Search for a report, a publication, an expert...
Institut Montaigne features a platform of Expressions dedicated to debate and current affairs. The platform provides a space for decryption and dialogue to encourage discussion and the emergence of new voices.

Beyond the Taliban: Who is Fighting in Afghanistan?

​​​​​​​Three questions to Thomas Ruttig

Beyond the Taliban: Who is Fighting in Afghanistan?
 Thomas Ruttig
Co-founder and co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network

The US has left Afghanistan where it found it, with the Taliban in control. The images of Kabul’s airport following the return to power of the Taliban have massively circulated across the global media, causing sorrow and outrage, and prompting the international community to stand up for the Afghan people. The Taliban are a cause for concern, but there are other groups to watch in the country now that US troops have withdrawn. Thomas Ruttig, co-founder and co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, talks us through the landscape of armed groups in Afghanistan with a detailed analysis of their interests, political aims, and rivals. This interview in a 3 questions format also covers regional dynamics and the future of the Taliban.

Who are the armed groups in Afghanistan? What are their main interests?


The Taliban (who refer to themselves as the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan) are the largest armed group in Afghanistan with the political aim of establishing a ‘genuine Islamic order’. Since the fall of Kabul August 15, 2021, they have taken power in Afghanistan and control the entire territory. While many of their leaders had fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s as members of various armed factions (collectively known as Mujahideen), they emerged as a distinct movement after the Mujahideen factions came to power in 1992. They were unable to unite, and started fighting for power and dominance in Kabul. After 9/11, the Taliban first offered capitulation, which was then not accepted by the US, and made a comeback due to systematic conceptual mistakes by the intervening powers. Over the years, they crystallized into an effective organization expanding their territorial control until Kabul fell. 

National Resistance Front (NRF)

Another group is the National Resistance Front (NRF) in the Panjshir valley and some neighboring areas, recently defeated by the Taliban. Their roots go back to the Panjshiri factions of Jamiat-e Islami party, key members of the former anti-Taliban ‘Northern Alliance’ (United Front). NFR’s forces consist of local militias from the Panjshir Valley, newly recruited people and remnants of the former government army forces. Due to some ‘northern’ ethnic undertones and even threats to divide the country as a ‘last option’ in their public statements, their claimed nation-wide appeal has been questioned. The Taliban have asserted total control of the Panjshir, while the NRF still claims to hold positions in the area and might be capable of launching a guerrilla campaign. 

Afghan branch of ISIS

The Islamic State Khorasan Province, which is also known by the acronyms ISIS-K, IS-KP, and ISK, is the official affiliate of the sectarian, anti-Shia Islamic State (ISIS) operating in Afghanistan. It came into being in 2015, set up by splinter groups of the Pakistani Taliban movement, but also Afghan Taliban fighters . They set up fronts in 6 provinces of Afghanistan but the Taliban quickly cracked down on them. Only remote areas in Nangarhar Province, eastern Afghanistan, remained as a territorial base. Their original social base was disgruntled tribal subgroups and local Salafi communities.

These communities had initially welcomed IS-KP but soon became alienated by the brutality of their regime and established anti-IS-KP self-defense forces. They called in Taliban and government support, leading to offensives in 2019 and early 2020, coordinated with the provincial government and supported by US airstrikes.These strikes eliminated IS-KP’s local bases. Reports have revealed that IS-KP has an autonomous terrorist network operating in Afghan cities, mainly Kabul, and attacking mainly religious minorities such as Shia, Sikhs, and Hindus. They are still capable of carrying out high-profile terrorist attacks, as seen with the August 26, 2021 suicide attack at Kabul airport for which they claimed responsibility. This attack killed more than 180 people, including 13 US service members.  


Last but not least, Al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is a remnant of Arab fighters that had fought the Soviet occupation alongside the Mujahideen and were subsequently given shelter in Afghanistan. The group is separate from the Taliban, but supported them in their pre-2001 fight against the ‘Northern Alliance’. The Taliban continued to host them, but were not involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. A number of reports claim that Al-Qaeda is still strong and influences the Taliban, but their relationship seems to be rather that of a weak client (Al-Qaeda) to a powerful master (Taliban).

There is no visible Taliban political interest to allow Al-Qaeda freedom of action again, as this could provoke new US anti-terror strikes and jeopardize their regained control over the country. 

