A few months after Mosul fell in Iraq last summer and the Islamic State group (also known as ISIS) rose to prominence, we began hearing murmurs that ISIS had spread eastward, into Afghanistan. The extent of ISIS’ activities and presence in Afghanistan remain ambiguous, but the Taliban have started to feel the group’s impact. This week, the Taliban warned Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State and its self-styled caliph, that “jihad against the Americans and their allies [in Afghanistan] must be conducted under one flag and one leadership.” The Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan largely remain loyal to Mullah Omar, the group’s reclusive leader who holds the title of Amir al-Mu’minin (Commander of the Faithful).
The Taliban’s letter added that “The Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan] does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims.” It continued: “Your decisions made from a distance will result in [the Islamic State] losing support of religious scholars, mujahideen… and in order to defend its achievements the Islamic Emirate will be forced to react.” The letter was signed by the Taliban’s deputy leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansoor. The letter was published on the Taliban’s website in several languages, including Arabic, Pashto, Urdu, and Dari. The group did not outline the consequences of the Islamic States’ continuing bid to increase its influence in Afghanistan.
Earlier this year, the Islamic State announced the creation of the Khorasan Shura—Khorasan refers to the historic region which comprises roughly eastern Iran, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, and the land west of the Sindhu river in Pakistan. The Shura comprised several former senior members of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). Shortly afterwards, fighters claiming to fight for ISIS killed a Taliban commander in Logar province, marking the start of a nebulous turf war within the country. In April, ISIS claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Jalalabad that killed 35—its first serious attack against civilians in Afghanistan.
The public posting of the letter, and the fact that it had to be written at all, underscore the Taliban’s rising concern about losing its rank-and-file fighters to the Islamic State. Indeed, initial reports of the Islamic State’s appearance in “Khorasan” have emphasized the extent to which the fighters bearing the group’s iconic black flag were locals who would otherwise have fought for the Taliban. As 2015’s fighting season heats up between the Afghan government and militants, the Taliban will look to unite its ranks (a problem for the organization for reasons other than the Islamic State).