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Afghan Taleban feel Daesh heat

Cadre see rival group from Syria, Iraq as winning horse and could shift loyalties.

By Howard Lafranchi

Published: Sun 28 Jun 2015, 10:17 PM

Last updated: Wed 8 Jul 2015, 3:15 PM

The Taleban is taking bold steps not only to reassert itself after the departure of Nato forces, but perhaps more importantly, to stave off the rising influence of Daesh among rebel fighters in Afghanistan.

Last Monday, the Taleban claimed responsibility for an audacious suicide attack on the Afghan parliament in Kabul. By Tuesday, it had taken control of two districts in northern Afghanistan – well outside its traditional southern base of power – and was threatening to overrun the northern agricultural hub of Kunduz.

These moves take advantage of the security vacuum created by weak Afghan security forces, some regional experts say. But the Taleban is also facing mounting pressure from fighters within its own ranks drawn to the stunningly successful Daesh. With its new activity, the Taleban is out to show restless commanders and fighters, as well as the Afghan people, that it remains a force to be reckoned with.

“Daesh is now seen as the winning horse in the race. It has imposed itself as the most powerful subversive movement – one that has been tremendously successful at accomplishing what it set out to do – and that is posing a serious challenge to other militant organisations from the Taleban to Hamas,” says Fawaz Gerges, a professor of contemporary Middle Eastern studies at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

“The Daesh narrative is resonating,” he adds, using an alternative acronym for the group, “and that is changing the calculations of others like the Taleban who feel under threat.”

At one level, the rivalry between the Taleban and the Daesh is an ideological battle, pitting Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi, the self-proclaimed “caliph” against Mullah Muhammad Omar, the “leader of the pious believers” of the Taleban.

At another level, it is pure power struggle. The Afghan Taleban remains aligned with Al Qaeda, which broke all ties with Baghdadi and Daesh last year over the surging group’s territorial grabs in Syria and its attacks on Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate.

At the time, terrorism analysts interpreted the rupture as heralding the emergence of Daesh’s new vein of radicalism with greater appeal to extremists in the Middle East and beyond.

Afghanistan’s terrorists, including some within the Taleban, are not immune to that growing appeal. Regional analysts speculate that the Daesh could take hold in Afghanistan if it continues to eclipse Al Qaeda.

“Yes, the Taleban continues to pledge allegiance to Mullah Omar, but it also recognises that the Daesh enjoys growing appeal among its cadre [when] no one has seen or heard from Mullah Omar in years really,” says Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center in Washington. “So while there is not now any indication the Taleban is considering switching allegiance to Baghdadi, I don’t think we can rule that out somewhere down the line.”

Others don’t go that far. The Taleban is not as extreme as Daesh and does not adhere to the Daesh vision of a caliphate based on seventh-century Islam, says Dr. Gerges. But he does suggest that the Taleban is trying to limit Daesh’s growing influence.

“Extremists are more action-oriented today, they want and are drawn to results, and in that context Daesh actions speak louder than words,” says Gerges, who will publish in the fall a book on Daesh. “They look at what Al Qaeda and the Taleban have done and they see that essentially they have failed – while at the same time Daesh is winning.”

The Taleban leadership is “trying to nip this thing in the bud” by reasserting itself with spectacular acts like the suicide attack on parliament and threatening to take a major Afghan city for the first time since surrendering power more than a decade ago.

Heritage’s Curtis sees the Taleban’s offensive in Kunduz more as the Taleban taking advantage of the “security vacuum” left by the withdrawal of United States and Nato troops.

But she does link the kind of “splashy and high-profile attack” the Taleban launched against the parliament Sunday to an effort to lay down a marker as the Daesh tries to infiltrate the country.

“They want to demonstrate that they are still the superior fighting force in the country,” she says, “and are not going to be outdone by Daesh.

Still, Curtis says the Afghan government and the US – which retains 9,800 troops in Afghanistan advising Afghan military operations and conducting airstrikes – should not allow themselves to be caught off guard by a Taleban-Daesh merger at some point “down the road.”

For Gerges, there’s only way that happens: If Daesh holds on in Iraq and begins to make headway into Saudi Arabia, the “heartland’ of Islam and home to the holy cities of Makkah and Madina.

“Power is the final determinant,” he adds, “so if Daesh wins in Iraq and Syria and from there goes to Saudi Arabia, then that changes everything.”

Howard LaFranchi has been the Monitor's diplomacy correspondent in Washington DC and has also covered the Iraq war.

Christian Science Monitor

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