There seems to be little if any larger independent military Al-Qaeda activity in Afghanistan (and none beyond the country for 20 years) against the will of the Taliban. US intelligence estimates over the last 2 decades consistently reported an Al-Qaeda membership of a few hundred members. It is unclear whether this refers to fighters only or if it also counts family members. What is clear nevertheless, is that there is no visible Taliban political interest to allow Al-Qaeda freedom of action again, as this could provoke new US anti-terror strikes and jeopardize their regained control over the country. The Taliban are a national-Islamic movement with no visible ambitions beyond Afghanistan.

Finally, there is also an array of non-Afghan militant groups of varying sizes, from Uzbekistan to Kashmir, the rest of Pakistan and Xinjiang, more or less affiliated but also largely controlled by the Taliban.

How sustainable is the Taliban regime today given past difficulties to maintain cohesiveness across its different factions? How big of a threat does the Islamic State Khorasan (IS-KP) and other actors pose?

The only group that poses a real threat is IS-KP. Both are enemies and both are fighting each other. However, the IS-KP is significantly smaller than the Taliban. Without a social basis in Afghanistan, they can only pull off terrorist attacks. This is mostly viewed as an "annoyance factor" but in the long term it holds few chances to alter the Taliban’s strategic balance of power; IS-KP is too weak to challenge them.

Whether the Taliban are sustainable in the longer term as a ruling power is a different question. This will largely depend on how they behave vis-à-vis their own population and how they arrange themselves with the international community. There is obviously widespread mistrust towards the Taliban government among Afghans. Their ability to rule will depend on whether they will visibly improve Afghan’s lives, and whether they return to the all-out repressive rule as when they last governed. 

It is also too early to say if the Taliban understand they cannot rule against large parts of the population and in isolation from the international community. 

This latter factor could alienate sections of the population and lead to resistance. Despite signs of atrocities and a roll-back of women’s rights, it is too early to determine whether this trend will continue. It is also too early to say if the Taliban understand they cannot rule against large parts of the population and in isolation from the international community. However, there are currently no visible political alternatives inside Afghanistan. Given the lack of stable civil society institutions, which the Taliban reject, there is little chance that public protests might crystallize into a more organized form.

How do these groups interact with neighboring powers ?

The biggest factor is Pakistan. The country constantly supported the Taliban while always being careful to deny it publicly. A Pakistani delegation led by the head of the country's premier spy agency -Inter Services Intelligence (ISI)- Lt. Gen. Faiz Hameed visited Kabul this past Saturday, August 4, 2021. This is significant to mention as it might be a first visible sign of the influential role Pakistan plans to have. Other regional powers such as Russia, China, Iran and, to an extent, Turkey have - after initial hostility towards the Taliban before and after 2001 for a possible ‘overspill’- now seem to have accommodated with their return to power, some even expressing hopes to develop "positive relations" with the new government. 

One factor in the improved interaction between the Taliban and the above-mentioned countries is that the fear of overspill is now associated with IS and its global ‘jihadist’ agenda. 

Russia and Turkey, for the time being, have ruled out full diplomatic relations. It remains to be seen what lies behind this lack of political recognition and what possible conditions will be. One factor in the improved interaction between the Taliban and the above-mentioned countries is that the fear of overspill is now associated with IS and its global ‘jihadist’ agenda. As for India, its view on Afghanistan will mostly be defined by its conflicting relationship with Pakistan baring potential for more trouble unfolding on Afghan soil. Also the tense Saudi-Iranian ties have played out in Afghanistan in the past, potentially also bringing Saudi Arabia closer to the Taliban again, although there seems to be little visible action.

Qatar is more actively involved and will potentially be a stronger Afghan player in the future. It has already sent 3 planes with humanitarian assistance towards Kabul. It also has established a good working relationship with the Taliban as host for the - now obsolete - intra-Afghan Doha talks. 

The West’s failure in Afghanistan and its hasty, unorganized withdrawal, has increased the room for manoeuvre for regional countries. Russia, China, Iran, Turkey and Arab countries, all of them considered non-democratic regimes (albeit in different degrees) have not been surprised by the return to power of the Taliban. They were better prepared for it than the West. The current reluctance towards full diplomatic relations with the Taliban is likely not the result of fear that this might impact their relations with the West, but as a sign that there needs to be a mutually benefitting political bargain. Russia, Turkey and China, for example, have even been encouraged to help getting talks with the Talibans under way, or to repair the Kabul airport. 


Copyright: Noorullah Shirzada / AFP

Receive Institut Montaigne’s monthly newsletter in English