IS-K Spreads Tentacles Across Afghanistan As Taliban Struggle For Control

Kabul: It’s happening… the worst what we had predicted for Afghanistan is slowly creeping up with the war-torn nation, three months after the Taliban took control of it. Khorasan branch of the ISIS (IS-K) has expanded its influence in Afghanistan and now seems to be present in all 34 provinces of the country. The concern was reiterated by the UN special envoy for Afghanistan said at the UN security council meeting on Wednesday and she also warned of a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Afghanistan.

Go deeper: Deborah Lyons’ remarks came just hours after IS-K claimed responsibility for the twin attacks on a predominantly Shiite area of Kabul on Wednesday. The attacks left at least one dead and six wounded.

Since the Taliban came to power in Afghanistan on August 15 this year, IS-K has carried out more than 70 attacks in various provinces of Afghanistan, including suicide attacks, roadside bombs, IEDs blasts, and targeted killings. Hundreds of Afghans have been killed and injured in these attacks.

These attacks are mostly carried out in predominantly Hazara areas, and experts believe that this ethnic and religious minority is more at risk from IS-K attacks than others. Arif Rahmani, a former member of Afghan parliament, says that “the Shiites community and Hazaras of Afghanistan are more vulnerable to attacks by IS-K than any other group as they are more defenseless”.

On October 8, a suicide bomber struck a Shiite mosque in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province. The bombing killed more than 70 people and injured over 140 worshippers belonging to the Hazara minority community. Soon after, the Islamic State terror group’s local affiliate in Afghanistan, known Islamic State Khorasan (ISK), claimed responsibility for the heinous attack via an online propaganda statement. ISK identified the bomber as “Muhammad al-Uyghuri,” saying the assault targeted both “rafidites” (a derogatory term used by jihadists to refer to Shiites) and the Taliban government for its purported willingness to deport Uyghurs from Afghanistan in response to requests from China.

Back story: The Taliban’s pragmatic diplomacy and gradual departure from the Jihadi ideology, in pursuit of international recognition and legitimacy, and concessions to ‘Taghud’ states, alienate Central Asian jihadists from the Taliban and strengthen its ardent enemy, the Islamic State Khorasan (ISK). Taliban-backed Uyghur jihadists, who exploited shahids (martyr) exclusively against the Chinese authorities in the past, are, hence, carrying out suicide attacks against the Shia Hazara minority under the Taliban rule.

Countering Daesh in Afghanistan: However, even though the group has inflicted heavy casualties on the Taliban with its small and large attacks on its forces and has challenged the Taliban’s authority, Taliban government spokesmen do not see the IS-K as a serious threat and believe that the group will soon be eradicated in Afghanistan.

“ISIS is not a threat because it is a hated ideology among the people. No Afghans support them. Our efforts against the ISIS have been very effective in the past and we have a good strategy to thwart them,” Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said.

The Taliban have repeatedly carried out operations to eliminate members of IS-K and its infiltrators, but have failed to suppress the group’s spread. Deborah Lyons, the UN special envoy for Afghanistan, said that the Taliban’s response to IS-K attacks are “worrying” because in response to IS-K’s deadly attacks, the group has only focused on the arrests and extrajudicial killings of suspected IS-K members. She believes that the action of eliminating the group needs more attention of the international community, and that the Taliban have not been able to stop the growth of ISIS’s Khorasan branch, as IS-K presence was previously limited to a few provinces, and now seems to be present in almost all 34 provinces of Afghanistan, and has expanded the scope of their activities and attacks.

Arif Rahmani, the former MP, also does not consider the Taliban’s actions against IS-K as sufficient, and believes that just as the previous Afghan government, the Taliban has also failed to prevent IS-K attacks on Shiite centers. He attributed the Taliban’s negligence to putting pressure on the international community, and believes that the Taliban are deliberately trying to show the world that IS-K is a real threat, and that the Taliban regime must be given legitimacy and power to eliminate this threat.

Why it matters? The U.S. intelligence community has expressed concern that Islamic State in Afghanistan could have the capability to attack the United States in as little as six months, and has the intention to do so, Colin Kahl, a senior Pentagon official told Congress on October 26.

Political and security experts in Afghanistan also believe that the continuation of IS-K attacks in the country could be dangerous for the region and the world in the future. Regarding the future danger of this group in Afghanistan, Rahmani believes that if IS-K attacks in Afghanistan spread in such a way as to bring down some cities and districts, there is a risk of a very serious civil war in Afghanistan and the risk of military presence of some countries in Afghanistan once again.

According to Rahmani, if the threat of IS-K in Afghanistan is not eradicated, it may first become a regional and global threat, and then, we will witness the military presence of some countries once again in Afghanistan in order to suppress the group in this country.

There are also evident geopolitical dimensions to these attacks claimed by IS-K, as was the case with some early attacks attributed to the group. Firstly, these attacks complicate the Taliban’s relations with Iran. Now in power, the Taliban bears the burden of protecting the population, including the Shia. But Tehran also sees itself as the defender of the world’s Shias, including in Afghanistan. And it has a proven willingness to resort to extraterritorial action. Both factors when combined with sectarian attacks by IS-K will reinforce the need for the Taliban to publicly position itself as defenders of Shia lives.

Zoom out: But, while we have been talking about IS-K’s expanding footprint in Afghanistan, it is important to note that this brings us back to square one from where we had started approximately 20 years ago- which was to eliminate the threat of terror emanating from the strategically important Central Asian country.

Twenty years ago, the world did not want Afghanistan to fall into the hands of the then “terror group” Taliban and today too, the global leaders do not wish to see the country becoming the hub of terrorism.

Another thing which is like history repeating itself is that even Washington’s ill-planned approach strengthened the Taliban insurgency earlier and now, Kabul risks doing the same to Daesh. The indiscriminate bombing, night-raids, rendition and inhuman detentions were some of the key factors that led to the resurgence of the Taliban in 2003. The approach also served to further legitimise the Taliban’s narrative of the US being an invading army which had little good will towards the larger Afghan population. The Taliban are now repeating the same strategy against Daesh-K in Afghanistan. Unlike the killing of ex-Afghan National Security Forces (ANDSF) members across the country, the strategy of killing suspected Daesh-K members seems to be an informed policy by the group.

Now, Daesh, has said that its hardline goal remains the implementation of Sharia law and warned that whoever in the world went against Islam and the Quran will have to face the terror group’s wrath. This takes us back to where we started of trying to stop terrorism in the country and have come a full circle now, with terrorism again the main focus.

19 / November 2021