Radicalism Breeds Radicalism: The Taliban and IS-K

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

A new journal article examines the impact of the rivalry with Islamic State-Khorasan on Taliban policy and their government’s failure to moderate.

In August 2021, the United States pulled out all remaining troops in Afghanistan, allowing for a complete seizure of its government by the Taliban. The group’s takeover resulted in a near-immediate halt in foreign aid, along with sanctions and international economic restrictions. The sudden loss of funds has driven increases in poverty and hunger around the country.

Over the last few years, quality of life in Afghanistan has decreased significantly. A recent Human Rights Watch report showcased the severe impact that the drop has had on the public health system: “The loss of foreign development aid and Taliban rights violations have caused a catastrophic health crisis in Afghanistan that is disproportionately harming women and girls.”

The deteriorating humanitarian and human rights situation, and specifically its gender divide, has prompted reflection on the Taliban’s rhetoric leading up to and after their takeover. In 2020, Taliban deputy leader Sirajuddin Haqqani asserted in a piece for the New York Times that the organization is interested in building “an Islamic system in which all Afghans have equal rights, where the rights of women that are granted by Islam — from the right to education to the right to work — are protected, and where merit is the basis for equal opportunity.” This intention was echoed by spokesperson Zabihullah Mujahid during the Taliban’s first press conference, where he claimed that women’s rights would be respected under the framework of Sharia law and urged Afghan women to join the government.

After months of such assurances, the unwillingness of the Taliban to moderate has raised questions about the group’s motivations. Raj Verma and Shahid Ali explore this in their recent Middle East Policy article “How the Islamic State Rivalry Pushes the Taliban to Extremes.” Their analysis asserts that the most significant cause has been the threat posed by the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K) in Afghanistan.

IS-K is an offshoot of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS), a rival that was already troubling the Taliban. The group launched a massive propaganda campaign, asserting that they were the sole legitimate organization to declare jihad and that the Taliban, by engaging in diplomacy and negotiation, were becoming “puppets of the United States.” 

Effective propaganda, their significant attacks against the Taliban, and rising poverty, sickness, and malnutrition under the current regime have enabled IS-K to coerce both unaffiliated and former Taliban members to defect and change sides. 

Despite significant targeting of IS-K and their supporters, the group has continued to grow. Members of the Taliban are leaving for the organization because IS-K presents a more hardline front. The propaganda campaign claims the Taliban is failing to follow Sharia by considering democracy and women’s rights, which is concerning for hardliners. The authors say that, beyond the battlefield, “IS-K is manipulating this competition to prevent the Taliban from liberalizing.”

This competition has placed the Taliban in a precarious position; if the group opens itself to moderation and foreign cooperation, it may continue hemorrhaging members to IS-K, strengthening the most pressing opposition to their rule. 

Verma and Ali argue that “for this reason, the Taliban are unwilling to form a democratic, inclusive, and representative government, grant women more rights, and stop the persecution of minorities. They want to bolster their Islamist credentials as much as possible.” 

They further explain that the rise of IS-K “could lead to increased violence and socioeconomic and political instability in the country, undermining the legitimacy of the Taliban domestically and across the Muslim world. It could also lead to the collapse of the regime.”

The authors note that there are still many reasons for the Taliban to moderate, particularly to reopen the tap of much-needed foreign assistance. However, it seems, “the Taliban have not learned from their mistakes. History shows that no single group has been able to rule Afghanistan peacefully and effectively through repressive policy,” creating the potential for further instability.


Among the major takeaways readers can find in Raj Verma and Shahid Ali’s Middle East Policy article, “How the Islamic State Rivalry Pushes the Taliban to Extremes”:


  • After regaining control of Afghanistan following the pullout of all US troops, the Taliban claimed that they would moderate their repressive approach, especially on the protection of women’s rights. 
  • The Taliban have failed to moderate and are returning to patterns comparable to those prior to the US invasion in 2001.
    • The government has curtailed women’s rights and continued prosecution of some ethnic and religious groups.
  • Another key player in Afghanistan is the Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), who oppose the Taliban, an offshoot of ISIS that has historically competed with other Islamist organizations including al-Qaeda, who are aligned with the Taliban.
  • The Taliban are concerned that if they moderate, they will lose members to IS-K.
    • Complete cohesion has been critical to the Taliban, so rifts created by moderation could pose a serious risk.
  • Both IS-K and the Taliban seek to be the global caliphate through their appointed caliphs, who they claim requires all Muslims to support their rule or be killed.
  • IS-K frames itself as a stringent approach to the caliphate and is critical of the Taliban’s willingness to engage in global politics, engagement with non-Islamic governments, and interest in moderation.
  • The rivalry between the two is a result of several factors:
    • Both groups are seeking to claim and mobilize the resources needed for jihad, including territory.
    • IS-K has been attempting— and succeeding— to encourage defection, which has been effective and risks destabilizing the Taliban.
    • Since its formation, the Taliban have seen IS-K as a threat to their legitimacy and have launched attacks in the past.
  • Since the pullout, the Taliban have increased their targeting of IS-K and Salafists to prevent further support.
    • However, IS-K has strengthened through effective recruitment, the increased repression of Salafists who join their ranks, and some successful attacks against the Taliban and minorities in Afghanistan.
  • “IS-K is manipulating this competition to prevent the Taliban from liberalizing.”
    • If the group concedes or compromises on doctrinal purity or cooperates with foreign governments, hard-liners may join the more stringent IS-K.
    • By avoiding democracy, inclusion, and protection of minorities, the Taliban appear to be hoping to bolster their Islamist credentials and prevent destabilization of the regime.
    • However, the Taliban could also benefit from moderation which would encourage foreign aid, investment, and recognition and avoid exacerbating domestic and regional instability.

You can read “How the Islamic State Rivalry Pushes the Taliban to Extremes” by Raj Verma and Shahid Ali in the Winter 2023 issue of Middle East Policy.

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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