With the Taliban’s declaration of their usual “Spring Offensive” for the year, Afghanistan’s fighting seasoning is about to head into full swing. 2015 marked a turbulent year for both the Afghan government and security forces—who faced their first full year as the primary guarantors of Afghan security following the end of U.S. and NATO combat operations—and the Taliban, who underwent their own leadership transition. In the meantime, the Islamic State expanded its presence in the region, beginning 2015 by declaring a shura, or leadership council, for what it called Khorasan Province, using an an old Arabic name for roughly the territory occupied by the modern states of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and parts of Tajikistan.
It’s been no secret that the Islamic State and the Taliban haven’t gotten along. Last year, the Taliban released a statement suggesting that “The Islamic Emirate [of Afghanistan] does not consider the multiplicity of jihadi ranks beneficial either for jihad or for Muslims.” Shortly after that statement was released, the Taliban announced that its leader and Amir al-Muminin, Mullah Omar, had been dead for two years, sparking a leadership struggle that splintered Taliban ranks to this day. After the dust settled, the largest Taliban faction ended up under the command of Mullah Akhtar Mohammad Mansour, who was once Omar’s right-hand man and largely pulled the group’s strings from behind the scenes after Omar’s death in 2013.
In November 2015, another splinter group of the Taliban—largely based in western Afghanistan—declared its allegiance to Mullah Mohammad Rasool. Other leadership figures—including Omar’s son, Mullah Yacub, and brother, Mullah Manan—begrudgingly fell into line behind Mansour. Both were elevated to important leadership posts within the Taliban. As Bill Roggio at the Long War Journal cataloged, Manan “was named ‘the head of Dawat wal Irshad,’ or the Preaching and Guidance Commission” and “Mullah Mohammad Yaqoub, Omar’s eldest son, was given a seat on the executive council (Quetta Shura).”
In a fascinating development this week announced via a letter of allegiance posted to the Taliban’s website, the Islamic State Khorasan Province (ISKP) saw many of its senior leaders return to the Taliban, citing the Islamic State’s violence and ideology as too extreme.* Among the Afghans that lead ISKP are several former Taliban leaders who renounced Mullah Omar as Amir ul-Muminin and swore allegiance to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the Islamic State’s self-declared caliph. With their “return” to the Taliban, these ISKP leaders have denounced Baghdadi and accepted Mansour as the rightful Amir. (The authenticity of the letter remains unclear.)
These developments might seem arcane and irrelevant to the broader trajectory of Afghanistan’s search for peace and stability in 2016, but as long as the Taliban’s leadership remained fractured and incoherent, the success of peace talks remained remote. To be sure, nothing about the defection of ISKP leaders in Nangarhar suggests that the Taliban is back to resembling something like the hierarchical and unitary organization it was pre-2001, when it governed Afghanistan.
With Yacub and Manan’s reintegration into the leadership and the return of Talibs who had defected to ISKP, the Taliban could conversely emerge as a more potent fighting force than ever. According to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, 2015 represented the most difficult year for Afghan security since the U.S. invasion in 2001. In September, the fall of Kunduz marked the first time a major Afghan city was lost to the Taliban since 2001. With the departure of senior ISKP leaders, the Islamic State could be left defanged in Nangarhar province.
If the Taliban are re-coalescing, 2016’s fighting season may prove exceptionally decisive. With the Taliban’s proliferation across the country in recent months—in Kandahar, Helmand, and Badakhshan alike—the Afghan government could face a tall task. As U.S. officials continue to reconsider the withdrawal schedule for the remaining residual force, which remains in the country under the 2014 Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), no doubt these factors will be under consideration. Under the Obama administration’s current plans, U.S. troops will fall to 5,500 in 2016.
* From the letter of allegiance:
…due to the ambiguous blind policies of Daesh, their wanton killing, beating, persecution, looting, burning, and usurping land and property of the oppressed Afghans, their displacement, treachery with their elders, depriving them of schools, clinics, public welfare projects and development, heedless towards general Muslim interests, adoption of extremism over leniency, prohibiting vice in fashion which produces corruption, Takfiri (excommunication) views of most members, improper establishment of religion, and having no reasonable, legal and regular way of fixing these problems; in short not having a remedy for the wounds of the Afghans. So due to the efforts of some sincere brothers from the Islamic Emirate as well as positive, fruitful interaction and understanding nature and agreement with the Islamic Emirate, our mind and conscious could not longer permit us to stay with the said group (Daesh).