ISIS Fighting Against Taliban: The Enemy of My Enemy Is …?

In a surprising twist, reports are emerging this week that the Islamic State (IS) is making inroads into Afghanistan, and has engaged in fighting against the Taliban there.

Afghan government officials confirmed on Monday that IS has been actively recruiting in southern Afghanistan, and there have been reports of IS fighters clashing with the Taliban, whose leaders want nothing to do with IS. Mullah Abdul Rauf, a former Taliban commander in Helmand province who spent six years as a detainee at Guantanamo, is said to be among those who are leading recruitment efforts over to IS. News of IS actually fighting the Taliban comes only days after it was first reported that the militant group gained a presence in the mountainous country where the U.S. and NATO have been attempting to wind down combat operations after more than 13 years of fighting.

Per the AP:

Gen. Mahmood Khan, the deputy commander of the army’s 215 Corps, said that within the past week residents of a number of districts in the southern Helmand province have said Rauf’s representatives are fanning out to recruit people.

“A number of tribal leaders, jihadi commanders and some ulema (religious council members) and other people have contacted me to tell me that Mullah Rauf had contacted them and invited them to join him,” Khan said. . . .

“People are saying that he has raised black flags and even has tried to bring down white Taliban flags in some areas,” said Saifullah Sanginwal, a tribal leader in Sangin district. “There are reports that 19 or 20 people have been killed” in fighting between the Taliban and ISIS, he added.

When asked about concerns about the rise of IS in Afghanistan senior State Department officials on Monday said that the U.S., Afghanistan, and Pakistan are all, and have been, concerned about that possibility. One official said, “At this point it seems – it appears that they’re more opportunistic, but certainly everybody is being very vigilant about that and wants to ensure that we do whatever we can to combat that.”

All of this is happening against the background of the uncertainty of the U.S.’s role in Afghanistan moving forward (discussed thoughtfully by Marty Lederman, Nathalie Weizmann, and Ryan Goodman in recent weeks). Senior American officials have said that the United States plans to quit offensive combat operations against the Taliban. However, the U.S. will continue fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan, and the terrorist group may well continue to receive support from the Taliban, which would likely keep the Taliban in U.S. crosshairs. Meanwhile, the U.S. is also fighting the Taliban’s newest potential enemy, IS, in Iraq and Syria. Which leads to the question: in Afghanistan, what is the enemy of my enemy when it comes to the Taliban? Another enemy. 

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Megan Graham

Former Assistant Managing Editor and Security, Privacy, and Technology Fellow at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@meganmcgraham).