Chaos the new normal for Afghanistan
Afghanistan has long been thrown at the mercy of many state and non-state actors. In recent decades, politicians from neighbouring countries like Pakistan to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) have had a major part to play in the making of the country. In 2021, between the withdrawal of US troops and commencement of the new Taliban regime, Afghan civilians have again been left in a state of complete political limbo.
Throughout August, US troops continued to proceed with their withdrawal, marking the official end of the 20-year war in Afghanistan. Other western nations, including Australia, initiated the shutdown of their existing embassies in Kabul. At the same time, the Taliban’s meteoric return to power in Afghanistan has foreshadowed a future where Afghans will, once again, be bereft of basic rights. In particular, women’s rights will be increasingly limited. Images of civilians trying to flee the post-Taliban society in a last-ditch attempt by boarding a US Air Force cargo flight have appealed to the world’s pathos. These images have foregrounded the increasingly fragile situation of vulnerable Afghans.
Amid these sweeping geopolitical changes, the breaking point for the capital city of Kabul came in the form of recent harrowing attacks at the city's airport, which left at least 175 people dead. These horrific attacks offer a grim warning of a satellite country again being caught between the vested interests of powerful groups.
The Kabul attacks
On August 26, devastating suicide bombing attacks at the Kabul airport killed hundreds of people, among which were 13 US soldiers and Taliban members. Several gunmen and two suicide bombers attacked the Abbey Gate of Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport, the main point of entry to the airport. Another bomb was detonated near the Baron Hotel, also a prime location that Americans, Britons and Afghans eligible to evacuate have been known to frequent.
The subversive militant group ISIS-K has emerged from the shadows and claimed responsibility for the attacks, which have been condemned by the Taliban. The introduction of a new non-state terrorist actor in this seemingly endless war does not bode well for the citizens of Afghanistan. In retaliation for these attacks, the US launched drone strikes, killing two members of ISIS-K in an eastern Afghan province. Once again, innocent Afghans are reduced to being mere collateral damage in this never-ending armed conflict. They continue to be trapped in the crossfire of a conflict over which they have absolutely no control.
ISIS-K versus the Taliban
Islamic State Khorasan Province, or ISIS-K, acts as the official Afghan affiliate of the transnational Islamic State organisation that chiefly operates out of Iraq and Syria. The group was formed in 2015 and originally comprised former members of extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, and Pakistani and Afghan deserters from the Taliban and Haqqani network.
Recent reports state that ISIS-K is far more radical and brutal in their approach than the Taliban. Their agenda is to establish themselves as the principal jihadist group in Central and South Asia, and to instil in people a sense of uncertainty concerning the ability of national governments to provide protection for their people. In Afghanistan, this was illustrated through their attack which targeted the two main areas of Kabul where security was being provided by the Taliban and US Marines.
Ideologically, ISIS-K differs from the Taliban in their aim to institute a large-scale Islamic caliphate in the Middle Eastern and Central Asian region. The Taliban, on the other hand, aim to establish an order governed by sharia law only within the territorial limits of Afghanistan. As such, ISIS-K sees the Taliban as traitors to the global jihadist movement. This contradiction in their respective objectives has become a full-blown ideological rivalry, further prompting ISIS-K to view the Taliban as nationalists and anti-caliphate who refuse to expand their movement beyond the confines of Afghanistan.
Since it was first formed, ISIS-K’s efforts to recruit more members have often been thwarted by the Taliban, largely with the help of US air support. Given the location and timing of the recent bombings, it is evident that ISIS-K had underlying motives to specifically target the Taliban and US forces.
Firstly, the bombings were likely motivated by a desire to undermine the Taliban’s authority in Afghanistan, and to make civilians question the group’s capability to provide a secure and stable transition of power. Secondly, by carrying out an attack in locations with a heavy presence of American soldiers, the militant organisation has gained credibility among other jihadist groups by providing a new challenge to America’s military presence and counter-terrorism strategy in the Middle East.
The future of Afghanistan
In the wake of the deadly 9/11 attacks, the US sought to invade Afghanistan to keep terror groups in check. Before the US-led invasion, Afghanistan was a safe haven for terrorist organisations such as the infamous al-Qaeda. The presence of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan has been significantly diminished by the efforts of the US military. However, does the resurgence of terror activities being perpetrated by other Islamist groups 20 years later mean that the US has failed?
Analysts have called the recent bombings a “successful” attack against the American forces given that in terms of US casualties in Afghanistan, this attack was the deadliest in the last two decades. This event has, to a great extent, upended the counter-terrorism strategy espoused by the US so far. In 2001, the ‘war on terror’ approach formed the foundation of the American struggle in Afghanistan. Post-US withdrawal, President Biden has heralded an “over-the-horizon” counter-terrorism strategy, one which involves conducting counter-terrorism missions without maintaining a prolonged military presence in the country. In addition to this, analysts have teased the possibility of the formation of an alliance between the US and the Taliban-controlled government of Afghanistan to tackle regional terrorism. This transformation in the US-Taliban relationship is more likely now that ISIS-K looms as a juggernaut that threatens the policies of both the US and Taliban.
Even with their track record of violating human rights, in this matter the Taliban seem to be Afghanistan’s sole ticket out of perpetual chaos. The US does not have a robust presence in the country anymore, and the former Afghan government is defunct after Ashraf Ghani, president of Afghanistan, fled the country. The Taliban enjoys full dominance and will largely influence the course of Afghanistan’s future. However, if the threat presented by ISIS-K propels diplomatic advancements between the Taliban-led government and international governments, there might still be hope for a country that has for too long been grappling with war and chaos.
Sameera Pillai is a Bachelor of Journalism and Communications graduate from the University of New South Wales. Her interests include human rights, climate change and sustainability, and gender issues.