the Taliban are alleged to have destroyed more than $500 million worth of public property and infrastructure. Then, they took charge and had to deal with the consequences of the destruction they had wrought.
One consequence they did not anticipate was having to deal with copycat terrorists trying to undermine their regime with some of the same tactics they had used over the last 20 years. ISIS-K has taken a page from the Taliban’s book and is now actively fomenting economic warfare and sowing sectarian divisions in Afghanistan. Both the Taliban and ISIS-K have seen how effective this strategy can be in turning the population away from the government in power.
However, the effects are crippling to long-term development. So far, the Taliban have not been successful in transitioning from an insurgency to an effective government. If the Taliban cannot quickly and dramatically increase security, their security issues compounded by an economic freefall will put Afghanistan in a more dire situation.
The Taliban: The Pre-Takeover Tactics
Finally in power after 20 years of resistance, the Taliban are now grappling with the difficult situation they helped to create. For two decades, they made battle plans focused on maximum disruption, not seriously looking ahead to their own rule. Hospitals, schools, dams, power pylons, fiber optic cables, roads, bridges, and more were targets of the Taliban’s attacks, regardless of civilian casualties accrued.
Even on the brink of power, they were not able to overcome their short-sightedness. Immediately before Kabul’s fall, they destroyed 260 government buildings in 116 districts, destroyed 39 electricity pylons, damaged or destroyed 51 telecommunications antennas, fired multiple mortars at the Afghanistan-India Friendship Dam, and destroyed key roads. This is the mess they now have to govern.
However, given how effective this strategy is, it was hard to resist, even as they closed in on Kabul. The effects of razing infrastructure are twofold and slightly counterintuitive. Firstly, attacks indubitably disaffect the population from the attackers; however, it also helpfully isolates the population from the regime. A truly legitimate state is said to have a monopoly on violence. By demonstrating to the Afghan people that their government cannot protect them from violence or preserve their property, the people lose faith in their government. In the medium- and long-term, that can drive the population into the arms of the attackers as they become increasingly viewed as the only way to ensure safety. Given pre-existing deep sectarian divisions, general disillusionment, and questions of whether a violently installed government is legitimate, it is not hard to turn the population away from the Taliban.
Secondly, these attacks have enormous economic consequences. In addition to forcing the government to utilize already scarce funds to repair critical infrastructure, insecurity discourages foreign direct investment and drives procurement, transportation, and labor prices up. It also hamstrings pre-existing businesses by cutting off companies that rely on internet and electricity, or disrupting the water supply to the agricultural sector. This economic catastrophe drives parts of the population into the arms of the attackers. Firstly, as economic opportunities contract, attackers are able to make themselves appear as the only pathway for economic opportunity. Secondly, by destroying schools they are able to recruit from a less educated, less attractively employed population.
Outside of identity politics and religious calls, these were the Taliban’s two primary recruitment tactics: turning people against the current regime and promising payments. In the short-term, the Taliban’s destruction was highly effective at attracting recruits. In the long-term, the consequences of these tactics on Afghanistan’s development trajectory is appalling. Education was halted for years in high conflict areas. Public health infrastructure was never able to take off because progress was systematically destroyed. The effects of the stifled economy ripple across all other aspects of development.
ISIS-K is Forcing the Taliban to Rule Over the Mess They Made
Now the Taliban are getting a taste of their own medicine. ISIS-K may not be as large of an insurgency as the Taliban were, but they’ve grown from about 2,200 fighters to almost 4,000 since the Taliban’s takeover. This was partially because prison breaks freed up fighters, but they have also proactively and effectively recruited among the population using the same tactics that the Taliban used to. ISIS-K is half foreign fighters now, but as dissatisfaction with the Taliban and poverty grows, their population of Afghan recruits will only increase.
