In fight against Islamic State, the Taliban holds major advantage

After defeating the Islamic Government of Afghanistan and taking control of the country on Aug. 15, the Taliban is beginning to ramp up its fight against the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province.

The Islamic State’s Khorasan Province or ISKP, which is often referred to as ISIS-K, has increased attacks against the Taliban over the past two months. ISKP has orchestrated a handful of high-profile suicide attacks on soft targets such as mosques and hospitals, and conducted smaller but more numerous IED and small arms attacks against Taliban military forces. In response, the Taliban has sent more than 1,000 fighters to battle the group in Nangarhar province, the hub of ISKP operations, according to The Washington Post.

Much of the reporting from Afghanistan has boosted the threat of ISKP while ignoring the Taliban’s very real advantages in the fight. The Taliban has the advantage in all of the key areas, save one. The Taliban has state sponsors, terrorist allies, regional support, a marked superiority in weapons and numbers, and controls all of Afghanistan. ISKP can only match the Taliban in one area, and this their will to fight and persevere.

To be clear, ISKP is a decided underdog when matched up against the Taliban. Either way, the United States and the West community should not be rooting for a Taliban victory over ISKP. The Taliban continues to support international terror groups that seek to overthrow friendly governments and attack the West. The Taliban’s relationship with Al Qaeda endures, and has strengthened after 20 years of war and victory in Afghanistan.

Here is the tale of the tape as a battle ensues between the Taliban and the Islamic State’s Khorasan Province:

State Sponsors

Advantage: Taliban.
Pakistan and Iran have both invested deeply in the Taliban project, providing the group with safe haven, weapons, financial support and training. Pakistan is certainly continuing its support of the Taliban. Iran’s support was initially focused on driving the U.S. and NATO from Afghanistan, and it is unclear if Iran’s support will wane or continue. Iran will likely continue a level of support to maintain a degree of influence. However, ISKP rejects state sponsorship, and Iran and Pakistan are both its enemies. State sponsorship is a key driver for a successful insurgency, and ISKP has no state sponsors.

Terrorist Allies

Advantage: Taliban.
In addition to the state sponsors of Pakistan and Iran, the Taliban has the support of all of the powerful regional terror groups, including but not limited to: Al Qaeda, The Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan, Lashkar-e-Taiba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, Harakat-ul-Mujahideen, Ansarullah, Turkistan Islamic Party, Islamic Jihad Union, Jamaat Imam al Bukhari, and a host of other South and Central Asian terror organizations. The Taliban can pool thousands if not tens of thousands of fighters if needed in its fight against ISKP, just as it did in its victory against the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. ISKP, on the other hand, remains on an island with no regional terror allies as it insists its allies swear allegiance to its emir.

Neighbors

Advantage: Taliban.
With the exception of Tajikistan, which opposes the Taliban regime, all of the Afghanistan’s neighbors, including China, as well as Russia, which isn’t a neighboring country but wields significant influence in the ‘Stans, are pushing for international recognition and humanitarian support of the Taliban regime. However, the regional view that these nations can work with the Taliban to suppress the jihadist threats emanating from Afghanistan is deeply flawed. For instance, the Movement of the Taliban in Pakistan is an ally of the Afghan Taliban, as is Turkistan Islamic Party, which seeks to wage jihad in China. ISKP is a direct threat to all of Afghanistan’s neighbors, which seek to use the Taliban to suppress and defeat it.

Numbers

Advantage: Taliban.
The low end estimate of the Taliban forces, as noted by The Washington Post, is 70,000, while the Islamic State is estimated to have several thousand fighters in its ranks. The exact number of fighters for each group is impossible to know. FDD’s Long War Journal has estimated in the past that the Taliban has well over 100,000 fighters under its command, and given the sophistication and scope of its summer offensive to take control of the country, we stand by this estimate. The Taliban can flood the zone in key battlefields where the fight intensifies, as it is beginning to do in Nangarhar, while the Islamic State has limited resources. It remains to be seen if a brutal crackdown on the Islamic State increases its recruiting potential, or if it grinds it down.

Weapons

Advantage: Taliban.
The Taliban obtained a massive cache of weapons as it overran Afghan forces and seized control of Afghanistan over the summer. These weapons include small and heavy arms, armored vehicles, including tanks, armored personnel carriers, and HUMVEEs, artillery pieces, helicopters and aircraft. The Taliban has been adept at adapting these weapons systems to the battlefield. The Islamic State only possesses small arms, and its main tool to attack the Taliban has been IEDs and suicide bombs.

Terrain

Advantage: Taliban.
The Taliban is fully in control of all of Afghanistan 34 provinces while the Islamic State does not control any ground. The Taliban can muster the resources of all of Afghanistan’s provinces; troops, weapons, ammunition, fuel, food, and other supplies. The Taliban can operate hospitals, recruiting and training centers, and base troops. It can tax the local population and border crossings. ISKP must operate clandestinely and is extremely limited in how it can support its forces.

Will To Win

Advantage: Even.
The will to fight and ultimately win is perhaps the most important factor in this fight. Both groups have displayed a commitment to fight for the long haul. The Taliban displayed a remarkable will to win in its 20-year war against the U.S., Coalition, and Afghan government. The Taliban was written off in 2002 after suffering a string of battlefield defeats, and again in 2012 after the “surge.” Yet the Taliban persisted. After its victory over the summer, the Taliban again displayed its will to win by taking over the vaunted bastion of resistance in Panjshir in less than two weeks. Yet this is one area where ISKP can match the Taliban. ISKP has persisted for nearly a decade in Afghanistan despite long odds. ISKP has no allies or state sponsors, and has suffered a string of defeats at the hands of the Taliban. It is outnumbered, has inferior weapons and resources, and its recruiting pool is limited, at least at the moment. ISKP has persevered, which makes it a dangerous enemy.

Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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