The Islamic State isn’t just sending out feelers into Afghanistan anymore. It appears to have crossed a threshold and become a new threat to the country’s stability. President Ashraf Ghani said as much during his address to Congress in March. And while the ISIS’s footprint remains small, it has carried out major suicide bombings and clashed with the Taliban in several provinces. As violence between supporters of the two groups intensified recently, the Taliban posted an open letter on its website to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, warning him and his supporters to stay away.
The conventional wisdom is that the Taliban is on the ascent: As the US continues to withdraw, the Afghan government remains weak and ineffectual. We should question that assessment. If anything, the Taliban’s clash with ISIS may be evidence of serious internal strife, signalling an existential crisis within a complex group we have often misunderstood.
Westerners have been quick to declare a nascent turf war between ISIS and the Taliban: a sort of battle royale between the brash, young Islamic State, infamous for its barbarity and social media savvy, and the veteran Taliban, grizzled survivors of their existential fight with the US military.
Yet the grandiose aims of the Islamic State have little in common with the tangible, battle-tested ambitions of the Taliban. Moreover, the rapid rise and expansion of ISIS has rendered its ideology as imprecise as it is fanatical. What does the Islamic State really even want in Syria and Iraq, never mind in the “Graveyard of Empires”? ISIS propaganda has denounced Pashtunwali, the tribal code at the core of the Taliban’s ethos, but there is scant evidence to suggest that Pashtun warlords newly allied to the Islamic State would enforce an anti-Pashtun agenda.
The differences between these two groups are even more critical than what they have in common. Afghanistan has been home to various armed groups since resistance against the Soviets began in 1980. Indeed, the Afghan Taliban comprises many factions, all of them familiar with foreign Islamic fundamentalists. Taliban leader Mullah Omar, onetime host to Osama bin Laden, has had 13 hard years in hiding to ponder the consequences of such international jihadist relations.
Unlike the rapidly evolving Islamic State, the Taliban’s objectives have remained clear: The recovery of territory and sovereignty over the whole of Afghanistan. Therefore, it should properly be categorized as an insurgency. It also means that the Taliban’s ideology, religious orientation, and rhetoric are only a few of many factors contributing to its identity.
A 2010 Rand report, “How Insurgencies End,” examined the rise and fall of 89 insurgencies since 1945. The results were illuminating. Weak democracies, it found, do not succeed in putting down insurgencies as often as strong democracies or authoritarian regimes. Terrorist insurgent groups often fail to achieve their goals, even if they avoid outright defeat. While governments, for their part, fare better without external support, insurgencies rarely succeed without it.
One of the most critical findings was this: The average age of the modern insurgency is roughly 10 years. Given that assessment, the Taliban is approaching the end of its life cycle.
The idea of an aging insurgency makes sense, but we rarely dwell on it. Some insurgencies are destroyed outright. But for those that keep up the fight, generation gaps grow between senior leadership and newer recruits. Battle fatigue sets in. The pressure to disband or to join a power-sharing arrangement becomes too great to resist. All warriors grow weary.
So, rather than drawing from counterinsurgency tactics and lessons from Iraq, strategic policy makers should ask about precedent. It turns out that one of the closest parallels we have is the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC.
The similarities are striking. Both FARC and the Taliban had a strong political position early in the conflict — based on concentrated support in rural areas — which are now dependent on the group’s conduct and on the history of local events. Both were formerly motivated by radical ideology, ideals largely set aside due to reliance on coercion and criminal funding sources like drugs and kidnapping. Both thrive in mountainous regions of sanctuary, secure from the reach of ineffectual central governments.
FARC originated during an era when the identity jargon of revolutions was steeped in Maoist and Marxist thought, and it capitalized on deep disaffection among Colombia’s rural poor. As in Afghanistan — just along a different timeline — an infusion of American dollars, armament, and anticommunist zeal resulted in wave after wave of unintended consequences. Over decades of guerrilla war, Colombia’s armed bands of all allegiances were slowly drained of their ideological commitments, eventually leaving only large-scale criminal enterprise and corruption to fight over.
La Violencia, as the conflict came to be known, has taken so many bleak, brutal turns that even if a full-scale political reconciliation came to pass, it couldn’t repair 50 years of societal damage, or make up for its human costs.
The parallels between these two conflicts isn’t lost on the participants. Just this month, members of the Taliban gathered for informal talks with the Afghan government in Norway. The conference began with an address by Colombia’s president, Juan Manuel Santos.
Now, Colombia doesn’t provide an exact blueprint for action or offer us a new counterinsurgency playbook. On the contrary, when US policy makers point to prior success in Latin America, they almost always overlook the long duration, massive cost, and ambiguous results of our assistance to Colombia.
But as our Afghanistan policy enters a new phase, our aims and methods are sorely in need of clarity. Our traditional way of thinking about political and radical Islam has cluttered things up for far too long. As extremist rhetoric from ISIS lures former Taliban fighters down the path of forever war, we must avoid conflating the ideology these fighters may espouse and the flags they choose to fly with the more tangible goals they are striving for.
Andrew Watkins served several years with the US Department of State in Afghanistan as a security officer and liaison to Afghan military and police, and has also served in special operations forces in the US Army.