“The Taliban, Haqqani network, and Al Qaeda function as a triumvirate, and one that is very much part of the same militant network, they work together hand-in-glove,” said Colin P. Clarke, a counterterrorism analyst at the Soufan Group, a security consulting firm based in New York.
These three entities are inextricably linked, Mr. Clarke said, and in fact, have grown closer over the past decade, a trend that is likely to continue after the U.S. withdrawal, especially as they close ranks against adversaries like ISIS-K and the growing resistance movement in Afghanistan’s north.
On the other side of the jihadist ledger is ISIS-K. The group is one of many affiliates that the Islamic State established after it swept into northern Iraq from Syria in 2014, and created a religious state or caliphate the size of Britain. An American-led campaign crushed the caliphate, but more than 10,000 ISIS fighters remain in Iraq and Syria, and ISIS affiliates like the Sahel or the Sinai Peninsula are thriving.
But ISIS-K has never been a major force in Afghanistan, much less globally, analysts say. The group’s ranks have dropped to about 1,500 to 2,000 fighters, about half from its peak levels in 2016 before American airstrikes and Afghan commando raids took a toll.
Since June 2020, however, under an ambitious new leader, Shahab al-Muhajir, the affiliate “remains active and dangerous,” and is seeking to swell its ranks with disaffected Taliban fighters and other militants, the U.N. report concluded.
“They have not been a first-tier ISIS affiliate, but with the Afghan commandos gone and the American military gone, does that give them breathing room? It could,” said Seth G. Jones, an Afghanistan specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Understand the Taliban Takeover in Afghanistan
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Who are the Taliban? The Taliban arose in 1994 amid the turmoil that came after the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989. They used brutal public punishments, including floggings, amputations and mass executions, to enforce their rules. Here’s more on their origin story and their record as rulers.
Who are the Taliban leaders? These are the top leaders of the Taliban, men who have spent years on the run, in hiding, in jail and dodging American drones. Little is known about them or how they plan to govern, including whether they will be as tolerant as they claim to be.
What happens to the women of Afghanistan? The last time the Taliban were in power, they barred women and girls from taking most jobs or going to school. Afghan women have made many gains since the Taliban were toppled, but now they fear that ground may be lost. Taliban officials are trying to reassure women that things will be different, but there are signs that, at least in some areas, they have begun to reimpose the old order.
Even as the group’s overall ranks have declined in recent years, Mr. Jones said, ISIS-K has maintained cells of clandestine fighters who have carried out terrorist attacks.