An attack on the Afghan parliament should be seen in the wider context of a power struggle between the Islamic State and the Taliban
In a statement about Monday’s attack on the Afghan parliament in Kabul, the Taliban said it had launched the assault to coincide with a vote to endorse a new defence minister.
But behind that bald claim lies a complex game of one-upmanship between the Taliban’s secretive and reclusive leader Mullah Omar and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed caliph of the Islamic State (IS).
Questions about Mullah Omar’s leadership, coupled with tribal infighting and the ambitions of younger Taliban, have left an opportunity that IS has been quick to exploit.
In January of this year al-Baghdadi effectively claimed Afghanistan as his own when he declared it a part of Wilayat Khorasan, a province within his caliphate. A group of mid-ranking Taliban fighters, unhappy with Mullah Omar, swore allegiance to al-Baghdadi.
The Taliban quickly dismissed the defectors as a criminal element, but were clearly rattled by al-Baghdadi’s bold incursion into their sphere of influence. And there is good reason for their concern. There have been numerous clashes reported between former Taliban who have gone over to IS and Taliban who remain loyal to Mullah Omar. The most serious have occurred in Nangahar province, which borders Pakistan: one district there is said to be in the hands of IS after heavy fighting.
The fiercely proud and nationalistic Taliban do not share al-Baghdadi’s grandiose vision of a global caliphate. They see their struggle as limited to Afghanistan and the border regions of Pakistan. Even their Deobandist brand of Islam is somewhat more tempered than the brutal Islamic fundamentalist excesses of IS. However, as the Taliban are learning to their alarm, al-Baghdadi is no respecter of regional borders or nationalist concerns.
A letter released last week to journalists but addressed to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, reportedly from Mullah Omar, made a politely ritualistic salute toward the IS leader, but then followed through with a clear warning: “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan from a brotherhood point of religion wants your goodness and has no intention of interfering in your affairs. Reciprocally, we hope and expect the same from you.”
In short, stay out of our business and we will stay out of yours. But it is not likely that al-Baghdadi will pay any heed to the letter. His successes in orchestrating a slick online global propaganda campaign, coupled with battlefield victories, have led numerous terrorist organisations to pledge allegiance to his cause. Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia is just the latest in a lengthening list that includes Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis in Egypt’s Sinai and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Bringing the mother of all militant groups, the Taliban, into the fold would be an extraordinary, if unlikely coup.
Nonetheless, they, like al-Qaeda before them, have found themselves overshadowed by the new kid on the militant block. Every extremist outfit that emerges is soon enough eclipsed by one that is more brutal, more strategic, more attractive to young recruits seduced by the propaganda, mesmerised by the ideology, eager and ready to fight and die. The same fate will surely befall the IS if it is not already defeated before that happens. But for now, at least, it is Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi who has the upper hand.
The Taliban are seasoned battlefield jihadists. Their predecessors, the Mujahideen, won against the Soviets, before the Taliban took Kabul in 1996, and were later driven into the mountains by the Americans and their allies in 2001. Now, as America completes its withdrawal, they are regaining lost territory. How ironic it is that, just at this point, they find themselves, rather like the rest of us, unsure what to do about the latest and most lethal version of jihadist terrorism, one that has now made a move onto their patch.
In that regard, the attack on parliament was an attempt to seize back the initiative, to strike a big, bold, spectacular blow in Ramadan, a propaganda coup that would send a message to Mullah Omar’s wavering supporters and to al-Baghdadi that he is his own caliph and not to be pushed aside.
If that was the intention, the plan will have backfired rather badly, because, although it showed an ability to penetrate the heart of Kabul, it came nowhere near inflicting the kind of damage that makes for big headlines in the militant world. Rather the opposite, it became a good news story, one where an effective response from Afghan security forces prevented the wholesale slaughter of the country’s politicians and left all six attackers dead.
Furthermore, the assault will complicate, if not utterly derail, talks that had begun somewhat hesitantly between the Taliban and the government about some sort of power-sharing deal.
Al-Baghdadi and his new recruits in Afghanistan will view that as a win. He regards any such arrangement as un-Islamic, as it would involve an alliance with politicians who espouse the western democratic values he despises.
So a foiled attack on the Afghan parliament may have advanced the IS cause. But a note of caution: as the British discovered more than 150 years ago and the Americans and their allies this century, Afghanistan is a country that has ultimately broken the backs of foreign interventions. Al-Baghdadi may come to rue the day he began to meddle with the Taliban.
- Bill Law is a Middle East analyst and a specialist in Gulf affairs. Follow him@atBillLaw49
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: Islamic State fighters hang the flag of the militant group