The Taliban’s Homemade Counterinsurgency

Islamic State Khorasan (IS-K) fighters in a photo issued by the group in August 2021. Courtesy of Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Having taken power in Afghanistan, the Taliban are now having to develop their own methods for dealing with insurgencies.

When the Taliban took Kabul on 15 August, they knew that they would likely face armed opposition in the subsequent months. According to Taliban commanders in Kabul, the Taliban’s leadership offered an amnesty to the Islamic State in Khorasan (IS-K), which unsurprisingly it rejected. After a lull of about two weeks, during which IS-K did not carry out any armed attacks on the Taliban, it resumed full-scale operations, re-aiming its campaign of targeted assassinations at the Taliban and resuming indiscriminate terrorist attacks against a range of civilian targets.

The Taliban also negotiated for a couple of weeks with a range of former supporters of the Islamic Republic, including Ahmad Massud, before the latter reportedly insisted on a 50% share of power, which the Taliban rejected. On 1 September, the Taliban launched an operation to take control of Panjshir province, with the main valley coming under Taliban control within a week.

The Taliban’s own way of doing counterinsurgency has been characterised as ‘brutal’ and ‘ineffective’. Brutal it has certainly been. The claim that it is ineffective, however, rests on the lessons learned from studies of previous insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, as detailed in a report by Rand. It is, however, too early to determine how successful or unsuccessful the Taliban are being in their new counterinsurgent clothes.

The Rand study acknowledges that it excludes many cases of insurgencies and counterinsurgencies, quite a few of which were characterised by ‘brutal’, but not ‘ineffective’, repression: Ukraine and the Baltic countries in 1944–50, Iranian Kurdistan 1979–, Tibet 1959–74, Guatemala 1960–96, Biafra 1967–70, Argentina 1968–79, Turkish Kurdistan 1984–99 and Algeria 1992–2004, to name a few. It could be argued that many of these instances of ruthless repression did not successfully remove the roots of opposition, which resurfaced generations later. From the perspective of the political elite in power at the time, however, the repression was successful. One could add to the list the repression of rebellious communities by Afghan King Abdur Rahman in 1880–1901, who laid the foundations of the modern Afghan state and whose reign has been heralded as foundational by both former President Ashraf Ghani and the Taliban. Indeed, the Taliban are not likely to look at geographically distant models of counterinsurgency for inspiration for their own ‘homemade’ counterinsurgency. They are instead clearly looking to Abdur Rahman for inspiration.

Afghanistan has been in a state of internal conflict for 43 years now. If the Taliban can stabilise it regardless for some years – maybe even for decades – many in Afghanistan will rate this as a success, even if it arguably does not lead to permanent long-term peace or to a new ‘social contract’.

If the Taliban can stabilise Afghanistan for some years – maybe even for decades – many will rate this as a success

One of the key ingredients of Abdur Rahman’s recipe for securing control over Afghanistan was making sure that none of its then neighbours (Iran, Tsarist Russia and the British Empire) had incentives for interfering in his kingdom’s internal affairs. Indeed, he even tried to offer its most dangerous neighbour, the British Empire, incentives for actively supporting his rule (which the British did). The Taliban, too, seem to be trying to work out how to reach lasting understandings with their neighbours, especially the most resourceful and influential ones. There has been significant friction even very recently with Iran and Pakistan, with border clashes and the Taliban’s chief spokesperson and others openly criticising them in the media. This started at least in part started due to the Taliban’s leadership struggling to control its members and the different sub-groupings, but it then escalated. Overall, though, it is clear that the Taliban’s foreign policy priority is establishing at least decent relations with Afghanistan’s neighbours and convincing them that the only alternative to the Taliban is chaos. Implementation has, however, been hampered by their difficulties in managing their men in the provinces.

Several observers and commentators have argued that the main flaw in the NATO/US approach to counterinsurgency was its failure to tackle the issue of the insurgents’ safe havens in Pakistan and Iran. From that perspective, even if the Taliban’s policies are still being formed and face significant difficulties (as pointed out above), the Emirate seems better positioned than the Islamic Republic ever was in terms of preventing any armed opposition from establishing a stable safe haven in a neighbouring country.

