Daesh’s Khorasan wing is primarily rooted in the Pakistani insurgency, Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, a series of networks quite distinct from Afghanistan’s Taliban movement.
Note: This is the first of a two-part publication examining the rise of Daesh-K and the extent of its relationship with the Taliban. The second part of the article can be read here.
The nagging persistence of Daesh’s so-called Khorasan wing continued last week in a brazen commando-style raid on a military hospital in Kabul, which killed Taliban garrison commander Hamdullah Mukhlis.
The group continues to mount an internal challenge to the so-called emirate already struggling to overcome international isolation and an economic crisis. Though Daesh lost most of its territory in the Afghan east against a Taliban campaign in 2019-20, its capacity for spectacular assaults in the Afghan capital remains.
In contrast to many other Daesh attacks, which often targeted civilians and especially minorities as a point of order, this week’s raid struck what was at least theoretically a military target. In that respect it was not very different from the same sorts of attacks that the Haqqanis, a network within the Taliban movement, in particular, had been mounting in Kabul through the 2010s.
The more typical Daesh operation in urban Afghanistan has been a systemic attempt to attack civilians, often simply to make a point. Though the Taliban insurgency and, indeed, other Afghan groups – both linked and opposed to the American occupation – were not short of civilian victims, it was rare to target civilians in such a pointed manner as Daesh did repeatedly through the latter 2010s.
These operations often bore an uncanny resemblance to the neighbouring insurgency that had dogged Pakistan for years, and this was not a coincidence; much of Daesh’s Khorasan wing overlapped with the misleadingly named “Pakistani Taliban” insurgency, and to this day, the Khorasan wing’s command heavily comprises militants from the eastern side of the Afghan-Pakistani border, including its mysterious governor-general, Shihab Sadiq.
Pakistan’s insurgency and Daesh’s regional roots
As I have argued elsewhere, the “Pakistani Taliban” insurgency that took off in the late 2000s largely stemmed from factors extraneous both to Afghanistan and the Taliban movement – Pakistani peripheral politics as well as sectarian militias and militants. These groups varied widely, but they largely coalesced in 2001-02, when Pakistan’s decision to formally support the American invasion of Afghanistan and indeed to ban several such groups threw them in the same camp.
By the mid-2000s, the influence of Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan and large-scale Pakistani military and American aerial campaigns had served to bolster the ranks of this loose coalition with thousands of Pashtun clansmen, principally from the Mahsud and Wazir clans.
The “Pakistani Taliban”, unlike its Afghan namesake, was nonetheless a coalition of militias that often competed or diverged. They nominally pledged loyalty to the Taliban in Afghanistan, but were happy to ignore Taliban directives and organisation. Quite simply, statements of solidarity and loyalty could not disguise the basically different background and only passingly intersecting agenda of the Afghan Taliban and their Pakistani namesakes.
By the early 2010s, mutual mistrust between Pakistan and the United States had undermined their links; this was in particular compounded by barely concealed links between the Pakistani insurgency and the secret service of an American-installed Afghan government keen to make Islamabad pay for its support to the Afghan insurgency.
With the “Pakistani Taliban” themselves hit by an internal crisis over leadership, Pakistan pounced on the opportunity to mount a large-scale assault in summer 2014 that seized the Waziristan region entirely and forced the insurgents into Afghanistan. The Pakistani insurgency fragmented at precisely the same point as Daesh was making waves in the Fertile Crescent with its proclamation of a caliphate. Thus much of the Pakistani insurgency switched brands, proclaiming loyalty, not to the Taliban “emir” in Afghanistan but the Daesh “caliph” in Iraq.
Daesh’s Khorasan wing was led by Saeed Khan, formerly Orakzai commander for the Pakistani insurgency; he was joined by at least six members of the Pakistani insurgency’s senior leadership.
The shrunken “Pakistani Taliban” group, who had suffered other splinters even apart from Daesh, now surrendered, or went underground, as in the case of its current leader, Nur Wali, or else were finished off in Afghanistan by American strikes, as in the case of its competing leaders Fazlullah Hayat and Khalid Sajna, both killed in 2018. By the late 2010s, Daesh seemed a more promising prospect.
There were other commanders in the region who flirted with Daesh. A notable case was Mangal Bagh, a roving Pakistani commander who led a militia from Khyber’s Afridi clan; he ultimately kept his distance.
A more politically reliable find for Daesh was Aslam Farouqi – also known as Abdullah – a veteran Pakistani sectarian commander also from the Orakzai clan who had been involved in opposition to Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf a decade earlier.
Daesh’s Khorasan wing was thus largely based on the earlier Pakistani insurgency now in eastern Afghanistan – a series of networks quite distinct from, and only occasionally having collaborated with, Afghanistan’s Taliban movement.
This did not prevent them from trying, with mixed success, to win over defectors from the Taliban and other Afghan groups: the trajectory, outcomes, and implications of these attempts will be the focus of the second part of this article.
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