Between Afghanistan and Pakistan there are probably a record number of organizations dedicated to terrorist activities, some hundreds if even the smallest ones are counted. In practice, the 'terrorists' of Afghanistan and Pakistan can be grouped into five groups:
• The Afghan Taliban, involved in terrorist activities mainly through the Haqqani network, which operate against Western presence in Afghanistan and against the Afghans accused of collaborating with them;
• Pakistani Taliban (mainly TTP, Tehrik-e Taliban Pakistan), who fight against the Pakistani government;
• The Kashmiri jihadists, who intend to separate Kashmir from India and join it to Pakistan;
• Sectarian groups, whose objectives are members of other sects (mainly Shiite Muslims, targeted by groups such as Lashkar-e Jhangvi);
• Global jihadists, for whom Afghanistan and Pakistan are mainly platforms for operations whose importance goes far beyond these two countries (Islamic State and Al-Qaida).
This subdivision is inevitably a bit arbitrary and there are actually overlaps and relationships between the different groups. For example, some Afghan Taliban, especially among the Haqqani network, have relations with the global jihadists of the Islamic State and of Al-Qaida. However, some simplification is needed to describe the galaxy of terrorist organizations in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Taliban terrorist activities are currently in decline. Increasingly concentrated in the hands of the Haqqani over the years, the terrorist attacks claimed by the Taliban have been rare since February 2018. Sources among the Taliban indicate that Haibatullah, head of the Taliban, has decided to block a Haqqani campaign that was sliding more and more towards indiscriminate violence, potentially with serious damage to the image of the Taliban.
The Pakistani Taliban's terrorist campaign is also in decline, but in this case because the Pakistani Taliban themselves have passed the apogee of their strength and have been driven out of most of the territories they once controlled. In the past the Pakistani Taliban had distinguished themselves with indiscriminate attacks, often intended as retaliation for military operations against them, but today their operations are mostly limited to occasional raids from Afghanistan
Kashmiri jihadism was slightly recovering in 2018, probably as a result of the renewed tension between India and Pakistan. However, it remains the shadow of what was in the 1990s. The bulk of the pro-Kashmir jihadist groups' strength is not even close to the Indian border, but within Pakistan and often also in Afghanistan, where some groups like Lashkar-e Taiba support the Taliban.
Sectarian organizations too are losing steam in Pakistan. The government repression against Lashkar-e Jhangvi considerably weakened it. The Pakistani authorities are under pressure from the Iranian side to contain anti-Shiite terrorism and undoubtedly did achieve results in this regard, probably fearing a large-scale Shiite response, sponsored by Iran. The main protagonist of sectarian violence are no longer specialized groups like Lashkar-e Jhangvi, but a global jihadist group such as the Islamic State, which has claimed all the main attacks against Shiites of recent times. There are doubts in truth about the genuineness of certain claims, especially when other groups, such as Jamiat ul Ahrar, a split of the TTP, have claimed at the same time.
However, it is clear that the lion's share of Afghan-Pakistani terrorism is accounted today by the Islamic State, whose branch for Khorasan is particularly active in the Afghan cities of Kabul and Jalalabad. After a stunted beginning in 2015, the terrorist activities of the Islamic State have gradually intensified, and now it carries out major attack more than once a month. The growing terrorist efficiency of the Islamic State seems to derive at least in part from the confluence in it of much of the Haqqani structure in Kabul, but also from the support provided by the Haqqani network itself, from the end of 2017 onwards.
The terrorist strategy of the Islamic State is to operate on two parallel axes. On the one hand there is a clear 'zarqawian' intent to generate a sectarian conflict in Afghanistan, mercilessly targeting the local Shiite community. The Islamic State to date has not even tried to hit the leaders of the Shiite community, but from the beginning privileged indiscriminate attacks against defenceless targets. On the other hand there is the intent to generate a volume of indiscriminate attacks both Kabul and increasingly also in Jalalabad, which puts pressure on the Afghan authorities and potentially could also generate a political crisis of great proportions.
Why do the Haqqani support the Islamic State, albeit 'clandestinely' (ie without the consent of the Taliban leadership)? An ideological explanation could be that Serajuddin Haqqani, head of the network, has long been influenced by global jihadism and has sympathy for the Islamic State as such. More pragmatically, Serajuddin opposes any reconciliation option between Taliban and Kabul authorities, fearing that there would be no room for him in a peaceful Afghanistan. Having assumed the task of doing the dirty work (terrorist attacks) on behalf of the Taliban’s political leadership, Serajuddin would be marginalised in the event of a peace agreement and could not hope to be assigned a prestigious position in a future post-war government. So for him the Islamic State could be a reserve option in case of successful peace negotiations.
Some readers will have noticed the absence of Al-Qaida from this albeit simplified summary. Al-Qaida and some affiliated organizations, such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), still maintain a presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but in recent years this presence has been reduced due to defections to the Islamic State (especially the IMU) and the defeats suffered from the Islamic State in the old strongholds of Al-Qaida in the east of Afghanistan. Al-Qaida, whose roles in Afghanistan were assisting the Taliban and some Pakistani groups such as the TTP and training terrorists to deploy elsewhere, saw its operations considerably disturbed by the loss of bases in the east and is currently being redeployed to the south of Afghanistan.