The Taliban have also shut down media reporting about counterinsurgency activities. The media are told to describe strikes against insurgents and terrorist cells as raids against kidnappers and other criminals. The Taliban seem to be trying to prevent IS-K and other opposition groups from using media reporting as a tool in their propaganda/recruitment strategy, even if they cannot prevent reports of attacks and counterstrikes from circulating on social media. While this move could be seen as ‘brutal’ in terms of media freedom, it may well be effective, at least to some degree.

Other aspects of the Taliban’s ‘homemade’ counterinsurgency policy are harder to assess. As already mentioned above, it is too early to determine whether the Taliban’s internal counterinsurgency tactics and strategy (if there is any) are being successful or not. As discussed in a previous Commentary, however, the Taliban’s Panjshir operation was seemingly successful. The success was not merely a military one: by crushing the resistance in Panjshir quickly and decisively, the Taliban scored a major political success, demoralising a range of groups which were considering joining the resistance and discouraging them from openly starting an armed resistance against the Taliban.

The Taliban identified the centre of gravity of the resistance and allocated sufficient forces to the task of crushing it quickly, rather than being distracted by chasing small groups of real or presumed allies and sympathisers of the Panjshiris up and down the country.

The Taliban have not taken the same course of action against IS-K yet. A good reason for this is the fact that the main bases of IS-K are in particularly remote areas – in the upper valleys of Kunar and in Nuristan. Mounting a ‘crushing operation’ there would present greater challenges to the Taliban than in Panjshir.

At the top level of the Emirate, the thinking seems to be that counterinsurgency should be ‘brutal’, but also as accurately targeted as possible

Moreover, Panjshir likely represented a greater priority for the Taliban because it could conceivably have acted as a magnet for other groups opposed to the Taliban. The risk of IS-K being able to do that is certainly more remote.

Another reason for the Taliban not to hurry in mobilising resources for a massive campaign against IS-K bases in the east has to do with the value that the IS-K threat represents for the Emirate: the Taliban argue to their neighbours that they are the only defence against IS-K, and hence deserve to be supported adequately. A successful campaign against IS-K would undermine that argument.

As a result, instead of mounting a determined strike against IS-K’s ‘centre of gravity’ in the east, the Taliban have been battling it, mostly in the rural areas of Nangarhar – where IS-K has been particularly active – and in the cities affected by the group’s campaign of terrorist attacks, primarily Kabul and Jalalabad. Information about the repression unleashed by the Taliban is sketchy. In Nangarhar in particular and, during September, in Kunar, the Taliban seem to have been rather indiscriminate in their repression. In Kunar, the governor appointed by the Emirate went as far as closing down all Salafi mosques and madrasas, causing a major backlash. The Taliban’s leadership had to replace him and rescind his orders, and the repression seems to have been become less indiscriminate since. In Nangarhar, there are claims that Taliban death squads are executing IS-K suspects without trials and on the basis of little, if any, evidence. To be sure, a lot of unclaimed killings of Salafis have been taking place, although the pace has slowed down in recent weeks.

Elsewhere, the Taliban seem to have been more targeted in their repression. This could also be because it is far easier to identify IS-K cells infiltrating cities that are remote from its main areas of influence in Salafi-dominated eastern Afghanistan. However, at the top level of the Emirate, the thinking seems to be that counterinsurgency should be ‘brutal’, but also as accurately targeted as possible. Hence the interventions to restrain the repression in Kunar and possibly in Nangarhar too. The Taliban’s leadership has probably not read Stathis Kalyvas’ The Logic of Violence in Civil War, but in principle they seem to agree with his argument that indiscriminate violence is ineffective because ‘compliance guarantees no security’ and makes joining the opposition a much more attractive option.

The real problem for the Taliban is whether they can rein in their men and get them to toe the line. Every counterinsurgency effort is – like any insurgency – permanently at risk of being hijacked by private interests, because it presents ‘irresistible opportunities to harm everyday enemies’, as Kalyvas argued in his famous opus. The Taliban’s leaders, who unexpectedly took power four months ago after almost 20 years of insurgency and many deaths, are particularly ill-equipped to prevent private interests from bending their counterinsurgency in unwanted directions, even if they understand the dangers.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Dr Antonio Giustozzi

Senior Research Fellow

Terrorism and Conflict

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