The terrorists or the insurgents: the dilemma in Afghanistan

The terrorists or the insurgents: the dilemma in Afghanistan

Despite U.S. officials now talking directly with the Taliban and optimistic news coverage that it could mean an end to the 17-year war, all is not well in Afghanistan. The Taliban are not the only force that need to be neutralized in Afghanistan. There are the insurgents, the Taliban, and then there are the terrorists: the Islamic State.

You go after the terrorists, and the insurgents get off the hook. You target the insurgents, and the terrorists get the breathing space they need to regroup and launch deadly offensives. The insurgents, after all, are also fighting the terrorists (many of whom are disaffected insurgents). Going after both at the same time appears so grueling, such a quagmire, you want to avoid it.  This has been a dilemma the Afghan government and the U.S. forces have struggled to navigate.


The predicament has let the Islamic State rear its ugly head again in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the terrorist group attacked a refugee camp in Jalalabad that killed at least 15 people. Has ISIS gained lost momentum in Afghanistan, or did the group never lose its fighting abilities in the first place?


From a war-fighting perspective, it must be noted that the Islamic State was never really out of the game or sidelined in Afghanistan. Since the inception of the Islamic State in Afghanistan in 2014, their tactics were: wreak as much havoc as possible in civilian areas, or team up with the Taliban in hopes of sharing the pie eventually.  

The situation seemed to take a turn with the United States’ offer to hold direct talks with the Taliban: seemingly, this didn’t go down well with the Islamic State. Although, as I enunciated earlier, the U.S. talking directly with the Taliban isn’t actually very prudent for other reasons, it has also apparently prompted ISIS to go on the offensive. When the Islamic State’s suicide bomber targeted Taliban officials in northern Afghanistan on July 16, it was obvious the terrorist group wanted to show its presence and not let the Taliban and the U.S. officials run the show in Afghanistan.

Considering the battle lines had been re-drawn by ISIS and the Taliban, more than 200 ISIS fighters surrendered themselves to the Afghan government on Wednesday, just in order to avoid capture by the Taliban.

The dilemma remains: both the insurgents, the Taliban, and the terrorists, ISIS, remain a threat to a peaceful, democratic Afghanistan. Targeting both simultaneously doesn’t conform well to the complex power dynamics prevalent in Afghanistan. What’s more, the Afghan forces don’t seem able to do it, and the U.S. forces are already taking the back seat, transitioning to an equally perilous advisory role.

Strategically speaking, there’s a window of opportunity for the United States. The Taliban might not be too serious about the peace talks, but the United States can surely use the initiative to de-hyphenate the Taliban from the ISIS. Keep an eye on the Taliban and engage them at the negotiating table, while systematically eliminating ISIS by employing covert rather than overt military operations. This is, perhaps, the safest bet for the U.S. administration.

The effectiveness of such a policy also depends on how the next government in Islamabad will go about its business with regards to Afghanistan. If Imran Khan, the next Prime Minister of Pakistan, could genuinely help Afghanistan neutralize the Taliban factor, then a coordinated military effort could help eliminate ISIS from Afghanistan.

On the other hand, if ISIS is able to make further inroads, then it will be a torrid tale for not only Afghanistan, but also for its eastern neighbor, Pakistan.

As for the United States, it needs to confront the dilemma.

Shazar Shafqat is a counterterrorism and security analyst currently based in Islamabad, Pakistan. His research focuses on South Asian security, Middle East politics and security issues, counterterrorism strategies, and military-related affairs. His commentary has been published by World Policy Journal, Asia Times, RealClearDefense, and The Defense Post, the Middle East Eye, Middle East Monitor and others.