Afghanistan is in turmoil. Attacks from a branch of the Islamic State on Thursday near the airport in Kabul claimed the lives of US servicemembers and sent shockwaves through President Biden’s hurried evacuation of the country.
Here are three bits of context you should know about the situation in Afghanistan right now and two things to watch for next.
1. The Taliban are in control of Afghanistan, but not in charge of it
On television, it can be hard to keep track of all the different groups and actors on the ground. The situation is evolving and Afghanistan has very porous borders in the midst of a political transition.
The transition is key to understanding what is happening. Yes, the Taliban took over the country from the Western-backed Afghan government in 11 short days, but they have yet to form a government. Everything is ad hoc right now. There is not a president. The government is expected to run out of money in a matter of days.
In other words, it is not a developed country where there are different levels of government (e.g. city, state, federal) that coordinate together on security and to carry out policy in a crisis.
So, when the Taliban and the Americans cut a deal, Taliban leaders may be acting in good faith but just totally incapable of keeping promises or even, say, guaranteeing the security around the perimeter of the country’s main airport.
2. What you are watching is a battle for control of Afghanistan between the Taliban and Al Qaeda on one side and ISIS-K on the other
These explosions have nothing to do with the civil war that commenced just days ago. This is now a battle between two sides designated as terrorists.
As many people know, the Taliban offered Al Qaeda safe haven during their previous rule in Afghanistan. From that base, Osama bin Laden orchestrated the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, prompting America’s wrath and the invasion that followed to swiftly oust them from power.
The Taliban, seeking to return to power, have changed their tune in recent years. They disavowed Al Qaeda and even promised the Trump administration they would not support any terrorist group if they returned to power. This was never really true, though.
The Taliban is not a perfect top-down organization. It is a collection of groups, some more powerful than others. The group of Taliban that negotiated with the United States is quite different from the group inside of the Taliban that has more energy and military capability. This group is called the Haqqani network and, unlike the broader Taliban, has been labeled a terrorist organization for nearly a decade.
The Haqqani network is basically running the show with security on the ground in Kabul and the most sensitive places in the country. The links between Al Qaeda and the Haqqani network run deep.
This brings us to ISIS, or the Islamic State. For a refresher, ISIS emerged from Al Qaeda in Iraq after the US invasion, but their leader believed Al Qaeda was too moderate and started his own, violent organization aimed at creating a fundamentalist Islamic State — otherwise known as ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
Those dynamics are basically the same now in Afghanistan. The Islamic State, through its Afghanistan branch ISIS-K, thinks the Taliban are surrendering Islam to the West every time it sees the Taliban coming up with an agreement with Americans. And ISIS is enraged when it sees the Haqqani network, of all groups, standing with guns just feet from American troops and not firing on them.
The explosions outside Kabul airport are ISIS reminding the Taliban that they aren’t in full control and telling them to be more aggressive with America.
3. Explosions like this will keep happening whether America has a presence in Afghanistan or not
While it doesn’t make headlines, ISIS-K has been attacking the Taliban a lot this year. The group has carried out assassinations and bombed mosques.
To be sure, if these explosions push Americans out faster than planned, the Taliban would be more than fine with that. But they still have a security fight on their hands.
What to watch for
1. How soon will America leave?
Suddenly the debate about if Americans should adhere to the Aug. 31st deadline to evacuate Afghanistan seems quaint.
The question now is just how quickly Americans can leave. After all, if the point of people flocking to the airport is to facilitate departures, that will end soon given the violence. Those already at the airport will leave the country, but the American government has warned people the airport is no longer safe.
2. What will Biden’s response be?
It is still too early to know how many Americans have been killed in these explosions on Thursday or any other attacks that may come next. That may frame the American response. President Biden may want to simply chalk it up to a chaotic, horrible month in Afghanistan and move on. However, during a news conference Thursday afternoon, US Central Command General Ken McKenzie said, “if we can find who was associated with this” then “yes,” there would be retaliation, and “24/7 we are looking for them.”
The 20-year war in Afghanistan is over. The end of American involvement may be a different story, however.