How to deal with the Islamic State affiliate in Afghanistan?
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In the interim national security strategic guidance released on March 3, the Biden administration vowed to end America’s “forever wars” while making sure that “Afghanistan does not again become a safe haven for terrorist attacks against the United States.” While this goal is clear, the path is convoluted involving multiple actors and difficult choices.
The Biden administration has to make the difficult decision of whether or not to withdraw the remaining 2,500 US forces from Afghanistan by the May 1 deadline. Whatever President Joe Biden decides, one thing is clear: it will play an important role in shaping the behavior of various actors involved in Afghanistan.
The key actors in the ongoing war in Afghanistan remain the Afghan government, Taliban, foreign troops, and regional states. One actor that doesn’t make it to the front page is the Islamic State’s affiliate in Afghanistan called the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK).
While ISK has lacked the ability to attack Western targets directly, it is believed by some that the group would not hesitate to do so if it had the capacity. The group has been gradually rebuilding itself after experiencing considerable losses in previous years, signaling its determination to survive through increasingly provocative attacks in 2020. What becomes of the ISK, however, depends on how the Biden administration decides to move forward.
Soon after its official emergence in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region in early 2015, ISK unleashed a wave of deadly attacks across the region, ramping up its lethality via suicide campaigns in Kabul, Afghanistan and in Baluchistan, Pakistan.
An intense counterterrorism campaign against the group on both sides of the border and clashes with the Afghan Taliban did considerably dampened ISK’s operational capacity, but failed to eliminate the group. While ISK has weakened, and experienced territorial, leadership and militant losses, it remains resilient.
ISK appointed a new emir in mid-2020, Dr. Shahab al-Muhajir, an urban warfare expert who was expected to revamp ISK’s battle strategy in a rapidly changing environment, which included a peace deal between the United States and the Afghan Taliban.
So far, al-Muhajir has been credited with planning some of ISK’s more sophisticated attacks and operations, such as the 20-hour long siege of a prison in Jalalabad city in August 2020. In an effort to reconsolidate its base, the new emir also announced a general amnesty for ISK members who previously surrendered to the Afghan government after losses in Nangarhar and Kunar provinces of Afghanistan.
In the past year and recent months, ISK relied on carrying out highly provocative attacks in the strategically important provinces of Nangarhar and Kabul. Attacks, such as the one on a hospital in Kabul last year, the targeting of a Sikh temple, as well as the killing of three female media professionals in March 2021 are just a few of many that have garnered widespread publicity.
Given ISK’s weakened status, deadly and provocative attacks in Kabul and Nangarhar are well suited for the group to recruit and signal resolve before it can attempt the costly strategy of regaining territorial control.
According to our dataset of ISK attacks in Afghanistan, the group claimed 80 attacks in 2020, 41 in Nangarhar, 23 in Kabul, and seven in its neighboring Parwan province.* Thirty-two of these attacks were against Afghan security and intelligence agencies, including police and government employees.
The remainder of the attacks targeted minorities, such as Shia Muslims and the Sikh community, the US embassy in Kabul and its military base in Bagram, as well as the Afghan Taliban. Compared to data in previous years, these numbers show a remarkable uptick in ISK’s activity — comparable to numbers in ISK’s peak years of 2017 and 2018 when it was linked to about 100 and 84 attacks in Afghanistan, respectively. The upward trend in ISK-claimed attacks seems to be continuing into 2021 where the group claimed 47 attacks in the first two months alone.
While ISK can be expected to exaggerate its claims to project power, other signs of its resurgence include the reinstatement of some of its propaganda operations. For example, the group reportedly re-established its radio broadcast in Afghanistan in early 2021 — the Voice of the Khorasan — which updates its supporters about its operations at the regional and global level.
Moreover, ISK has also activated its local propaganda outlets, releasing documentaries that appear to be aimed at recruiting from within Taliban strongholds. Such videos stick to familiar themes, such as criticism of the Afghan Taliban’s peace deal with the United States, and the Pakistani state for its support to the Afghan Taliban, while also providing visual reports about its latest attacks in Afghanistan. Taken together, it is not surprising that various US officials have also voiced concerns about a potential ISK comeback.
The notable reversal in ISK’s activity trends in 2020, compared to 2019, may be attributed to a combination of factors that include a US troop drawdown, political uncertainty, negative economic and social effects of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as factors internal to the organization, such as new leadership and reduction in recruits.
Against this backdrop, how will further troop reduction in Afghanistan impact ISK? The answer depends on whether the United States will continue to provide Afghanistan with some type of external counterterrorism support, which has been critical in curtailing the group thus far. To put this into context, the targeting tactic which yielded the highest losses against ISK’s militant and leadership ranks between 2015 and 2018 were either airstrikes, or ground operations with US air support.
Such operations amounted to the killing or capture of more than 8,000 ISK-linked individuals, including several of its emirs. It’s important to note that data on civilian deaths in these events is not readily available.
Combating ISK is likely to be the most effective when it combines the efforts of the Afghan Taliban and Afghan security forces, as was observed when ISK was ousted from Kunar in February and March 2020, with the support of US airstrikes.
A complete US withdrawal is likely to incentivize ISK to begin to reclaim territorial control and escalate its attacks in urban settings for the dual purpose of enhancing its own credibility while sowing mistrust between the Afghan Taliban and Afghan government. As such, ISK’s ability to consolidate itself in the future will also depend on the success of intra-Afghan talks and cessation of violence, both of which remain elusive presently.
Upon a complete US withdrawal, if violence continues to spiral out of control and the Afghan Taliban seeks to overwhelm the Afghan government and security forces, this will create the most permissive environment for ISK to flourish.
On the other hand, it is possible that the Biden administration opts for a conditions-based withdrawal, which is contingent upon a steady decline in violence, a durable intra-Afghan political settlement, and international support to facilitate governance and counterterrorism. While this may seem like a tall order, it is the pathway that is the most likely to create the preconditions for a collaborative approach which is necessary to disrupt ISK’s network, its recruitment from local and regional groups and any attempts to reestablish physical strongholds.
*These numbers are based on claims made by the Islamic State via outlets such as Al-Naba, which reports weekly global military operations. The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project’s (ACLED) database documents 68 ISK-related incidents for 2020.
Source: Inkstick Media