Afghan people are seen near the building where insurgents were hiding during an attack to the prison in the city of Jalalabad, east of Kabul, Afghanistan.

How will the Taliban interact with militant groups like ISIS-K and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan?

As the Taliban transitions to power in Afghanistan, many are wondering how they’ll interact with militant groups such as ISIS-K and al-Qaeda. Ibraheem Bahiss, with the International Crisis Group, joins The World’s host Marco Werman to discuss these new power dynamics.

The World

With the Taliban now in power in Afghanistan, many are now wondering how they’ll govern and whether the country will once again become a safe haven for terrorist groups like ISIS-K and al-Qaeda.

On Thursday, US Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, even said that it’s “possible” the US could seek to coordinate with the Taliban on counterterrorism strikes against ISIS and other militants.

Related: Chaos in Afghanistan creates power vacuum for ISIS, al-Qaeda to reorganize, counterterrorism expert says

And President Joe Biden vowed to continue airstrikes against ISIS after it conducted a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport last week, killing scores of Afghans and 13 American service members.

Related: Afghans mourn the loss of young lives in ISIS attacks

For a look at how the different groups are likely to interact in the new Afghanistan, The World’s host Marco Werman spoke with Ibraheem Bahiss, a consultant with the International Crisis Group’s Asia program, where he focuses on Afghanistan.

Marco Werman: Ibraheem, let’s start with a question that we all seem to be asking. How different is the Taliban that’s taken control in Afghanistan now from the one that ruled Afghanistan from the mid-’90s until they were pushed out of power following the 9/11 attacks?
Ibraheem Bahiss: Well, like most political movements, it has learned, adapted and changed over the years. Part of that lesson-learning was that some of the restrictive policies in the 1990s turned them into a pariah state where other countries were unwilling to recognize it or provided with any type of aid. Now, the Taliban is very cognizant of the fact that they need international recognition, as well, as at least investment, if not aid.
So, what could all this mean for how the Taliban interact with terror groups operating in Afghanistan? Let’s start with ISIS-K, the group that took responsibility for the bombings near the airport that killed the US service members and many Afghans. Who are ISIS-K? What is their goal?
ISIS-K, or ISIS Khorasan Province, is the local branch of ISIS. And the moment they emerged, they declared the Taliban to be apostates and foreign spies that were working for the Pakistani intelligence agency. And a brutal war started between the two groups from the get-go. Over the years, due to being pressured, not only by the Taliban, but also by the Afghan government and the US forces and NATO forces that were present in the country, ISIS-K has lost all the little territory it did control at one point in time. But now it still retains significant numbers of sleeper cells in various urban centers, including Kabul, and they are able to activate them to take actions such as they did [at] Kabul airport last week.
Right, and the Taliban have said they will not accept this kind of violence. I mean, how will the Taliban’s rise to power affect how ISIS-K operates now?
Well, even in 2015, when the group first emerged, the Taliban’s deputy at the time sent a letter to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was the supposed caliph of ISIS, warning them that, “Look, Afghanistan’s a no-go zone. You guys need to stay out of it.” So, I expect the Taliban will continue with that approach. Even recently, when the Taliban broke prisons, they released all their own prisoners — they also released common criminals — but they actually killed the former head of ISIS-K in Afghanistan, Abu Omar Khorasani, who was in one of the main prisons in Afghanistan. So, I assume they will continue the same kind of repressive approach when it comes to ISIS-K.
How about al-Qaeda? I mean, they did have support from the Taliban. Do al-Qaeda still have a presence in Afghanistan?
The relationship between al-Qaeda and [the] Taliban was, I would argue, quite by accident, because the Taliban were a rural movement and al-Qaeda was a Salafist movement. Al-Qaeda harbored global ambitions and the Taliban had always been more confined to national borders. But in the 1990s, as the international community shunned them and they imposed sanctions on them, the Taliban became more and more dependent on some of these militant groups, including al-Qaeda. Right now, they seem to want to do things differently. But again, a lot will depend on how the international community interacts with the new Taliban.
The big concern, of course, is that Afghanistan once again becomes a safe haven for these groups to operate, but also to recruit people from outside the country and train them in Afghanistan. Based on what you know today, how likely is that?
I would venture a guess and say that the prospects of such a scenario are unlikely for a number of reasons. First of all, al-Qaeda, which is the biggest, rather globally focused organization, has decentralized to a large extent over the last 20 years. They are no longer that group which had a big presence in Afghanistan. Now, their leaders are all over the world. Their number two is presently in Iran. Some of their strongest branches are present in Yemen, for example, in northern Africa. And these are the top leaders of the organization. So the organization is a lot more decentralized and it has had to adopt that posture because of the global “war on terror” and the pressure that the US military has put on the organization. I see it unlikely that they would have incentive to refocus and rebuild in Afghanistan. Even if they did, I would say that the Taliban would be unlikely to welcome such a move. The Taliban have paid quite a heavy cost for their support for al-Qaeda in the 1990s, and I don’t think they will be willing to take such a decision very likely this time around.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.

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