Worrying as this is, size isn’t the key factor. The fundamental issue is the Taliban’s inability to promote security. ISIS-K is greedily exploiting this opening. In 2020, they conducted only 8 attacks. In the 2.5 months after the Taliban takeover, they conducted 77 attacks. Many of these attacks were on Hazara and other Shia, who the Sunni ISIS-K revile. However, they have also destroyed at least nine electrical pylons and five fuel tankers. ISIS-K attacks have skyrocketed even further over the last few months, with targets ranging from schools in Hazara neighborhoods to power transmission towers that provide electricity to 11 provinces. Their proactive targeting of infrastructure clearly demonstrates a campaign of economic warfare in order to both weaken the state and boost recruitment.
However, the Taliban knew that effectively recruiting fighters and undermining the regime was not enough. In order to establish themselves as a legitimate governing force, they had to look for openings to seize territory and exert power over local populations. As a result, when the Taliban attacked infrastructure during their insurgent period, they often were not aiming to fully destroy targets, just cripple them so they could coerce the local population (e.g. attacking a dam to take it over and control water to surrounding agricultural communities). Reckless as they were, they had a hazy goal in mind of establishing their own regime and generally acted accordingly.
However, ISIS-K’s dream of a caliphate across Afghanistan and Central Asia is acknowledged as far off. Instead, ISIS-K is focusing on destabilizing the country and delegitimizing the government to both the population by undercutting safety and public services and the international community by highlighting the Taliban’s inability to control terrorism. They care even less about later paying the price for the destruction they have wrought. For now, their sole goal is maintaining a power vacuum that they can use as a base of operations.
ISIS-K will continue to cause death and destruction across Afghanistan, targeting both Shia Afghans, members of the regime, and infrastructure. The horrifically high frequency of attacks will remain elevated. Eager for shock value, some experts are even predicting ISIS-K will target high up Taliban leaders to highlight the Taliban’s inability to even protect their own. They will also continue to target infrastructure that induces dramatic responses, such as pylons and dams.
Cash-strapped, lacking in technical expertise, and unpopular, the Taliban will continue to founder on security issues. Case in point, the UN Security Council recently stated that “terrorist groups enjoy greater freedom in Afghanistan than at any time in recent history.” This will continue to undermine development.
ISIS-K’s notorious long-term goal is to establish a regional caliphate using Afghanistan as a base. This will include toppling the Pakistani government (who ISIS-K ironically blames for the chaos in Afghanistan) and destroying the Iranian government (who represent and protect a 90% Shia country). However, this unlikely goal is understood to be many, many years off, even by ISIS-K leadership.
Long-Term Development Impacts and the Way Forward
This issue ranges far beyond security matters. The destruction and insecurity ultimately cripples Afghanistan’s long-term human and economic development. Again and again, progress is hamstrung as investments are blown up and discouraged.
Furthermore, delivering humanitarian aid and retaining NGO presence is made more difficult by the constant violence and insecurity. The Taliban were notorious for their attacks on health workers, journalists, and local and foreign NGO staff alike. ISIS-K is no different. In one particularly grisly episode last year, they killed 10 and wounded 16 deminers working for HALO Trust while trying to target Shiite Hazaras. The balancing act that humanitarian and disaster relief agencies have to perform is a systemic problem, and ISIS-K’s resurgence only further complicates matters.
Until the Taliban are able to build up their capacity to keep the country safe or a stronger regime is put in place, Afghanistan will continue to be incapable of moving forward; literacy rates will remain low, poverty will remain high, health will remain poor, and the future will remain bleak.
The United States and the West cannot help build up the security capacity of an untrustworthy and immoral regime like the Taliban. Among other issues, that would be tacitly supporting terrorism, given the Taliban’s continued ties with al-Qaeda, ETIM, the TTP, and other radical groups. However, the West and neighboring countries can selectively engage with the Taliban by sharing intelligence to support the Taliban’s counter-ISIS-K efforts. This was being discussed under the radar even prior to the Taliban’s takeover; now that they are the only real source of security, that proposal needs to be deeply considered once again.
Furthermore, the West can reestablish the intelligence networks it previously abandoned on the ground in Afghanistan. Completely forsaking human intelligence networks destroyed Western intelligence’s capacity in Afghanistan, forcing governments trying to fight terrorists to rely on informal intelligence and tips from the handful of NGOs still engaged. The West needs to buckle down and reengage in order to manage regional terrorism.