Although Afghan security forces’ counter-insurgency-training focuses on countering traditional insurgency, ISIS’s operational tactics are different from traditional insurgency. This gives ample breathing space to ISIS in Afghanistan.
[Manish Rai | Oped Column Magazine]
The Afghanistan branch of ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on communication ministry building centrally located in capital Kabul in April. ISIS’s local arm has repeatedly targeted both official and civilian facilities, as well as religious gatherings, in the Afghan capital.
The Afghan affiliate of ISIS is commonly known as ISIS Khorasan Province (ISIS-KP) and media sources also use the terms ISK, ISISK, IS-KP, ISIS-K or ISIL-KP in referring to the group. The affiliated group has been active in the war-torn country since 2015, fighting the Taliban as well as Afghan security forces.
Recently they have carried out some deadly attacks to make their presence felt. The affiliated group has received significant support from the group’s core leadership in Iraq and Syria since its founding in year 2015. But now that ISIS has lost its core territory in Syria and Iraq, it might use Afghanistan as a base for its global campaigns.
Even a recent United Nations publication commented that “ISIS core continues to facilitate the relocation of some of its key operatives to Afghanistan”. The United States (USA) military estimates that there are about 2,000 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan.
Despite their small number, they still pose a grave threat. That’s why USA had dropped one of the largest bombs in its inventory, the MOAB (Massive Ordnance Air Blast, also commonly known as Mother of All Bombs), on a cave complex used by affiliated group in eastern Afghanistan in April, 2017.
ISIS is pushing hard to expand into a country that has hosted both Taliban and Al-Qaeda strongholds for decades. ISIS-KP too now wants to establish a foothold in Afghanistan and that’s why the affiliated group is challenging both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda inside Afghanistan.
Although they preferred to co-opt with local groups like Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Egypt and Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS leaders took a different strategy in Afghanistan and tried to discredit the local dominant groups in the country.
Both ISIS-KP and Taliban have lost hundreds of fighters in the frequent deadly clashes between the two groups. It’s very much clear that ISIS-KP won’t enter into any accommodation with Taliban. The affiliated group is instead trying to portray Taliban as Afghan-centric force which wants to restore a Taliban-government in Afghanistan rather than fighting for Islam.
Currently, ISIS-KP neither is as powerful as Taliban nor can take control of significant swaths of Afghanistan as ISIS’s core group once did in Iraq and Syria. But the ISIS-KP does have the potential to wreak plenty of havoc in the country, as it has attained enough operational strength, organizational structure and skills to carry out large-scale attacks.
The Afghan battlefield is widely known to be one of the most militant-saturated battlegrounds in the world. The notable presence of an ISIS’s affiliate has further complicated a multifaceted militant landscape.
Everyone who keeps eye on the security dynamics in Afghanistan knows that the Afghan security forces are actually trained to fight insurgents. Insurgents, mostly, employ hit-and-run tactics, including insider attacks on security forces. On the other hand, ISIS don’t operate like this. ISIS is instead ill-famed for launching massive-scale attacks, and diversify their target areas to ditch the security apparatus. The mismatch between ISIS-KP’s tactics and the Afghan security forces’ counter-insurgency-training give ample breathing space to the affiliated group.
ISIS-KP has, for sure, shaken the existing insurgency landscape of the country, making it more complex, violent and polarized. Moreover, the growing competition between ISIS-KP and Taliban has negatively affected the country’s security and stability. Also, the ISIS model has provided the new generation of terrorists with a viable alternative option.
ISIS-KP’s presence could even complicate any peace deal with Taliban, which has pledged to prevent any terrorist group using Afghan soil as a base to plot foreign attacks against the West.
Afghan national government has been struggling to reach political settlements with the country’s insurgent groups for a long time and a strengthened ISIS-KP could deepen the sectarian rifts further. The affiliated group has been attacking minorities, making it harder to bring about the social cohesion necessary for any kind of political settlement in future.
ISIS seemingly emerged as a new and dangerous threat in Afghanistan — one that could grow to overshadow Taliban. Hence, the USA and its allies should ensure that the ISIS’s Afghan affiliate is prevented from carving its own space in the war-torn country.
If ISIS-KP could not be countered effectively, the political landscape of an already complex society stands to become even uglier. ISIS’s strong presence in Afghanistan is a threat not only to the region but also to the world-at-large.
Manish Rai is a columnist for Middle East and Af-Pak region and Editor of geopolitical news agency Viewsaround.